By Doug Ottewill, Editor-in-Chief, Mile High Sports Magazine
There are thousands of players who learned from the legendary coach. There’s the trophy case at Boulder’s Fairview High School. His coaching tree has roots in Pueblo but has slowly branched out to every corner of the state; its tallest limbs can be found in the National Football League. His name is synonymous with football in Colorado, but it is well known in places like Bergamo, Italy, Paris, Berlin and even Taipei.
Pagano’s love of sports began as a young boy in Pueblo, where he excelled at both baseball and football. It was likely at Pueblo Central High School, however, where his football career began to blossom.
Pagano starred under fabled coach Sollie Raso. Not only did he grow into one of the state’s best linebackers and offensive guards, positions he’d go on to play at the University of Denver, he became a student of the game, an understudy that would one day become a godfather of coaching in Colorado.
After graduating from DU in 1959, Pagano had a tryout with the very first Denver Broncos team as a kicker, no less. As he told the Denver Post’s Irv Moss, “I didn’t get to wear the striped socks,” but getting cut from the Broncos only expedited his coaching career.
With the guidance of Raso, he soon became a teacher of the game. He cut his teeth as an assistant at Adams State College and Boulder High School. In 1969 he took the head coaching job just down the road at Fairview High School.
At Fairview, Pagano built one of the best football programs in state history. In less than a decade he won the first of three state titles (1978, ’79 and ’87). His team was a perennial powerhouse, perhaps the only program that stood toe-to-toe with mighty Cherry Creek on an annual basis. Pagano finished his 26-year high school coaching career with a 164-58-4 record.
While his accolades were many, it was more than trophies and enshrinements that measured the career of Pagano. From 1975 to 2012, he oversaw the highly-regarded Mile High Football Camp, an institution that instructed countless local players. For Pagano, the likes of Peyton Manning and Vinny Testaverde served as camp coaches.
After his coaching career in Colorado, Pagano packed up the game and took it to Europe. His first team in Bergamo, Italy, went 14-1 and was runner-up in the 1994 Italian Super Bowl. His last team went 16-0 and won the Eurobowl championship. After stints in Italy, Germany, France and Taipei, he finally retired in 2002.
Pagano’s sons, Chuck and John, not only went on to play in college, but clearly caught the coaching bug from their father. Both ascended to the NFL, where John currently serves as the defensive coordinator of the Oakland Raiders; Chuck was head coach of the Indianapolis Colts 2012-2017.
Indeed, Sam Paganoís induction into the Colorado Sports Hall of Fame is fitting. But his accomplishments, the many marks he’s left on the game and his state, live far outside the walls of any Hall.
His name is synonymous with football in Colorado, but it ís well known in places like Bergamo, Italy, Paris, Berlin and even Taipei.