Remembering New Orleans legend Johnny Altobello: a coach for all seasons
In Johnny Altobello Jr.’s office is a long wall adorned with plaques, awards, photos, and newspaper clippings marking the legendary coaching career of his late father, Johnny Altobello Sr. It’s hard to imagine that all of this memorabilia could actually represent the career of a single coach.
In fact, all of Altobello’s accomplishments would compare to the accumulation of multiple other coaches. For over 35 years, he was occupied throughout the school term and summer, coaching basketball, baseball, football, and golf for St. Aloysius (now Brother Martin) and De La Salle high school and American Legion teams.
Altobello’s primary sports were basketball and baseball. His team achievements include six city championships and four state championships in basketball for St Aloysius; three city titles and four state titles in baseball for De La Salle; and four state championships, 16 district championships, 18 tournament titles in basketball for the Cavaliers. Most coaches long for just one state championship during their careers. Altobello had 12.
Yet athletics was not all he taught his students. At the time of Altobello’s death in 2009, Mike Kracjer, who played for Altobello from 1965 to 1969 and was later hired by him as an assistant coach, told the Times-Picayune, “He was much more than a coach. He taught us respect, he taught us character, he taught us dedication, and he taught us to be polite to everybody.” Then athletic director at De La Salle, Joe Hines called Altobello “our John Wooden,” in reference to the long-time basketball coach at UCLA, who had a remarkable winning record.
In my recent visit with Altobello Jr., he echoed some of the same sentiments as Kracjer, “While he was coaching, he was also parenting. He was firm, but fair. He gave 100% as a coach, and he expected his players to do the same.”
Larry Scott, former De La Salle athlete and long-time playground supervisor in Jefferson and Orleans parishes, says Altobello didn’t want to be called “Coach Altobello.” He was “Mr. Altobello” to his players. Altobello Jr. confirmed this. “My dad saw himself as an individual who just happened to be a coach.”
When asked what he thought his father was most proud of, considering his extensive coaching career, Altobello Jr. answered, “His players. He wanted them to grow up to be good husbands and fathers. He didn’t care if they ever went on to play in college or the pros.”
A graduate of Warren Easton High School, Altobello played basketball for Loyola University in New Orleans from 1939 to 1942. After serving in the Navy, his first job as a coach was with St. Aloysius, where he spent six years during 1946 to 1952. His 1947 basketball team was selected by the Times-Picayune in 2003 as one of the all-time best prep squads in the New Orleans area.
When he took a job with De La Salle in 1952, the school didn’t have a basketball court and used the gymnasium on weeknights at the Jewish Community Center for practices. The Cavaliers didn’t play a home game until a gym was built at De La Salle a few years later. In 1995, the school honored his career by re-naming the gym the Johnny Altobello Sports Complex.
Altobello finished his basketball coaching career with a record of 589-92, an .865 winning percentage that ranks him among the all-time winningest coaches in Louisiana. One of his star players at De La Salle was Johnny Arthurs, who went on to become a leading scorer for Tulane and play briefly for the NBA Milwaukee Bucks. Altobello Jr. says his father believed Arthurs “had the perfect jump shot.”
His 1959 Cavaliers baseball team won the state prep championship, while the De La Salle-based Perfecto Foods American Legion team captured the state title and advanced to the national regionals. The prep team, which posted a 19-2-1 record, was picked by the Times-Picayune in 2003 as a Top 10 all-time baseball team from the New Orleans area. Altobello baseball teams compiled record of 629-202, for a remarkable .759 winning percentage.
Several of the players from Altobello’s prep and Legion baseball teams went on to play professionally, including standouts John Morreale, Allan Montreuil, Gerry Schoen, Jimmy Harwell, Lloyd Fourroux, Wayne Pietro, Charles Bordes, Al Ryan, and Kevin Jeansonne, among others.
Arthurs also played baseball under Altobello. He says the coach utilized different approaches for the two sports. “In basketball, Mr. Altobello’s approach was straightforward, ‘Run my offense and hustle on defense.’ He was a motivator. In baseball, he was more of a tactician. He was a thinker on the field, with more strategy required. He was a great teacher of the game.”
Whatever his approach was, it must have worked. Altobello’s teams never had a losing record.
His accomplishments in both basketball and baseball didn’t go unnoticed by college teams looking for new coaching talent. The Times-Picayune reported that Murray State College in Kentucky made a serious run at him to coach basketball there. Altobello Jr. says his father turned down a job offer to coach baseball at Tulane. “For my dad, it wasn’t about the money,” his son said. “He preferred to help young men develop, as opposed to coaching prima donnas at the college level.”
Altobello Jr. recalled one of his favorite stories about his father. “My dad was once thrown out of a baseball game after arguing with an umpire over a controversial call. He never cursed an umpire but on one occasion I heard him sternly tell the umpire, ‘After the game I’ll give you the name of my optometrist because yours is obviously not doing his job.’ My dad got tossed.”
Altobello retired from coaching in 1970. He continued on the school’s faculty until 1974 after which he became athletic director, a role he kept until 1985.
When De La Salle dedicated its 2010 Fall Sports program in memory of Altobello, ’59 Cavalier alum John Chavanne paid tribute to the legendary coach with a sentimental poem titled, “John J. Altobello – A Coach For All Seasons.” That’s how he’ll always be remembered.
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New Orleans baseball historian
Richard Cuicchi, Founder of the Metro New Orleans Area Baseball Player Database and a New Orleans area baseball historian, maintains TheTenthInning.com website. He also authored the book, Family Ties: A Comprehensive Collection of Facts and Trivia About Baseball’s Relatives. He has contributed to numerous SABR-sponsored Bio Project and Games Project books.