Beloved offensive line coach Gene Zinni remembered


Emily Niman/ The Record

Gene Zinni coached football at the University at Buffalo and Buffalo State.

Emily Niman, Associate News Editor

The scoreboard read 36-16 as people gathered in SUNY Buffalo State’s Houston Gym to remember the life and legacy of SUNY Buffalo State offensive line coach Gene Zinni. Zinni was born May 1, 1936, and died February 25, 2016. The hyphen in between 36 and 16 on the scoreboard meant more than a separation between numbers. According to Director of Athletics Jerry Boyes, the hyphen represented the life, memories and experiences of Zinni.

“Today, we gather to celebrate the life and legacy of Coach Gene Zinni, a man who devoted his professional career of nearly six decades to this great sport we call football,” Boyes said. “As we listen, we will laugh, maybe shed a tear, it is my hope however, that if we do cry, it’s not because his life with us has ended, but rather, it is because his life was kept and we were fortunate enough to share it with him, so, let’s celebrate the life of Gene Zinni.”

The memorial service started out with a heartwarming speech from former coach Chuck Huber.

“We mourn Gene because he has passed and now is a time to express because Gene lived,” Huber said. “We are better people because of his good works and ways. At times, all of us will be reminded in the future of him, some of us every day will think about Gene. I know every time I see someone block I think, ‘You block with your feet and steer with your hands.’”

It was evident through the stories how passionate and committed to football Zinni truly was.

Huber described Zinni’s morning ritual of waking up at 5 a.m. to take care of his horses before coming to campus to coach football, which according to senior Buffalo State center Jake Lipowski, Zinni used as an excuse for his truck taking up two spaces – this comment causing the crowd to burst out in laughter.

The Kensington Lions, a team which Zinni was closely involved with, holds a football classic each year. The classic is believed to be the single biggest amateur event in Western New York – more than 3,500 all-stars have played in this game over the years—and between $500,000 and $750,000 has been raised and distributed locally for the good of others. This year, the 45th game and the program will now be dedicated in honor of Zinni.

After Huber’s speech, Joe Shifflet, a former coach and friend of Zinni’s for 60 years, spoke.

“I know for a fact he would not want anyone to mourn his death, but rather celebrate his life,” Shifflet said.

The stories shared brought laughter, tears and smiles to the audience. Some stories were funny, some were embarrassing and some were inspiring. Each one gave a better insight to the life of Zinni and the legacy he left behind.

One story that resonated with the audience was the story of how Zinni managed to coach for the University at Buffalo despite being paralyzed from the waist down for four weeks due to Guillain-Barré Syndrome. According to Shifflet, every day, Zinni would ride in a golf cart over from the hospital to the field to be able to coach. Shifflet also emphasized that they did not treat Zinni any differently because of his illness. Zinni worked hard and was dedicated to coaching and football.

“It’s hard to find someone more passionate about football than Gene Zinni,” Shifflet said.

“We are going to miss him, and if I know Gene, I know he’s probably looking for a football team to coach up in heaven,” Shifflet joked.

Lipowski spoke next.

“He was a coach and a man I would characterize with words such as genuine, classy, passionate and stubborn,” Lipowski said. “There never really was a dull moment around Coach Zinni. On the field, he was always pushing us to be better, commenting after every game. In the classroom, he was almost always having fun and joking around, especially when someone messed up bad on film.”

Lipowski went on to say, “The free time we had to hang out and talk to coach was enjoyable. Listening to his stories, whether it be about the war he served in, his time at UB or as a coach, they were always nice to listen to.”

Next to speak was assistant football coach Christian Ozolins, who approached the podium teary-eyed. As he spoke, his love for Zinni was evident, each sentence resonating in the silent audience intently listening to his words.

“His work ethic was like no other that I’ve seen. He was in the office early and watched film until he couldn’t watch anymore,” Ozolins said. “Coach Zinni impacted many of our lives, not just the offensive line, but everyone that was on the football team. He may not have called you by the right name, but he sure made you feel like you were the most special person in that moment.”

“One of the most important things that I learned from him was that, as a coach, you are a reflection of your players… I look out in the crowd and I see what he has done for not only Buffalo State, but what he has done for Western New York,” Ozolins said. “Right now, he is upstairs teaching players what a ‘tree, tree, tree’ is and how to get into a left-handed stance. He showed me what loyalty is, what professionalism is, and that hard work and staying the course does pay off in the end.”

Ozolins finished his speech with a statement that brought laughter and tears to many in the audience, as they recalled fond memories of Zinni.

“There are a few things that I will dearly miss — hearing the echoing down the hall of ‘You’ve got mail’ from his AOL account, breakfast sandwiches – Zinni still owes me one – but most of all, hearing him call me ‘Young wisea–.’”

As Ozolins walked away from the podium, brushing away a tear from his eye, it was evident how much of an impact Zinni has had on the Buffalo State community.

The ceremony ended with the unveiling of a locker dedicated to the remembrance of Zinni and his love for football. Every year, the offensive line at Buffalo State will get to vote on who gets the honor of using the “Gene Zinni Locker.”

According to the program, when Zinni was asked about his coaching career not long before his passing, he said, “I have cherished the lasting friendships I have made throughout my career with other coaches and the players. It has been a great ride.”

“Coach Zinni coached football until the very end, what a great script,” Boyes said. “He is now coaching the angels upstairs how to duck walk.”

Boyes ended the ceremony with the statement, “We gather here today, to not say goodbye, but rather to say see you later.”

Zinni cared greatly for football and the Buffalo State community, and he will be dearly missed.


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