Community mourns loss of Coach John Carlucci

On Tuesday, December 2 former Wrestling Coach John Carlucci passed away after a long battle against cancer. A native of the East Bronx, Carlucci was the MVP and captain of the wrestling team at Lehman College. He joined the school community in 1981 and spent nine years working as both a Physical Education teacher and a coach for the JV Football and Softball teams. Carlucci’s impact on the athletes he coached was immeasurable, Sasha Grutman ’85 P’18 said. “He gave a lot of young men a lot of confidence by teaching them the skills they needed to succeed in a wrestling match.”

The team was consistently successful with the help of Carlucci’s coaching and won the New York State private school championships for many consecutive years. Additionally, a few wrestlers he coached were frequently invited to national championship matches.

Before his arrival at the school, Carlucci coached wrestling at Lincoln High School in Yonkers. Horace Mann hired Carlucci after students he coached at a summer program urged the administration to consider him. At that time, student wrestlers felt as though they were entering a “new era” of the sport, according to a Record article from that year (Volume 75, Issue 12). Although the team had not previously been successful, Carlucci was determined to turn the program around, the article said. The practices he designed were described in the article as “one of the toughest schedules in recent memory.”

During practices, Carlucci would turn the heat up in the room so the wrestlers burned more calories, and he kept wrestlers exercising until minutes before their buses left the school, Brad Harris ’85 P ’20 ’22 ’23 said. “He wanted us to do well, and he pushed us very hard,” Harris said. “It was really tough, but it was something that matured us. It made us responsible and gave us a sense of being.”

The constant training and focusing was difficult for the students, but it was also deeply educational, Hayim Grant ’87 P ’22 ’28 said. “We didn’t realize it at the time, but the discipline that we learned helped shape our lives,” he said. “We all look back on that experience as a special defining moment of growth in our lives.”

Carlucci’s disciplinarianism was ultimately beneficial for his wrestlers, Alan Ronson ‘85 said. “We were young and trying to figure it all out,” he said. “He guided us through that.” Carlucci gave students a diet to follow with balanced and healthy meals.

 Harris remembers following the guidelines that he laid out for him, eating well and going out with his friends less than he typically would, he said. “He was a coach that was both loved and a little bit feared,” Harris said. “You wanted to perform well for him because you knew how much he cared about you.”

Carlucci taught his students to approach their practices, matches, and ultimately their lives with determination, Michael Eisner ’83 said. “He taught me rigor, discipline, and hard work — and that it would pay off on the wrestling mat,” Eisner said. “He believed in me, and I wanted to validate that belief.”

Carlucci was not solely focused on rigor and technique. During practice, he would make funny comments that brought joy into the room, Villella said. “Humor helped make the arduous and tough thing that is wrestling practice entertaining and fun,” he said. “He brought some laughter into the difficulty.”

The coach may have been strict during practice, but he cared for his students with an unbelievable kindness, Harris said. “He was very interested in making sure that everyone did well and wasn’t getting into trouble,” he said. “We would have very open conversations, and he was genuinely interested in his students.”

Carlucci loved the connections that he formed with his students, Eisner said . “He wanted to connect on a deep level and try to understand how he could make us be the best wrestlers that we could be,” he said. “He tried to have a personal relationship with each kid. He had the time and the interest, and that is what he wanted to do.”

On the door to the wrestling room, Carlucci pinned a poster with the words ‘luck is when preparation meets opportunity,’ Grutman said. “That quote stuck with me long after I graduated,” he said. “It was one of the great life lessons he gave to us on the team.”

Carlucci covered the walls with inspirational posters, urging team members to continue their hard work, Grant said. Carlucci was always supportive in his approach to coaching, but to succeed in his practices required discipline and commitment, he said.

Eisner was in his junior year of high school when Carlucci became the wrestling coach, and his arrival transformed the team, he said. “He had a huge impact on the way the team functioned.”

Eisner was a strong wrestler and the captain of the team, and when he won tournaments, he attributed his victories to Carlucci. “I won the private school championship my senior year, and that was his doing. He made us into good wrestlers.”

Harris, on the other hand, said that he was not a star on such an elite team, but Carlucci’s strict coaching and constant kindness pushed him to be the best person that he could be both inside and outside of the sport.

Carlucci was invested in making sure that every student on his team succeeded, so he paid individual attention to each athlete, understanding their personal strengths and weaknesses, Grutman said. “With each wrestler, he knew what was needed,” he said. “With some guys, he pressured them; with others, he encouraged them; with others, he challenged them. He was a master motivator, and he understood what each person was motivated by.”

Carlucci’s focus on improving the wrestlers’ technique was integral to their success, Villella said. “He had trained us very specifically with drill after drill, and then when it came to the wrestling match, you had all of these movements already ingrained,” he said. “They became second nature. I can feel it like it was yesterday.”

The team would often travel on long trips to compete. “It was like a big road trip,” Villella said. “We all got in the van and drove down for a three day tournament. It was very memorable to be there as such a successful group.”

On van rides to tournaments, Carlucci made jokes to lighten the mood, Ronson said. “He knew when we were getting stressed, and he knew how to change that and redirect it in a positive way.” 

Although wrestling is an individual sport, the connections between team members were unbreakable, Ronson said. “You never feel so alone as when you walk over to your match,” he said. “But, we were all rooting for each other. There was a lot of camaraderie.”

 Harris remembers walking through the gymnasium as his coach taught Physical Education and seeing students who were not at all athletic participating in the class. “I saw the way he dealt with students who could care less about sports— he engaged them and made it fun.”

After retiring in 1990, Carlucci moved to  Orlando, Florida to work at the Bishop Moore High School, where he led the wrestling team and served as the Dean of Students.  

Years after they graduated high school, the team continued to meet for annual dinners, Grant said. “We became so close on the team that we still stay in touch with one another, and [Carlucci] was a big reason for that.”

In 2018, the team decided to invite Carlucci to their reunion. The school organized a cocktail party for former wrestlers to honor their coach, followed by a dinner at Jake’s Steakhouse down the hill. “We were there for hours, and it was just an incredible experience,” Grant said. “We were amazed at how special it was and the impact he had had on all of us.”

At that dinner there were around 25 former wrestlers coming from seven or eight graduating classes, Eisner said. “We were all giving our memories and our thoughts from way across the years — people I barely even knew. I can’t imagine him having other wrestlers that weren’t on my team, but he did, and they were all there together.”

Many of his former wrestlers gave speeches that were very moving, Harris said. “As a student, you could call him a parent, or a big brother, or an uncle,” he said. “But as an adult, you could call him a friend.”

Grutman feels lucky to have been able to celebrate him in this way before his passing, he said. “He touched so many people’s lives.” 

Ronson remembers Carlucci’s posts on social media with students that were wrestling years after Ronson’s graduation. “I see posts from guys that were 10, 15, 20 years down the road that had the same experiences and with the same influence that Carlucci had on us.”

Although he was ill for many years, he did not give up his will to fight on or his connections to the people who loved him, Ronson said. “He was grappling with his cancer the way he taught us to grapple with each other,” he said. “He put forth the maximum amount of strength and fought until the bitter end. He had such a positive influence on so many of us and will be greatly missed.”

Despite his illness in his later years, Carlucci continued to be the compassionate coach that his athletes remember him as, Grutman said. “He left us too early, but he changed all of our lives.”