Pictured: Middletown coach Rick Privott, with former Blue Dragon Donte Pope during a February 2020 game in New Britain, won 105 games in seven seasons. (Photo by Paul Augeri)
By Paul Augeri
Rick Privott, who returned the Middletown High boys basketball program to prominence during the last decade, will not be returning for an eighth season.
Privott, who retired several years ago, will be relocating to North Carolina this fall, he said Saturday. He informed his players of his decision in the last week. Middletown posted the job opening to the CIAC’s website on Wednesday and is accepting applications through Monday.
“It’s sad to walk away, but this is a good thing for me and my wife,” he said. “My wife and I have always planned to relocate to the Charlotte area. It’s the only reason I’m leaving. It was going to be sooner, but with the (pandemic), we put it off and put it off.”
The Blue Dragons’ rotation is returning nearly intact this with seniors Elijah Wilborn, Matt Steuerwald, Chace Petgrave and Daryion Drake and junior Marshall Butler.
“Hopefully they got enough from me and hopefully I’ve done enough that they’ll give the next coach everything they gave to me,” said Privott, who also coached Middletown’s boys tennis team. “Whoever the next coach is, is getting a great bunch of kids and student-athletes. They should do great things.”
Middletown won 10 of 14 games during a pandemic-shortened 2021 season that began in February, two months later than a normal season would start. A state tournament wasn’t held for the second straight year because of COVID.
“I’m already missing the preparation, getting my sleeves rolled up, getting the schedule done, which will be loaded as usual,” said Privott. “I’m going to miss the guys and miss the coaches. It’ll be different. I’ve been at it a long time.”
Privott’s history with Middletown basketball began in mid-to-late 1970s when Middletown was a two-school city with the MHS Tigers and Woodrow Wilson Wildcats. He played guard for coach Tom LaBella when the Tigers were in the midst of winning 80 consecutive games and three state championships in a row.
Photos of those teams and a rundown of The Streak are encased and showcased just outside the entry doors to LaBella-Sullivan Gymnasium. Privott is in those photos.
“Each season I took the kids out to the hallway and told them, ‘This is it. This is your history right here,” he said. “When I was a kid playing ball, we looked up to the Teddy Hathaways, the Wilbur Popes. We cherished those guys and they taught us so much.
“I want these kids to understand that this is the history here and this is what you can achieve by working hard and working together, that you too, have the ability to get to this point.”
Privott, who leaves with a career record of 105-42 as coach, was promoted to succeed Dave Sytulek beginning with the 2014-15 season. The program was in good shape at that time, coming off a 14-win campaign, but Privott took the Dragons to a higher level.
The Blue Dragons won 20 games in his first season and reached the 2015 Class L quarterfinals as the No. 2 seed. The following year, Middletown was the third seed entering the Class L tournament and made it to the championship game, losing to East Catholic. The Dragons finished 22-3.
Privott’s 2016-17 squad again won 20 games before getting knocked out in the Class L semifinal round.
“I knew we had quality kids, but the heart and determination those kids had, you can’t replace moments like that,” he said of the 62-10 run over those seasons. “Middletown has been great to me as a player, the community was great to grow up in and spend my entire life in.
“To get the opportunity to coach at the school you played for, it’s just amazing. And to have the success right away that we had, I will always cherish that.”
Donte Pope, a senior forward on the 2019-2020 team that finished 15-5, said he appreciated Privott pushing him to improve in all facets of the game. Pope now plays for Division III Emmanuel College in Boston.
“He’s definitely helped me as a player mentally,” Pope said. “He pushed me to become more of a leader as time passed and to actually help me make others better around me. And overall he definitely did a lot for the culture of the team. Being a Middletown native, he helped bring us together as a team.”
Privott’s one regret? That his last three years did not experience the state tournament. The 2018-19 squad finished 7-13, missing qualification by one win.
With COVID, players and coaches alike are going to have to learn to adjust, Privott said.
“It’s sad for the students, the student-athletes, the coaching staff, but it is our new norm,” he said, “so we have to make those adjustments. I’m just happy to have had a season last year. Thank God everybody came out of it OK. This year, with everything spiking again, who knows what’s going to take place. You already have had student-athletes in other sports who didn’t have a senior year. But we’ve got to stay safe. It is what is it. You have to make adjustments and keep people safe. Life goes on.”
Privott worked with a young coaching staff and believes any of the three – Corey Gordon Sr., Matt Harris or Kareem Grant – are more than ready to make the jump to head coach.
“Without a doubt, I would love to see that happen for one of them,” he said. “I’ve worked very closely with Corey Gordon. We were working together under Dave Sytulek when Corey relocated to Virginia. But he came back, and instead of saying ‘I need a salary,’ he volunteered his time with the kids. He loves the game of basketball. And Kareem and Matt are both capable of leading this program. They are good, quality coaches that I would pass the reins on to without hesitation.”