As a senior at Lutheran High School, Jodee Pulizzano was still mulling over her future career choices. She and her parents were both thinking computer science at the time, because of her proficiency. But, one day, Pulizzano had an epiphany.
Her high school volleyball team wasn’t doing so well, so she went to her coach at the time and made a suggestion.
“I said, ‘Did you ever think of moving so-and-so to the front when this girl was in this position?’ ” Pulizzano recalled. And a coach was born.
“I knew I wanted to go into coaching because I wanted to finagle the lineup,” she said.
Now Pulizzano is in her 24th season as the head coach of the Ben Franklin Falcons, a job she sort of fell into just out of college. She has survived generations of the best and brightest high school students in the city, school board shakeups, Hurricane Katrina, a firing attempt and more state tournaments than she might be able to count. But on Oct. 2, it all came to fruition when Ben Franklin defeated Grace King in three games 25-12, 25-22, 25-9. It was Pulizzano’s 700th victory.
“All at Franklin,” Pulizzano said. “That’s what’s special. I understand what that means.”
What it means is Pulizzano is one of the longest-lived and most successful coaches in the New Orleans Metro area and, indeed, the nation. Last week’s win puts Pulizzano in the top 30 on the National High School Federation’s list of winningest active coaches. In her tenure at the Lakefront magnet school, Pulizzano’s teams have won six state championships (1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2002, 2003) and have been runner-up twice (1997, 2004). In her transition from high school player to high school coach, she has seen the game go from the old P.E. ball to the high-powered, crowd-thrilling game of today.
And Ben Franklin has become one of the city’s elite teams with a fan base that is extraordinary. Falcons fans routinely fill the Pontchartrain Center when Franklin plays, often wearing costumes and t-shirts bearing messages that are well over the heads of the average fan. On Thursday, a group of boys painted her name on their chests (her first name), and several fans waved fans made of photos of Pulizzano’s face. After the win, she was showered with confetti and handed a bouquet of flowers as the cheerleaders unfurled a huge “700” banner. And there were “700 Wins” t-shirts.
“And it happened at a school like Franklin, a public school,” she said. “How cool is that? These kids don’t come here to play sports. Everything has changed so much. When I got to Franklin, they were terrible. I got to the gym and there were these old cement tire poles and a sagging net and the kids are wearing socks on their arms. I was 21 years old. I walked in and they all thought I was there to try out.”
It was Franklin’s mother, Dianne, who told her to take the job.
“She said, ‘You take that job,’ Pulizzano recalled. ‘Those are the best kids you will ever have and if you are a good coach you should be able to get them to do what you want.’ ”
The first thing she had to do was get them to stop studying so much on the bench.
“These kids are so smart they can learn anything,” Pulizzano said. “I mean, every once in a while you get lucky and have a kid come along that’s just a stud player, but that doesn’t happen very often.”
One of those players was Claire Tucker Buckley, a two-time state champion who graduated in 2005.
“I’m surprised it didn’t come sooner,” Buckley said. “It’s pretty amazing that she has coached that long and to do it all at one school, that’s pretty special. A lot of things (make her special). Mostly, her focus on teamwork. She used to always tell us, ‘You’re only as strong as your weakest link.’ So, whenever anyone would start playing like an individual instead of as part of the team, we would be there to remind them. We always played with that mindset.”
With a niece playing volleyball and a nephew playing football and both headed to high school in the somewhat near future, Pulizzano said she is beginning to think about her end game. But she’s not there yet.
“I still love it,” she said. “I still can’t believe I get paid to do something that is so much fun. I love being around the kids. The kids don’t change, just the names change.”