SPRINGFIELD, NJ — Nick Iannacone paid attention the past two seasons.
Now the Bulldogs will be paying attention to him.
So far the first-year head football coach at Jonathan Dayton High School, who was an assistant on former head football coach Mike Abbate’s staff in 2020 and 2021, says he likes what he sees from the youngsters who will be performing for him and his staff.
“The biggest thing for us is to get 1 percent better every day,” said Iannacone, 27, who will also begin his fourth year as a special education teacher at Jonathan Dayton. “We want to produce a competitive brand of football and have people love what we’re doing.”
Iannacone, a 2013 New Providence High School graduate who went on to play football at Pace University, from which he graduated in 2017, was officially approved by the Springfield Board of Education the first week in June.
“Every day, we have to find a way to get it done,” Iannacone said. “The kids are doing that so far, which is great. If we find a way, we’ll be in a good position to compete against whoever is in front of us.”
The first day of practice for the Bulldogs is Monday, Aug. 15. Dayton is still trying to schedule a scrimmage before its season opener at home vs. Dunellen High School on Friday, Sept. 2.
“Nick is ready, and the program is in good hands with him,” Abbate said.
Abbate remains Jonathan Dayton’s head baseball coach, a position he has had since 2011.
The remainder of the football staff is intact, with longtime assistant Bob Martin in his usual role as the defensive coordinator. The other assistants are Jason Mullman and Martin’s two sons, Andrew and Brian.
“With those coaches, it should be a seamless transition,” Abbate said.
“We took the time to meet when I was hired,” Iannacone said. “The players all knew me as an assistant, so it was time to introduce them to my philosophy.”
Iannacone said that Jonathan Dayton’s offense will be modernizing the triple option, while the defense will stay the same, a 5-3 scheme.
“Being in the weight room so far has been huge, and we were able to compete in 7-on-7s vs. Summit and New Providence, which was good for our kids to be around football and to compete,” Iannacone said. “The kids played really fast, which was great to see.”
Iannacone’s coaching responsibilities the past two seasons at Jonathan Dayton focused on the offensive and defensive lines. Learning the ins and outs from Bob Martin has also been a huge advantage.
“Having Coach on the staff, I can ask him questions,” Iannacone said. “He’s the head basketball coach. I can ask him what to do in certain situations.
“His preparation before games is really something. He is locked in when it comes to dissecting teams. Sometimes I should look in the mirror and ask myself what I need to do, based on how prepared he is.
“He’s well known in the community, has been successful and is a great coach to have on the staff.”
Speaking about coaches, during Iannacone’s three varsity seasons at New Providence, he played for three different head coaches. His sophomore season in 2010 was legendary head coach Frank Bottone’s final season. In 2011, as a junior, he played for Art Cattano when Cattano, former longtime assistant with Bottone, moved up as a stopgap for one year. Then, in his senior season in 2012, he played for former Verona High School assistant Joe Carollo, who was the head coach for four seasons, from 2012 to 2015.
New Providence captured the North 2, Group 1 sectional state championship in 2010 for the first time since 1989, with Bottone going out a state champion in his final game. The Pioneers went 11-1 that season, capping it with a 21-8 win over Lincoln of Jersey City in the North 2, Group 1 final played at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford. New Providence had to fight hard to get by Hoboken in comeback fashion, 24-21, and then Verona, 20-19, in the first two rounds of the playoffs at New Providence’s Lieder Field.
Bottone is Union County’s winningest head football coach, with a record of 334-125-7, including eight state championships, in 48 years. When he passed away at the age of 86 in November 2017, Bottone was the state’s fifth winningest head football coach of all time.
“He was tough,” Iannacone said. “He let you know how you played, and he was always honest with you.”
Iannacone played junior varsity his entire freshman season in 2009 and was called up to varsity for three games. He became a starting varsity lineman in 2010.
“He gave me an opportunity,” Iannacone said. “The upperclassmen believed in me, which helped Coach Bottone believe in me.
“For a 15-year-old kid, I was rocking and rolling on varsity. Coach was demanding but fair. He treated all his players well.
“I remember when my grandmother passed away my junior year. He wasn’t coaching anymore, but he came to the wake and sat down and talked to my family for like a half-hour. He really cared, and that meant so much more.”
Cattano guided New Providence to a 9-2 record and the North 2, Group 1 semifinals in 2011, where the Pioneers were defeated at home by Cedar Grove High School, 20-14. New Providence closed the season with a 40-26 win at Governor Livingston High School.
Cattano is still the head basketball coach at New Providence and led his team to the Group 1 state championship in 1999.
“Coach Cattano was in a unique position,” Iannacone said. “Nobody else could have really done it. He was an assistant for like 20 years. He ran the same offense and the same scheme on defense.
“The best thing about Coach Cattano was that he put a lot of trust into his players. He let us play, and that means a lot coming up as a player.”
Carollo also guided New Providence to the North 2, Group 1 semifinals in 2012, his first year. This time, the Pioneers finished with a final record of 8-3. After beating Governor Livingston, 30-20, at home on Thanksgiving, New Providence was defeated at Roselle Park, 21-13, in the North 2, Group 1 semifinals, which were played that year after Thanksgiving, because of the schedule being reconstructed following the destruction caused by Superstorm Sandy.
“Things didn’t change much with Coach Carollo,” Iannacone recalled. “We still played a 4-4 defense, and many of our guys went on to play in college, I think seven of us.
“He taught us about defense and concepts and how to play fast. He retained everyone and kept things consistent for us. He also kept the offense the same.
“Coach Carollo was a great teacher and made our tasks manageable, which allowed us to play fast.”
Iannacone said he knows what it’s like to play on a state championship team. Jonathan Dayton is one of only three schools in Union County, including Governor Livingston and Plainfield, to not have won a state championship since the playoff era began in 1974.
“I know a lot of programs are struggling with numbers right now, especially Group 1s,” Iannacone said.
When the football classifications are officially released on the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association’s website this month, Jonathan Dayton expects to be situated in North, Group 1, as it has been since 2018.
The realigned five-team Big Central Conference division Jonathan Dayton is in this year also includes David Brearley, Highland Park, Roselle Park and Spotswood high schools.
“We’re trying to get athletes to come out,” Iannacone said. “I call it ‘juice,’ which is being in the weight room, listening to music and being in an inviting environment.
“I’m an open book. I have no problem talking to kids and about their situations.
“We teach first and we really have to teach the kids our schemes and the why: Why are we doing these things?
“They’re gravitating toward it now. Hopefully, success follows, and then more kids will want to come out.”
Photo Courtesy of Nick Iannacone