TROY — His voice cracked just a wee bit.
His wife, Tina, detected it and broke into a smile.
John Audino talked a lot about football and athletic facilities and coaching high school kids on Tuesday morning, but perhaps the most revealing moment of a press conference at La Salle Institute came when he mentioned that he and his wife would be home again.
After two years as Al Bagnoli’s assistant at Columbia University in New York, Audino has returned to the place where he reinforced Union College’s reputation as a Division III football stronghold. La Salle announced Audino as its new head coach, along with phase 1 of a facilities upgrade that will include a new turf field and track around it.
The 64-year-old Albany native compiled a 152-89 record in 24 seasons at Union before retiring in the wake of an 0-10 season in 2015. He has coached many La Salle graduates over the years, and said he looks forward to rebuilding the program, after having helped Bagnoli turn Columbia, for years not much more than a punch line in college football, into an 8-2 team last season.
“Some may say I’m taking a gamble, but basically I think that the support is here, I think there is going to be opportunity here and my job is take a little bit younger group, mold them together, get them to play as a team and flip the culture to be as competitive as we can be,” Audino said.
He replaces Gary Lauver, whose Cadets went 1-6 last season and had a hard time filling a varsity roster.
La Salle athletic director Andrew Santandera said that, between bringing in a coach with Audino’s reputation and record, along with the prospect of new athletic facilities, has already sparked interest in football at the school.
He began having discussions with Audino about coming to La Salle three years ago, right around the same time that the idea of a campus upgrade made sense, in order for La Salle to remain competitive for enrollment with public schools, many of which have built all-weather turf fields.
“The varsity started with a roster in the high 20s, then we had some season-ending injuries and we were into the low 20s at the end of the year,” Santandera said. “So the numbers are struggling. I think next year we have about 35 kids already committed, with the energy in the building.
“For both of them [developments] to happen at the same time is very surreal, and I’m very happy and very proud that John Audino is going to be the first coach to coach on that field.”
Audino has been a mainstay of the Capital Region football community for decades, going all the way back to his days as an assistant to Bob Ford at the University at Albany, followed by a stint as Bagnoli’s assistant at Union, which reached Division III’s national championship game, the Amos Alonzo Stagg Bowl, in 1983.
As head coach of the Dutchmen, Audino guided the team to five NCAA playoff apearances, four Liberty League titles and five ECAC northwest championships.
“One of the attractive features of coming back to the area is that I’m from the area, as many of you know. This is home,” Audino said. “And it’s really exciting, because, as a Capital District native, I get to do my craft and be with my family, which is the most important thing to me. This area is very dear to my heart.
“It was a difficult decision because I’ve been a college football coach for 41 years. But when I sat back and looked at the opportunity to come back to the area and work with the fine people of La Salle and be a representative of La Salle, it really was an easy decision.”
Because Audino has coached kids from La Salle, founded in 1850 as an all-male Catholic college prep school with a disinct military component, he said he knows to expect his players to be disciplined and coachable.
That will give his new team some built-in foundation to work with.
“This is the kind of place where maybe you can do some things people don’t expect,” he said. “And it’s not all about talent. It’s about effort and accountability and team.
“One thing I learned [at Columbia] is that patience is really important, that baby steps can’t be measured all the time, but if you put one step in front of the other and keep walking and advancing, that sooner or later, if you believe in what you’re doing, it’ll come to fruition. We took over a program that lost 20 straight games, and we were 8-2 last year. The kids bought in, and that’s what we’re going to try to create here.”
Also at the press conference was former Christian Brothers Academy and Syracuse University star David Byrd, now a personal trainer who has branched into sports performance and will help Audino in some capacity.
He is well familiar with the Audino legacy and what it can bring to La Salle, having participated in Audino’s football camps at Union when Byrd was in high school.
“I didn’t go anywhere else. I didn’t go out to Syracuse, I didn’t go out to Penn State or any of those places,” Byrd said. “I went to Union College, right around the corner from my house in Schenectady. That was all I needed. They had plenty of instruction, the coaches knew what they were talking about and they were respectable.”