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Fort Hamilton’s ‘father of football’ calls it quits

Legendary Fort Hamilton football coach Vinny Laino has decided to retire after 20 years at the helm of the Brooklyn school.

The 55-year-old, who led the Tigers to consecutive city championships in 2005 and 2006, a pair of “B” titles, and finished with a 150-60 record in 20 seasons, also will retire from his teaching position in June.

“I have no regrets, nothing to look back on,” he said. “We did the best we could every year and we did the best for the boys that came through the program. I have nothing to look back on but good memories.”

The timing was perfect, he said, to begin the next phase of his life with his wife, Lisa. The two plan to travel, possibly move to a place with a warmer climate, and watch their son, Maritime-bound quarterback Frank Laino, who graduates from Fort Hamilton in June, play college football.

After 15 years as an assistant at Thomas Jefferson, Laino started the football program at Fort Hamilton from scratch. At the outset, Laino joked, the school didn’t have shoulder pads or helmets and kids didn’t know the difference between an out pattern and an outhouse.

“One of our goals when we started the program was to get to the point where kids are coming to Fort Hamilton to play football,” he said.

Laino made the Tigers into a citywide power, the highlight back-to-back city titles. The 2006 team, led by quarterback Jeffrey Legree and running back Antonio Walcott, went 13-0. It included Temple junior Jaiquawn Jarrett and Rutgers sophomore Keith Stroud.

This season, he guided Fort Hamilton to its second straight perfect regular season and third in four years, but fell to eventual champion Curtis, 20-19, in the semifinals.

“He’s been a real figurehead here,” principal Joann Chester said. “He’s brought a lot of honor to the school. He’s been a real father figure to many of the players on the team.”

Longtime assistant coach and former player Danny Perez was one of them. As a freshman he was hardly passing in school, yet by his senior year the two-way lineman was taking honors classes and had an 85 average. He went to Brooklyn College, earned a computer science degree, and is a candidate to replace Laino as coach.

“He doesn’t teach just football, he’s a big-time class guy,” Perez said. “He’s about being a better person, a better citizen.”

With a talented team returning, led by standout wide receiver Brandon Reddish (who holds scholarship offers from Rutgers, West Virginia, Penn State and Syracuse), Laino thought about coming back for one more year. But, he said, it would lead to another year and then another.

“Next year there will be another group of great freshmen,” he said. “I’m gonna spend another four years for them?”

Known for his expert offensive schemes and spread offense, Laino is revered in the city’s football circles. His teams were know as tough, disciplined and talented, despite routinely low roster numbers in the high 20s and low 30s.

He had an impressive work ethic, Canarsie coach and friend Mike Camardese said, often breaking down the following week’s game film hours after his latest victory. New Utrecht coach Alan Balkan worked with Laino over the summer and was taken by his attention to detail and precise nature in which he would instruct his players.

“He’s the father of football at Fort Hamilton,” Camardese said. “He had many great athletes, he was always well prepared, he knows the games inside and out. He’s one of the best coaches in New York City. He knows the Xs and 0s, but also knows how to deal with his kids. He always got the most out of his kids.”

Though Laino is gone, his expectations remain sky-high.

“I told the boys, ‘I’ll be available on championship week,’” Laino joked. “’I expect to come back for that. The only difference is I will be on the sidelines cheering for you instead of calling plays.’”

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