Wednesday, May 18, 2011

MAINE SPORTS HALL OF FAME: Former Winslow coach set for induction

By Matt DiFilippo

Staff Writer
Harold "Tank" Violette has experience being inducted into a Hall of Fame. So this time, he knew it was for real.

click image to enlarge
GETTING IN: Former Winslow football coach Harold “Tank” Violette will be inducted into the Maine Sports Hall of Fame on Sunday. As a coach at Winslow and Belfast, Violette won five state championships in football, and he also won six state titles coaching ice hockey at Winslow.
Staff photo by David Leaming
Violette is one of six inductees going into the Maine Sports Hall of Fame, and he will be honored in a ceremony Sunday at the Augusta Civic Center. But when Violette was inducted into the University of Maine Sports Hall of Fame in 2003, it was a different story.
"When they called, I thought they were soliciting money or somebody was bagging me," Violette said. "I said, 'Somebody's pulling my chain or something here.' He said, 'No, no. This is for real.' It's something that you never dreamed of."
As a coach at Winslow and Belfast, Violette won five state championships in football, and he also won six state titles coaching ice hockey at Winslow. But he's still a little overwhelmed that people remember him.
"I'm extremely honored, and I'm extremely humbled by something like that," Violette said. "It's just great. You don't even think about those things. Coming from where I come from, you don't even consider going into that."
Where Violette came from was a large family. He was the youngest of 17 children, and the only one to go to college. He was only the second to graduate from high school, and ironically, a man who would become so closely associated with Winslow athletics was a member of the Waterville class of 1956.
Violette actually had no plans of attending college either, but got some help from a chance meeting with then-Lawrence football coach Dick McGee, another of the six honorees on Sunday.
"He talked to me, got me to get the application, and he literally filled it out for me and mailed it in," Violette said. "I think he might even have paid the application fee, because I never did."
In high school, Violette was always Harry or Hal, and he's still Harry to his longtime friends from school. But he picked up the nickname Tank as a freshman football player at the University of Maine. While NCAA rules prohibited freshmen from playing on the varsity, the freshmen would scrimmage the regulars.
"I hit some guy," Violette said, "and one of the guys on the freshman team (said), 'Holy schmuggies, he hits like a tank.' I got two or three hits like that in the drills that we were doing, and that name just stuck."
Violette actually wasn't thrilled about the nickname originally, but soon realized he had no choice but to accept it.
"I used to resent it at first," he said. "It was just one of those things: Why are they calling me that? Then it got to the point where I think most people didn't realize what my first name was. At the end, even the professors were calling me that."
After earning several honors and all-star selections at UMaine, Violette got into coaching at Winslow. He was an assistant under Wally LaFountain, who soon told him it would be a good idea for Violette to head up the wrestling program. Violette's response was, "You gotta be kidding me."
But after some prodding from the wrestlers -- many of whom were football players -- Violette became the Winslow wrestling coach.
"So we got them out there," Violette said, "and I put a dot on the board and said, 'Guys, what I know about wrestling, you can put in that dot and have extra room.' "
Violette began learning moves from rival coaches, and by going to the mat with Winslow star heavyweight O'Neil LaPlante.
"I had to wrestle him every night, and he kicked the living daylights out of me," Violette said. "But we had fun, and one of the best seasons we've ever had. I had great kids. That's one of the reasons I enjoyed Winslow so much. Everybody has their great kids, but it was so many of them. They really took care of me."
After moving on to Belfast, Violette started the school's wrestling program and coached the Lions to back-to-back football state titles in 1967 and 1968. He returned to Winslow for the 1969 season and would stay as football coach through 1985, compiling a 152-52-3 record and winning Gold Balls in 1973, 1976 and 1982.
Jim Poulin had played eighth-grade baseball for Violette at Winslow and joined his football coaching staff in 1974.
"I said to him, 'What do I know about football?' " Poulin said. "His statement to me was, 'I'll teach you everything you need.' And that he did."
His name was Tank, and he was physically imposing, and Violette made it very clear that he demanded your best and would hold you accountable for your mistakes. Yet he balanced this with a vulnerable, caring side.
"The guy is really a teddy bear," said Don Phair, who graduated from high school with Violette. "He's really a soft-hearted person. All the years I've known him, I've never heard him say a negative thing about anybody.
"He took the time after every football season to take all of his players aside individually and congratulate them and thank them, even if it was a kid who never got in a game. That's the kind of guy he is. He'd give you his arm if you asked for it."
Violette said he was twice offered the football coaching job at Waterville, but turned it down because he loved the support and atmosphere he had at Winslow. He gave up the Winslow job in 1985 so he could watch his son, Steve, play football at the University of Maine.
Wes Littlefield, now the football coach at Messalonskee, played on Violette's last three football teams at Winslow from 1983-85. Littlefield said he tries to follow Violette's example not just as a coach, but in every aspect of his life.
"To be honest with you, I idolize the man," Littlefield said. "Just the way that he carried himself as a gym teacher and as a coach, he was someone you wanted to be like."
Littlefield said Violette's enthusiasm made the Winslow players better -- that you felt like you were obligated to do your best, because you didn't want to let him down.
"He'd call you out, but he'd be the first one to hug you after," Littlefield said. "You just wanted to run through brick walls for him. If he told me I could have run through a brick wall, I would have believed him, and I would have tried to do it."
Violette is still a coach to many of his players. Poulin, who played for him for only one year more than four decades ago, still usually refers to him as "Coach Violette."
"When you can have people who played for him 25 years ago still call him Coach, what higher honor can a coach get?" Phair said.
Added Poulin: "I hold so much respect for him, I should probably use the word 'Mister' Violette. But he'll always be Coach Violette."
Tank Violette will always be Coach Violette to a lot of people. Those are people who remember what he did for them.
They remember his intensity. They remember him watching film and breaking down every play like a technician. They remember him calling the same play over and over again and telling the players, "Until they stop us, we're going to run that play down their throat all day long." They remember how he had the same rules for every player, no matter how big the star.
They remember how he inspired them by talking about how they weren't just representing their jerseys, but the jerseys of guys who played 10 or 20 years ago and would be in the stands that day. And they remember how this humble man always -- always -- downplayed his accomplishments and talked about the great coaches and great kids he had on his side.
"He's done so much, and if you talk to him, he'll fluff it off by saying he had great kids," Poulin said. "Yeah, he had great kids, but they had a great coach. It was magical what Harold brought to the Winslow program. It was magic."
Matt DiFilippo -- 861-9243