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When we talk of great coaches that have come out of Auburn, Nick Diego’s name should be right near the very top of that list.

Nick was born Sept. 24, 1915, in New Jersey. His parents, Lillian Santaro and James Diego, came here from Italy looking for work. They eventually came to Auburn because they heard there was work here. Lillian became a cook at St. Francis and James worked at Firth Carpet. They raised 14 children. Nick had eight brothers — Tom, Fred, Joseph, Mario, John, Michael, Sam and Tony — and five sisters — Olympia Lauricella, Ann Carbone, Mary Trama, Peggy Musico and Rose Volpe.

On Sept. 6, 1942, Nick married Carm Calvarese. Nick was in the moving business here in Auburn for many years. Carm and Nick raised four children: sons Nicholas, Tom and Ron, and daughter Lynette Taber. I ran into Tom recently and he’s battling cancer; please keep him in your thoughts.

Nick managed many successful softball teams such as Nolan’s Sporting Goods, Agway and F & W Slayton’s. He was my coach when I played for Slayton’s and he was one of the most dedicated coaches I ever played for. Like many of his players, I have a story about Nick that I’ll never forget. Back in the day, famous teams from Rochester would come to play at the Y-Field. Here is the clip from the paper:

“The Bon Jon softball team of Rochester divided a pair of games played Saturday at the Y-Field against local talent. A large crowd watched the two well-played contests. In the opener, Bob Lovelace, one of the twirling aces of the Bon Jon pitching staff, held the Vic & Jack’s team to one hit in posting a 2-1 victory. Second baseman Bob Reardon singled in the second stanza for the only hit off Lovelace. Fran Ryan, pitching for Vic & Jack’s, allowed only five hits. Centerfielder George Perry had a home run for the Rochester team. In the second game, Ormie King fired a terrific two-hitter as F & W Slayton tossers white-washed the Bon Jon outfit 2-0. F & W scored it’s two tallies in the second inning. First baseman Dom Schillace was hit by a pitched ball and Larry Vatter doubled him home and scored himself on an error. Fireball Roberts, the number one pitching star, twirled a fine game for the losers, as he fanned 12 batters in the seven inning duel.”

Nick told me that night, that it was one of the happiest days of his life coaching. I’ll never forget it.

But I’ll let one of his younger players describe for you the kind of coach Nick Diego was, in words much better that my own. Here is a story about Nick that was in The Citizen quite a few years back now, from Scott M. Stevens, formerly of Auburn, and a resident of Omaha, Nebraska:

Over many years since I moved from Auburn, my mother (Peg Stevens) has indulged me with many news clips from Auburn, keeping me abreast of items of interest. But none have warmed my heart like the one I received from her the other day by Ormie King, titled “Include Nick Diego among Auburn’s great coaches.” I can’t help but reminisce about the days when I played for Nick in the Auburn CYO league. The lessons he bestowed on us were impactful and long lasting, to say the least. Albeit, it took me far too many years to really come to appreciate all that Nick did for me and several of my teammates, including T.J. Gamba, John Cool, John Speno and others.

With all due respect to Mr. King, his article didn’t quite cover the significant impact that Coach Diego has had on so many Auburnians, myself included. Nick’s coaching was incredibly ahead of its time. From a technical standpoint, the zone defenses that Nick taught us, including our famed 1-3-1, the 1-2-2, and the “box on one,” led us to unprecedented victory. Most notably, as I reminisce, I recall the time we faced the highly touted St. Michael’s of Newark (a team we were absolutely not supposed to be in a position to even challenge, much less beat) in the St. Alphonsus Christmas tournament in 1978. In what has to be one of the most memorable nights of my – and I’m sure several of my aforementioned teammates – lives, we beat St. Michael’s due to Coach Diego’s masterful coaching.

More along the lines of Nick as a philosopher and teacher, I recall his infamous three D’s – defense, desire and dedication. Nick has an absolute passion for discipline, and went to tremendous lengths to instill these philosophies in all of us. I remember the time one of us did something he didn’t quite approve of (not worth repeating), and in an attempt to determine who the responsible party was, Coach Diego simply ordered us to start running laps. It took many laps for the responsible teammate to emerge. Yet another lesson was learned pertaining to personal responsibility, duty and obligation.

And in the end we won, and we won, and we won. When Nick took us to places like Elmira to face talent that was not only better than us, but older than us, we won. When we faced St. Mary’s or Sacred Heart in pressure-packed playoff championships, we won. As gangly, under-developed, snot-nosed, fifth-graders playing organized sports for the very first time, we won. As an appropriate conclusion to our fourth and final season under Coach Diego’s tutelage, we played the entire eighth-grade season, through the Christmas tournament, until the final playoff contest — and never lost a single game!

Amazingly, to this very day, we are still winning. That is, all of us that had the good fortune to play for Nick.

I talk to my best friend, T.J. Gamba, at least once a month, and without fail, we bring up Coach Diego each and every time. We reminisce about the lessons he taught us, revel in the memory of our dominance, and relate to this very day how he has affected our lives in such awesome and impactful ways.

Yes, Coach Diego was indeed among Auburn’s greatest coaches. But much more to the point, and more appropriately, he is THE greatest coach and among the greatest human beings to ever grace Auburn’s streets; a man whose contributions to society cannot begin to be quantified.

Coach Diego, if you’re reading this, on behalf of all the guys – thanks a million for everything you did for us – "you da man!”

Even though Coach Nick Diego is no longer with us, his legacy lives on in the lives of so many young men he taught, about sports, and about life. Thanks Nick, and all the Diego family, for being GREAT Legends of Auburn.

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Ormie King's column appears Sundays in The Citizen and he can be reached by email at ormie5king@gmail.com.

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