Late Mattituck coaching legend mixed discipline with fun

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04/08/2014 8:39 PM |

Jack Hussnatter was living proof that discipline and a healthy sense of humor can make for a winning combination. Former players and coaching colleagues remember the late Mattituck coaching legend for both qualities.

A longtime coach who made his name in boys basketball, most notably at Mattituck High School, Hussnatter was described as tough but fair, quick-witted, and often with a cigar in his mouth. An innovative strategist in some ways ahead of his time, he was well-liked by players, who are surely saddened by his death at his Mattituck home on April 1. He lived in Mattituck for the last 50 of his 82 years.

“I loved Jack Hussnatter,” one of his former players, Don Wilcenski, said. “I don’t want to say he’s a second father, but he’s in my heart.”

John L. Hussnatter Jr. guided Mattituck to back-to-back appearances in the New York State final four in 1978, when the Tuckers lost in a semifinal, and in 1979, when they lost in a final. They remain the only Mattituck boys basketball teams to reach the state final four.

Though short in stature, Hussnatter had an affinity for the inside game. Judging by the heights of the players he had on those final-four trips to the Rochester War Memorial, it was smart strategy. The Tuckers had height, with players like the 6-foot-7 Steve Troyan, the 6-6 Mark Zimnoski, the 6-5 Dave Krupski, the 6-4 Roger Siejka and the 6-6 Wilcenski.

Hussnatter’s teams were known for their impeccable, tenacious man-to-man defense.

“His kids never lost their composure,” said Chris Bevelander, Hussnatter’s second cousin who coached Ward Melville teams that scrimmaged against Hussnatter’s Tuckers. “They all behaved the same way he did. He had such good rapport with his players and they were so disciplined on the court. That impressed me a lot. He never raised his voice with them in games. I don’t know what he did in practice.”

Winning turned the Tuckers into believers.

“I think all of my teammates loved the guy,” said Wilcenski, who graduated from Mattituck High School in 1979. “We’d run through a wall for him. We believed in what he taught us because we were successful. When you start winning, you listen, and we won.”

Wilcenski, who went on to play for Bentley University in Massachusetts, said he doesn’t know if he would have gone to college if he had not received a scholarship offer. He said Hussnatter helped him during the recruiting process.

Another former player, Tom Beebe (Class of 1983), said Hussnatter brought out the best in his players. Beebe, who went on to coach the Tuckers himself, said he learned the value of protecting the ball from Hussnatter. “You were almost afraid to make a turnover because you were going to get pulled,” Beebe said. “He made you rise to the occasion.”

A stickler for detail, Hussnatter had a reputation for controlling a game’s tempo and keeping his team in games.

Hussnatter has been compared to other larger than life, old-school coaching figures in North Fork sports such as Dorrie Jackson, Bob Muir and Dick Osmer.

“He represents a past that has disappeared in a lot of ways,” said Jim Christy, who coached with Hussnatter for a number of years and had known him since 1979.

Hussnatter, a veteran of the United States Navy, touched many lives. Mike Huey started out his coaching career as Hussnatter’s 22-year-old assistant coach in 1977 and he said he learned a lot.

“He was the best,” Huey said. “I was blessed to have him take me under his wing.”

And share some laughs along the way.

“He knew more jokes than anybody in the world,” said Huey.

One year the Tuckers were taking a bus ride to Liverpool, N.Y., for a Christmas tournament. Huey and the junior varsity coach at the time, Christy, decided they were going to match Hussnatter, joke for joke, by reading their jokes from a book. But each time they read a joke, Hussnatter, relying solely on memory, was quick with a retort and a joke of his own. “We’re reading jokes and he’s delivering jokes,” Huey recalled. He said Hussnatter’s jokes were funnier.

“He knew how to deliver a joke extremely well,” Christy said. “He was always someone who never was at a loss for words. He always had an anecdote. He always had a story.”

Hussnatter, who played basketball and ran track and field for Sayville High School, also spent some time coaching Mercy High School’s boys basketball team. He had a fondness for golf, too. In addition to coaching Mattituck’s boys golf team for many years, he was a board member and club champion of the Island’s End Golf and Country Club in Greenport.

Huey recalled images of Hussnatter striking golf balls on the Mattituck High School playing fields. From a distance, one could tell immediately who it was because of the telltale waft of cigar smoke.

Those trails of smoke are now memories, as is the legend of Hussnatter, the disciplinarian who knew how to have fun.

Huey said, “I’m going to miss him.”

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