Cuniglio named new Belleville football coach


Before he received his first chance of being a high school football head coach two weeks ago, it had been a long and patient journey for Mario Cuniglio.

Although he’s still very young at 36, Cuniglio had to travel far and wide throughout the state of New Jersey before ending up at Belleville High School.

Cuniglio served as Joe Fischer’s assistant last year and after Fischer’s sudden resignation two months ago, will now get the opportunity to head the struggling program.

But getting to this point certainly wasn’t easy for Cuniglio.

The sojourn began in Hamilton Township in central New Jersey, where Cuniglio grew up and attended Steinert High School. He was behind two older brothers, including Dominic, who was an All-State performer at Steinert and is currently the head coach at Jonathan Dayton Regional in Springfield.

“I always looked up to my brother,” Cuniglio said. “I didn’t play a lot, but I learned a lot from watching him. I learned that I had a passion for the game and had the ability of looking at X’s and O’s and knew what was going on. I could memorize plays from the start. I had an understanding for the game.”

So after Cuniglio graduated from Steinert, he first headed to Monmouth University and then graduated from Rider University as a communication major.

With two brothers already in the coaching business, Cuniglio figured he would fall right in line and become a grid coach himself.

“It was like the Gruden brothers,” said Cuniglio, referring to the family of coaches, like current Washington Redskins coach Jay and former Super Bowl champion coach and current ESPN broadcaster Jon, who won the Super Bowl with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. “It make perfect sense. We had the same work ethic and drive. I can relate to the analogy of the Grudens.”

So Cuniglio went back to his alma mater to serve as a volunteer assistant coach for one year. After pursuing his teaching certificate, Cuniglio took some time off from football.

“I got away from the game for a while,” he said. “I got out of teaching for a while. I didn’t know if I wanted to continue to do it.”

But the passion for the pigskin won out and after a brief respite, Cuniglio was back at it.

“I found out that I missed the game too much,” Cuniglio said.

In 2006, he went to New Egypt High School to coach the defensive line.

Then he went to Nottingham High School to coach the freshman team. There’s no truth to the rumor that Robin Hood and Friar Tuck were also part of that coaching staff.

In 2009, Cuniglio packed his bags again and went to Hillside High School, to serve as a freshman coach, but eventually earned the responsibility of offensive coordinator.

“That was a big step for me,” Cuniglio said.

Cuniglio remained at Hillside for two years, then went to Burlington City High School to work with another member of the coaching Cuniglios, younger brother Marc.

“It was a job,” Mario Cuniglio briefly said.

In 2012, it was back to Hillside, where he was attained as a full-time teacher and offensive coordinator.

Two years ago, Cuniglio decided to join Fischer at Belleville, where he first coached the offensive and defensive lines, but moved up to be Fischer’s right hand man last season.

So when Fischer decided to step away from his second tenure as the Belleville football coach, it only made sense to promote Cuniglio from within.

Thus, the journey was over. There were many stops and starts along the way. The bags were always packed and never really unpacked. Cuniglio just kept moving until he found the right spot _ which he’s certain is Belleville.

“I think it’s going to help tremendously that I’ve been here,” Cuniglio said. “The kids know me. They see me every day in the building. I can check on grades and make sure that the kids are staying out of trouble. It’s good to have a presence in the building. I can be there and make sure I keep them accountable for their actions.”

And that’s perhaps the biggest contribution Fischer made as a head coach. His teams didn’t exactly win, posting a 3-17 record the last two seasons, but Fischer made sure that his players were active in the community, especially with cleaning up Doc Ellis Field and working with retired military veterans.

“Nothing is going to change there,” Cuniglio said. “It’s huge that we have an impact in the community. It’s all going to remain the same. We’re going to stay involved in the community. We will continue to have a good relationship with the people of Belleville and give back to the community.”

As for winning, well, that might be another thing altogether. It’s been tough sledding for the Buccaneers for quite some time now. They haven’t been successful since back-to-back 5-5 seasons in 2007 and 2008, with Fischer as the coach in 2007 and Chris Strumolo the mentor in 2008.

Since that time, the Buccaneers have posted a combined record of 14-59. This is also a program that not too long ago had a 33-game losing streak. Cuniglio isn’t exactly inheriting a gridiron powerhouse.

But Cuniglio, the seventh man (including Fischer twice) to hold the head coaching position since John Senesky’s retirement in 1996, believes that he can definitely turn things around.

“We have a hefty junior class coming back that will be seniors,” Cuniglio said. “I want to build a program and I’m stressing that. I want this to be a program where the kids are proud and can say that they were the ones who were able to turn it around.”

Cuniglio is still coming to grips with the fact that he is the head coach. No one thought Fischer would step down, especially after returning to the position that he once held. But Fischer wants to pursue other educational opportunities, so the door opened for the football vagabond.

“It still hasn’t sunk in yet,” Cuniglio said. “It’s almost surreal to think that I’m not going to be standing beside Joe. He’s been a mentor to me. He’s already told me that he would help with anything I need. I’m forever grateful for that. I have his cell number. I plan on texting him on a regular basis. I’m definitely going to use him as a valuable resource. He won’t be forgotten and I’m glad he’s there if I need him.”

Cuniglio said that he’s glad to have such a huge crop of returnees.

“It’s a blessing,” Cuniglio said. “I think we have 20 kids who will be seniors. They have experience. They’ve taken their lumps over the last two years and they’re ready to go.”

Cuniglio said that the team is already attending speed training classes at CRANK in Belleville.

“They’re working on explosive stuff all relevant to football,” Cuniglio said.

Needless to say, Cuniglio is ready.

“I don’t think like I’m being thrown to the wolves,” Cuniglio said. “The kids all know who I am and they know what I expect of them. I expect big things.”

Part of the reason why the Buccaneers expect to be better is the formation of the Super Football Conference, which kicks into effect in September. Belleville is in a more competitive division and has already requested not to face schools like Wayne Hills and Wayne Valley, programs that are not competitive with Belleville’s level.

“I think we have a schedule that will give us more of a chance to win some football games,” Cuniglio said. “As we move forward, we’ll be able to get some things done. I’m already excited about the upcoming season.”

Belleville athletic director Dan Sanacore also believes in Cuniglio.

“He has extensive coaching experience prior to coming to Belleville,” Sanacore said. “He’s full of energy. He’s hard working. He loves Belleville and loves the kids of Belleville. He has some great ideas on how to make the team better, not only immediately but in the years to come. He’s going to help us build a program that will be consistently competitive. I think the interview panel did a great job of interviewing candidates. Coach Cuniglio knows he has my full support.”

“I’m very grateful for the opportunity to coach here,” Cuniglio said. “I never thought it would happen here, but the doors opened for me and I’m happy about it.”

His vagabond shoes finally have a home in Belleville with the Bucs. Mario Cuniglio, a name that sounds like it belongs in Belleville, is finally getting the chance to be like his brothers.


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Jim Hague | Observer Sports Writer

Sports Writer Jim Hague was with The Observer for 20+ years — and his name is one of the most recognizable in all of sports journalism. The St. Peter’s Prep and Marquette alum kicked off his journalism career post Marquette at the Daily Record, where he remained until 1985. Following shorts stints at two other newspapers, in September 1986, he joined the now-closed Hudson Dispatch, where he remained until 1991, when its doors were finally shut.

It was during his tenure at The Dispatch that Hague’s name and reputation as one of country’s hardest-working sports reporters grew. He won several New Jersey Press Association and North Jersey Press Club Awards in that timeframe.

In 1991, he became a columnist for The Hudson Reporter chain of newspapers — and he remains with them to this day.

In addition to his work at The Observer and The Hudson Reporter, Hague is also an Associated Press stringer, where he covers Seton Hall University men’s basketball, New York Red Bulls soccer and occasionally, New Jersey Devils hockey.

He’s also doing work at The Morristown Daily Record, the very newspaper where his journalism career began.

During his career, he also worked for Dorf Feature Services, which provided material for the Star-Ledger. While there, he covered the New York Knicks and the New Jersey Nets.

Hague is also known for his announcing work — and he’s done PA work for Rutgers Newark and NJIT.

Hague is the author of the book “Braddock: The Rise of the Cinderella Man.”