Tom Bonfigli ’75 has racked up more than 750 wins coaching basketball at a California high school. He's only had three losing seasons. But one night could have ended it all.
In the pocket of Tom Bonfigli ’75 are 18 prayer cards. They are tattered, yellowing, frayed at the edges. He reads from the cards—or rather recites their prayers, no reading necessary—every day. The words are memorized, called upon as needed.
“I always went to Mass, but not daily,” Bonfigli says, referencing his six weekly visits to 6 a.m. Mass. On Sundays, he allows himself to sleep in and attend the 7 a.m. service. “With alcoholism, you are never cured. If you are going to be able to function, you need a higher power.”
Bonfigli is precise, a numbers guy. He coaches basketball and remembers every game and every date. Last year, the number 12 became important. His 752 career wins at Cardinal Newman High School put him in the top 12 for wins among high school boys basketball coaches in California. A few more numbers: 13 North Bay League championships in 23 years at Cardinal Newman, 21 wins per season in 35 years.
Of all of the dates, figures, and stats, one day plays an outsized role: March 10, 1995. The day Bonfigli drank and drove himself straight into Sonoma County Jail, arrested for DUI.
A longtime party guy, Bonfigli hit his proverbial rock bottom and looked to the Church for guidance. He prayed to the Blessed Mother: If she helped him quit alcohol, he would help her children. Teach them. Coach them. Be faithful. Bonfigli says he heard an answer and kept his pledge. He has not had a drink in 22 years.
Bonfigli doesn’t shy away from talking about his struggle, saying it’s a way of teaching. In fact, his students have been part of his strength. The rosary he carries with his prayer cards was a gift from a student.
Darryl Vice, Cardinal Newman junior varsity basketball coach, was one of those students: a starting guard from 1983 to 1985. That was in the thick of Bonfigli’s troubles. Even as a player, he heard stories about his coach.
“With high school kids, it’s really tough to pull the wool over their eyes,” Vice said. “When I was playing, it never got in the way of what he was trying to do.”
Bonfigli described himself as a functional alcoholic at the time. But functioning isn’t enough.
“When I was drinking, I was not the person I wanted to be around my kids all of the time,” he says. “Now, 95 percent of the time, I am the person I want to be around them.”
OLD SCHOOL HOOPS
For Bonfigli, teaching basketball means mastering the basics. It’s been the same for decades. You play against Cardinal Newman and you’re going to reckon with a stifling defense and constant motion on offense. Old school? That’s fine by him.
“It’s the bounce pass, it’s the way you stand, it’s the way you close out, it’s the way you box out,” says longtime assistant and brother, Jerry Bonfigli. “If the ball is loose and you’re not diving on the floor, then we’re doing some laps.”
Colleagues say no one spends more time in preparation than Bonfigli. But Bonfigli says his focus is teaching kids to do the right thing. If he does that, the wins will come, and they have. Cardinal Newman has twice vied for the state championship under Bonfigli and had just three losing seasons. Ever.
His responsibilities have evolved over the years. He has become more than just a basketball coach or teacher, which makes it more meaningful. “Now you are a psychologist, sociologist, you are a troubleshooter,” Bonfigli says. “In some cases, you are the most important person in their life.”
Bonfigli has counseled and served as sponsor for former players and colleagues, including Vice. Eight years ago, Vice’s wife reached out to Bonfigli, and the coach helped his former player become sober.
“He was a father figure when I was a kid, but now it’s more like a big brother,” Vice says. “He’s been through some of the same things.”
Sobriety has led Bonfigli to wear his spirituality on his sleeve. He says a prayer with students before class. His teams go to chapel before, and say a prayer after, every game.
“At Catholic school you don’t have to be Catholic, but you need to be a better person,” he says.
Bonfigli will keep coaching and teaching as long as he has the will. When he retires, he will continue mentoring to remain true to his promise. “I am imperfect, but I’m closer to what I want to be. I’ve committed the last half of my life not to happiness but to serenity. I have suffered through some heartache and made some really bad mistakes, but this is a catharsis—like walking through fire.”
KERRY BENEFIELD writes for the Santa Rosa Press Democrat.