A giant in the Canton Central School community, longtime coach Wayne Willette passed peacefully on Saturday, Nov. 28 at home, surrounded by family and friends.
Coach Willette’s impact on the school community, particularly within the athletics realm, is widespread and can best be demonstrated by the cavalcade of memories and tributes that have flowed from the minds of those he touched in the days since his passing.
Having played JV soccer for Coach Willette, many of the mantras and lessons present in others’ accounts have resonated with me and are familiar. Regretfully, my playing days left both a literal and figurative red mark on this legendary coach’s career. And while I’m not proud to be known as the only player in his coaching tenure to receive a red card, I do believe the experience resulted in a much more profound and long lasting relationship between us. He made sure I grew from that episode, by calmly navigating the consequences of my actions and ensuring I knew the gravity of what I had done. For that, I am eternally grateful.
In the days since my ejection from that JV soccer game at Swift Field in South Colton, I’ve come to recognize the weight of his simple catchphrase, “C for Class.” As a high school coach myself now, it’s a phrase our coaching staff impresses upon our players with relative frequency. Playing with class has become a hallmark of Canton athletics, and it began with Coach Willette.
I also made it a point to have a conversation with Coach Willette every chance I got since my days on his soccer team. The last was this summer, where he stood and gave a touching speech in remembrance of Jerry Smilgin at the Petty Open golf tournament. I was fortunate to spend just a minute speaking with him afterward, and I won’t forget that moment.
But I’m far from the only person Coach Willette has touched in his dedication to Canton athletics.
Over the course of 36 years of teaching, 35 years of coaching softball and 30 years as a soccer coach, Willette amassed 375 wins in softball and 306 wins in soccer.
On the diamond, the 2011 Hall of Fame inductee won four overall league titles, seven Class B titles, six Class C titles, and made six New York State quarterfinal appearances.
On the soccer field, the JV boys soccer program won 11 JV championships, accomplished seven undefeated seasons, and at one point posted a 71-game winning streak under his tutelage.
In the last few years of his coaching career, Willette collected four 20-win seasons in softball, a league title in soccer, sent two softball players to Division I programs, won four consecutive Class B titles, coached an entire softball season without giving up a single run, did not lose in Section X for two straight years, and made two State quarterfinal appearances.
While numbers are fun to look at, they don’t scratch the surface of what Willette meant to Canton athletics. The stats do, however, demonstrate just how Coach was able to get the most out of his athletes.
What’s most telling about Coach Willette’s impact on the athletes he coached are the memories they carry with them to this very day. When I reached out to Mike Wentworth asking for help collecting words from those closest to Willette, I didn’t realize the Pandora’s Box I’d opened. I made an attempt to take some of these accounts and make a true story out of them. But justice cannot be done to this coach’s legacy without allowing each of these stories and tributes to stand for themselves.
And so, instead of paraphrasing, quoting, and trimming the messages I received, I thought I would let you read them all for yourself.
When Wayne first came to Canton he teamed up with the three young teacher/coaches and became the best of friends in Rick Cerone and Lyle Newman. They were all groomed by the old guard of coaches in OJ, Houli, Riggsy, Denny, Smil & Roger. Those guys broke them in the right way.
Randy, John, Bradser, Tony, Dan, Paul and Meg were the next group to go through.
Later those guys all retired but Wayne was the bridge between us all. For the new crew of Matt, Greg, Bill, Anita, Carla, Rob and I. He went from being the young pup to the wise old dog taking us all under his wing, teaching us that winning was important but more important do it with class. Do things the right way, not the easy way. The “C” in Canton always stands for class first.
Words can never completely express the fullest extent of a person’s admiration, respect and love for another person when they pass. I will humbly attempt to do so. I began watching Wayne Willette in 1993 as a teacher and a coach in the McKenney School. I looked upon his behavior and style as something which was unique to him. He was different from others and I recognized this right away, which was probably why I was so drawn to him.
Wayne was a fierce competitor. I will always remember his competitiveness as he battled for supremacy in the annual Middle School Olympics. It always seemed to be the Willette and Thompson show in the finale during the tug of war competition as the two men, sweating profusely by now in the heat of the June gymnasium, literally screaming at their students to pull harder, knowing full well that bragging rights for the entire following year were on the line!! In the end, it was generally Wayne’s team which proved to be victorious.
Earlier this year I was able to present Wayne with the Annual Don Petty “Good Guy” Service Award in Section X. Finding words to acknowledge Coach Willette was very easy. If anyone has seen Wayne’s achievements as a coach they are exceptional. As I stated that day this past July, I could talk about all of his wins and achievements or I could speak to something more important. It wasn’t the fact that Wayne won a good deal of games. It was HOW he won those games that mattered. As anyone who played for him will attest, his most common line was, “That “C” in Canton, stands for “Class.” This statement was not simply lip service from him, it was his lifestyle. His mission for something better. A striving to make this place better than he found it. One of the most successful coaches in Golden Bear history and not one time did I ever hear him boast or brag about himself or his achievements…..not even after a few Heinekens!
I learned an awful lot from Coach Willette but no lesson more important than how to treat others. Wayne loved his students, colleagues and athletes and although he often needed to correct a student’s behavior, I was always appreciative of how he did so. His composure, despite their immaturity, his patience despite their actions, and his demeanor and professionalism regardless of their level of disrespect was second to none……I mean that. Composed men like Coach Wayne Willette are needed in this world and his time here did matter. His positive impact cannot be measured…because it is immeasurable! Wayne’s fellow coaches and colleagues will forever keep alive his tradition of classy behavior, treating others with respect and winning the right way! We love you, we’ll miss you and WE WILL NOT LET YOU DOWN COACH!
Shirley & Jerry Hourihan
As we all know Coach Willette was a perfectionist. Teaching sixth grade, his achievements were second to none. His coaching record speaks for itself. He was one of Section 10 top basketball officials. If he had a weakness it might have been keeping the golf ball in play, especially on his drives!! He corrected that by using the Houlie Rules of Golf, extra Mulligans & a Givemee now and then. Still I don’t believe I ever beat him.
I was asked to coach his JV soccer team one year when he was on a leave, they were on that huge win streak, he said don’t worry, all you have do it keep them out of trouble. That was a handful at times! But put 11 of them on the field, Wayne had them so well schooled they coached themselves and his streak continued.
Wayne you are a true friend, a most loyal colleague and one strong man. Kathy, Shirley and I wish we could be there to share in Wayne’s celebration of life, May God Bless You.
I was lucky to have Wayne as a friend and as a roommate for several years. And I’ve known this from the beginning of our friendship that Wayne was the nicest, kindest person that I have known and that he and Kathy were a perfect match. Wayne was the role model of what a friend, husband, Coach and a teacher should be.
I have thought of many fond memories of coach Willette’s impact on our school athletics and the community. He was a gentle man with a meticulous effort to bring out the best in his students and athletes. A coach admired by his players, respected by his colleagues and a friend to all who knew him. Coach Willette’s impact on our community will last for generations!
Kacie Wentworth Brabaw
Coach Willette always preached to us how much he loved shutouts. In 2010, my junior year we were undefeated and went the entire Softball season without giving up a run until the state tournament. Teams were not even trying to beat us, they just wanted to be the team that scored on us first. It was an unbelievable run.
In the state quarterfinals, Mechanicville finally scored a run and he came out to the mound and made one quick statement and then walked away. He said “The streak’s over, now it’s time to win!” It was one of those “Remember the Titans/Karate Kid” type inspirational moments that my dad always told me about. My heart just started pounding like never before. To this day I wish we could have pulled it off for him but it wasn’t meant to be.
He was a GREAT coach but an even better person. The day he showed up at my wedding was a day that I won’t ever forget. When people saw him come in; they couldn’t wait to talk to him and say hello.
“C” stands for class, and that is what Coach Willette was.
I visited Coach Willette at his home two days before he passed away. I told him I wasn’t there to pump him full of compliments or give him a feel good speech, I was there to thank him. Coach Willette was the first Coach I ever had and I felt the need to thank him for molding my mindset at a young age. In the Fall of 1987, he sat our team down at the first practice to let us know it was now up to us to continue Canton’s excellence and, yes, domination in soccer. He told us that the C in Canton stood for class, a trait that he exuded himself and passed on to us. We gave Coach Willette all we had to win for him, we would do anything for him. Little did we know, he was preparing us for more than the fight on the soccer field, he was preparing us for life.
During the 45 minutes I got to spend with him we reflected on how our team’s swagger was felt everywhere we would go. I said, ‘do you remember when team’s would stop and watch us warmup?’ He said, ‘yeah, ya remember that (with a big grin on his face)?’ Then he looked at me and said, “do you remember when people would stop to watch us get off of the bus?” When I brought up the over 60 game win streak he humbly said “I had some great kids to Coach” and quickly mentioned Coach Smiligan had a similar streak prior to his arrival (another great Golden Bear we lost in 2021).
What an Era, What a Coach, What a Life, What a Man.
I’ve coached at the highest levels of hockey, have worked with a few “Hall of Fame” coaches and can honestly say that I have more regard for Wayne and his coaching abilities than any other I’ve worked with or played for. Wayne’s energy and messaging was relentless. One of my favorite coaching beliefs is that a team takes on the personality of its coach. All 48+ kids on those JV teams ended up being reflections of our coach. There is no wonder why we never lost any games. Wayne was honest, had a powerful presence, and set a standard that became very clear to us as players. Without even realizing it as a player you rose to Wayne’s standard. Practices were hard but we had fun. As multi-sport athletes, many of us didn’t identify ourselves as soccer players necessarily, but you wanted to identify yourself with what Wayne was selling! And that is the essence of coaching.
Wayne filled the lives of anyone who knew him with a special enthusiasm! He was a teacher and coach who had that ability to bring the best out of anyone. More than that, Wayne was a close family friend, and ALWAYS put the needs of others first. I’ll miss him, and am blessed to have called him my friend.
The best coach I ever had. And what a program and culture he created for Canton soccer. His ability to manage a roster of that many players every year is mind boggling. I am sure he and Roger are smiling down at the dynasty they built.
I’ll never forget wearing the double layer, reversible brown and gold ‘Russell Athletics’ cotton practice jerseys during August double-sessions. Coach probably got a deal on them from Don Petty because no other schools would buy them. The jerseys were brutally hot and they soaked up every drop of sweat as we ran Bears and Monsters, and then more Bears. We put up with it, we even embraced it, because Coach Willette helped give us an identity at an age when we were misguided, high energy, scatterbrained, mischievous….all those things that make adolescents unique; at times bordering on unbearable.
It is a rare breed of person that teaches middle school, likes the kids, and is also adored by them. That was Coach Willette. He invited us, each and every one of us, to join the team, and he didn’t make cuts. That speaks volumes to his understanding of what we needed. And we needed plenty. High on that list was discipline, purpose, and self-confidence…and he delivered in spades. To walk away with one undefeated season after another, after another, after another, is testimony to the wisdom of that approach.
That 8-pound practice jersey was a badge of honor, although the day that game jerseys were handed out was like Christmas. Sock-footed (no cleats in the building), lined up by descending grade-level in the dark halls of McKinney Middle School, captains picked jerseys first, then the rest of 9th grade, all the way down the line. Even if your jersey number was up in the 50’s, you wore it with pride. To put it in perspective, the teams were so large that players wore jerseys numbered into the 70s and 80s. And on Coach Willette’s team, it didn’t matter if you were a starter, a sub, a super-sub, or the player relegated to sit on the water jug since the bench was full, everyone had a role, everyone was a Bear, and the Bears were invincible. He built a culture and he shaped character for hundreds of young men. While Coach isn’t physically here with us, his legacy has been thriving for decades as so many of us try to emulate his ways, and will continue to do so. He defined the standard.
Wayne’s energy and enthusiasm was contagious. What he did to instill Mental Toughness and Golden Bear Pride left an indelible impression on the hearts and minds of his athletes. We went into games with unshakable confidence because of his preparation and culture of excellence. When we rolled into opposing towns Coach Willette had us banging on the bus yelling “we’re from Canton couldn’t be prouder if you can’t hear us we’ll yell a little louder…”
We lost a great man this week, Coach Willette. Besides my Dad, Coach Willette was one of the most influential men in my life. I can say without a doubt he left an impression on all that he coached and came into contact with. From all the texts that are going around with former players in the last few days there is no question at all. My sister Mary, who played Varsity softball for coach, can also attest to that. He was a beloved man and always will be. He built the foundation for us teenage boys to make it to the State finals with Coach Dusharm. It was a pleasure and honor to have Coach induct our 1985 Varsity team into the Canton Hall of Fame. In the two years we played for coach we never lost a game! Our sophomore year we averaged 5.6 goals for, and .14 goals against. As I look back on it now, that was incredible. He never cut anyone from the JV team, if you showed up and made it through the brutal double session practices, you were on the team. Let me tell you if you didn’t show up in shape you were in trouble. Everyone wanted to be on Coach Willette’s team. We typically had 40 players, yes 40, on a JV team! We would pull into our competitor’s school with 40 screaming kids rocking the bus back and forth. The other team would hear us coming and stand there with their mouths open. That’s what coach wanted, because he know the game was over even before we got off the bus. He instilled in us that the ‘C’ in Canton stood for Class and wherever we went we had to represent that. Canton pride, Canton class.
We will all miss you coach, but you never will be forgotten.
Natasha ‘Taco’ Bell Cook
When my childhood best friend and first basemen, Bri Taillon Atkins, reached out to tell me of Coach Willette’s passing my instinct was to reminisce. I thought back to his 300th career win and how he’d proudly update our stat wall after each game. But when it came to actually remembering games, plays, and final scores these didn’t come back to me as easily. Truth be told, I didn’t even remember we went 21-1 my senior year, giving up not a single run until the state tournament. We were nearly perfect, playing the game we all loved and the game he loved to coach. And that’s why I think it was easy to forget, because passion and excellence for the game was his standard, and winning was simply the end result.
Even our only loss of the season, in the New York State Tournament to Mechanicville, isn’t 100% clear in my memory. For so long I’ve wondered how we could have lost that game and why, until now. Because the game of softball, really sports in general, teaches us about life. It didn’t seem fair, it hurt, and we weren’t ready to end our season; just like losing Coach doesn’t seem fair, definitely hurts, and we’d do anything to have more time with him.
As I realize how easy it is to forget, I now see that one of the greatest gifts Coach Willette ever gave me was the gift of remembering. He knew stats and records were fleeting memories, so my senior year he wrote a recap of each game and gave it to us at the end of the year. Here’s how he closed out our 2010 season.
“We had a tremendous year, girls and over time you will remember the great things that happened and not the disappointing ending. I can’t even begin to tell you girls how proud I am to be associated with such a fine group of softball players and more importantly a great group of girls. Hold your heads high ladies, you have so much of which to be proud”
He too, had much to be proud of. Thank you for being a commendable coach and man, I am forever grateful.
Editor’s Note: A special thanks to Mike Wentworth for doing all the leg work to compile these tributes. The outpouring of support for Coach Willette is evident here, and is just the latest in a long line of examples of how profound the sense of community in Canton is. Thank you to everyone who sent in their thoughts.