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By Don’s Early Light: Hartford Football Coach is Leaving Home

  • Hartford High football coach Mike Stone, center, goes over a play with his team during a preseason workout on Aug. 26, 2011 in White River Junction, Vt. (Valley News — Jennifer Hauck)

    Hartford High football coach Mike Stone, center, goes over a play with his team during a preseason workout on Aug. 26, 2011 in White River Junction, Vt. (Valley News — Jennifer Hauck) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Hartford football coach Mike Stone on March 18, 1986. (Valley News photograph)

    Hartford football coach Mike Stone on March 18, 1986. (Valley News photograph) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Hartford football coach Mike Stone checks his playbook during a game in White River Junction, Vt., on  Nov. 3, 1990. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen)

    Hartford football coach Mike Stone checks his playbook during a game in White River Junction, Vt., on Nov. 3, 1990. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Hartford coach Mike Stone directs his players during practice on Nov. 8, 2012. (Valley News - James M. Patterson)

    Hartford coach Mike Stone directs his players during practice on Nov. 8, 2012. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Hartford High football coach Mike Stone, center, goes over a play with his team during a preseason workout on Aug. 26, 2011 in White River Junction, Vt. (Valley News — Jennifer Hauck)
  • Hartford football coach Mike Stone on March 18, 1986. (Valley News photograph)
  • Hartford football coach Mike Stone checks his playbook during a game in White River Junction, Vt., on  Nov. 3, 1990. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen)
  • Hartford coach Mike Stone directs his players during practice on Nov. 8, 2012. (Valley News - James M. Patterson)

Mike Stone is leaving home.

The face of Hartford High football for more than a quarter-century, Stone is leaving his high school alma mater to start a new path he has yet to nail down.

“I’m retiring from Hartford football; I’m retiring from my Hartford teaching job,” said Stone in a short phone interview Wednesday afternoon.

While many in the Hartford football community and around the region had opinions on Stone’s future, the Hartford grad would not offer any indication.

“Just say I am pursuing other options,” he said.

For Hartford Athletic Director Joe James, the news was not altogether surprising.

“I guess I always knew this was going to happen. Every year around this time I held my breath wondering if this was the year he was going to leave,” he said on Tuesday. “So I was mentally prepared when he came and told me.

“But this is a loss I feel personally. It’s more than about just football ... It’s about the kind of man Stoney was.”

Karol Bell knows that firsthand. For 12 years — first through nephews and then her own two sons, Seth and Troy, she has felt Stone’s touch on her family.

“This is a sad day. It’s the end of an era,” she said in a phone interview from her job at the South Royalton post office. “Mike was much more than a football coach; he was a mentor to some, a father to others and a legend to all. I never heard a bad word about him. I don’t think it will ever be the same.”

Bell, and other Hartford mothers, knew they could count on Stone to step into their sons’ lives off the football field, too. “When the kids needed to be spoken to, to hear a different voice than their parent, we knew we could go to Coach Stone,” Bell said.

“He would reach out and offer advice and give them straight talk about the choices they were making. He helped them grow into men.”

Stone’s personality and persona — he was humble, loyal and tough — was indelibly stamped upon his team.

On the sidelines, he was plugged in to his coaches above the action while he kept control of the game from field level. Making substitutions, changing plays, managing the game, he cajoled youngsters to reach heights they couldn’t yet see, congratulated players for achieving what he always knew they were capable and at the same time kept an eye out for the kid who needed that extra bit of gridiron love.

Because Stoney loved what he did; he was a coach. For 28 years he loved working with the players and watching his August walk-ons turn into championship game starters. He loved the minutia of the X’s and O’s and the camaraderie of the locker room.

While he had a paid staff of talented assistant coaches, he also had nearly a dozen former players who would come back to help out and pass along the Hurricane tradition to the next generation.

They did it because they loved football. They did it because they were devoted to their former coach.

“Hartford just lost the best coach they ever had; the best thing they had going for them,” said Michael Dulac, who started all 43 games in which he played over four years with the Hurricanes and currently plays football at Bentley,

“Coach Stone affected countless lives in the years he was there. He invested his whole life in building that program into what it was. It’s a shame it had to end, but hopefully he’s happy with the decision.”

Other members of the school community were equally impressed.

“Coach Stone was the shining example of gentlemanliness and good sportsmanship at HHS for my entire 24-year career there,” wrote former teacher Paul Keane in an email after the news went viral around Hartford football circles. “I had all his sons in class and they were gentlemen and scholars, too.

“As a retired teacher and present member of the school board, I wish him all the best in this new and exciting venture.”

James will now post the head coach opening and expects to hear from members of Stone’s current staff.

“I’m sure somebody will want to step up,” he said.

There will be quite a legacy to follow. Year after year, Stone took the smallest school in Vermont Division I and just kicked butt. Stone led the Hurricanes to 13 state title games, winning 10 of them. He led the Hurricanes to a D-II championship in his first year (1986), and starting in 1990 led the team to four straight D-II and D-1A titles.

His teams have been dominant the last several years, winning five of six state titles starting in 2007. 

Stone has been recognized as coach of the year a number of times and has led the South team in the North-South game, while also being honored as the coach of the Vermont Shrine Maple Sugar Bowl team.

But it was his unique attachment with his players that stood out even more than his program’s win-loss record.

“On Memorial Day, Troy came home from the Marines for a surprise visit,” recounted Karol Bell. “The first thing he did when he woke up the next morning was borrow a car and go down and see Coach.

“Those kids just loved him.” 

Like everyone else involved with the Hartford football program, James is thrilled for Stone even while he bemoans the program’s loss.

“The opportunity to coach at the next level was something he just couldn’t pass up,” said James. “He’s done so much for Hartford High School — all that and more. He would do anything for you. He deserves this opportunity. I wish him all the best.”

Don Mahler can be reached at dmahler@vnews.com or 603-727-3225.