Mark Nofri just completed his fifth year as head coach at Sacred Heart University. An assistant on the staff for many years, Coach Nofri became interim head coach in 2012. After going 2-9 in his first season, SHU responded with 10-3 and 9-3 records, respectively, the next two years. Coach Nofri recently talked to AFM about his career, his priorities when he became a head coach and his successful battle with cancer.
#1 – You were an assistant coach at SHU before becoming head coach. What are the major adjustments you had to make when named head coach?
The first thought that comes to mind is that is very different being an assistant than it is being a head coach. You think you’re ready to become a head coach, but when you actually get into that seat, it is totally different than you thought. One of the major adjustments is making sure you are connecting with all the players in the program, and not just the position you coach or that side of the ball.
You want to get to know them all and what makes each player tick. You are constantly thinking of things to help your program grow overall – in season, out-of-season, off the field things. Anything that can help your team get an edge, and not just the position group you coach. I think the biggest thing is you are now responsible for the whole team, all the coaches and their well-being, the support staff and everyone that has a hand in your program. You are the leader and you must make sure everyone is on the same page and doing their job to your expectations.
#2 – What was it like being named interim head coach in 2012? Were you surprised?
I was surprised at the time because the head coach became very sick and as a staff had no idea that he was suffering health issues. That was the biggest surprise to me. We did not know what was going to happen to him or how long he was going to be out. I was very thankful that the university and administration gave me the opportunity to step in and lead the program.
#3 – What were your immediate priorities after becoming full time head coach?
I would say making sure I had a good staff in place. A group that had a lot of the same ideas and values that I believe in. Also, letting the players know that our door as coaches is always open and whatever issue or concerns they have, they can come see us at any time. I tell them all the
time, I can’t help you unless you communicate with me the problem. If I can’t help there are plenty of people on our campus that are outstanding individuals who can and will help when asked. Sacred Heart University is a special place, and I believe it comes from the people that work here and the support they show toward all the students here on campus. Our President, Dr. Petillo, has done a great job making sure we are here for the students and our job as educators is to make sure they are taken care of, first and foremost.
#4 – How important is your strength and conditioning program to the success of your football program?
To me it is one of the most important hires a head coach can make. I believe the strength coach and head football coach have to have a great relationship, and share the same ideas about discipline, work ethic and overall well-being of the student-athletes. I can honestly say my strength coach, Chris Fee, is one of the best and I am lucky to have him here at SHU. We communicate all the time, exchanging ideas, and are always talking about the team and where we are at as a program. I lean on my strength coach all the time in regards to everything involved in my football program.
#5 – In recruiting for the program, what are the priorities you require from a student-athlete?
First, we want high character kids that are coachable and have no discipline problems back at their high school. We like to recruit student-athletes that love football, and that are willing to do the extra things to make the team better. I always tell kids when we recruit them, ‘I like kids that play with that chip on their shoulder.’ They might not be the fastest, strongest or biggest, but they will sell out for SHU football, and when the game is on the line, I know I can count on that kid to succeed. My staff does a great job of finding the right fit for our program, and they continue to develop guys that are successful on and off the field for SHU.
#6 – You were diagnosed with colon cancer in 2014. How difficult was it to have treatments and continue coaching and how are you doing today? How was the idea of the ‘Coach Nof Tackles Cancer’ campaign born?
It was very difficult for me. I couldn’t believe at age 45 I was diagnosed with stage 3 colon cancer. You always think it will never happen to you, and then you find out you have it at a very young age, it threw me and my family for a loop. It makes you stop and realize what is important to you, and never take anything for granted. The scariest thing is the unknown. Am I going to make it? Did it spread anywhere else? Will it come back? What does this mean for the future and my health going forward?
I did treatments for seven months every other Monday. I did not handle the chemo very well. It took its toll on me and was very sick three days a week, after each treatment. I didn’t stop coming into work or coaching on the field. I felt awful, but in my mind I felt better because I was staying active and not sitting around feeling sorry for myself. Physically it was really tough, but being around the team and my coaches, and seeing the support I received from my family and colleagues, made me feel a lot stronger and it made me feel like I was going to beat cancer with all the support I had. Today I still have scans every 3 months, blood work done once every month and a colonoscopy once a year. I feel fine and continue to have check-ups and appreciate all the support I had while going through chemo.
Chris O’Connor came up with the idea of ‘Nof Tackles Cancer’ and it took off. Last year we were able to raise some money for colon cancer at one of our games. He has helped me spread the word about colon cancer awareness, and the fact it can happen to anyone at any time, and the importance of getting checked. Chris has been helpful with this campaign, and he is open to whatever I feel comfortable doing.
Here is the link for the colon cancer alliance: