Former New Canaan basketball coaching legend Don Usher dies

For 19 years from 1977 to 1995, Don Usher’s New Canaan boys basketball teams performed at such a high level, the school’s gymnasium became known as “The House of Usher.”

On Friday nights “it was packed, it was electric, and it was just fabulous and that was all because of Don,” according to longtime New Canaan baseball coach Mark Rearick.

Usher, who led his New Canaan teams to two state finals in the 1980s, died Wednesday at the age of 87 after a battle with cancer.

Usher was remembered by friends and former colleagues as someone who got the most out of his players and teams.

“He was incredibly dedicated to the sport of basketball, to the kids, and to making sure that things were done right,” said Rearick, who was a freshman and junior varsity basketball coach during Usher’s tenure. “You couldn’t help but learn something just by listening to him. Just sit there, keep your mouth shut and keep your eyes and ears open and you’d learn a lot. He was unbelievable.”

“His coaching made that program what it was,” said FCIAC commissioner Dave Schulz, who coached against Usher while at Fairfield High. “He was so into the game and focused on his team being perfect on the floor. You knew they were going to be well-prepared and they were going to play hard because that’s what he demanded. So you had to match that.”

Usher, who served four years in the U.S. Navy before becoming a biology teacher at the University of Bridgeport, came to New Canaan as a teacher and coach in the fall of 1967.

He first coached the freshman basketball program with Bill Murphy as the varsity coach, and was quickly elevated to JV coach the following year. He then took over the varsity team when Murphy retired in 1976.

During the next 19 years, Usher and the Rams won 272 games and remained a consistent playoff presence.

New Canaan qualified for the state tournament 13 times and was the Class LL runner-up in 1980 and 1989. The 1980 team was 24-4, setting a program record for wins which still stands.

Usher was named the New York Daily News Fairfield County Coach of the Year and the Bridgeport Post Class AA Coach of the Year in 1979-80, a CHSCA Outstanding Coach in 1994-95, and is a member of the FCIAC and New Canaan High School Athletic Halls of Fame.

In December, 2018, New Canaan, now coached by Danny Melzer, held Don Usher Night in honor of the former coach. The Rams won that game, kicking off a season in which they won their first state championship since 1962. It was New Canaan’s first appearance in a state final since Usher’s 1989 team accomplished the feat.

“He’s one of the best coaches that I’ve ever seen as far as controlling a game,” New Canaan football coach Lou Marinelli said. “He always had his kids in position to win. He was one of the best coaches I’ve ever seen at any level. He was very, very smart and he was tough and demanding but fair. Just a wonderful, wonderful man.”

Usher also joined Marinelli’s football coaching staff as an offensive line coach.

“When he said he was interested in coaching football for us, I was thrilled,” Marinelli said. “He was able to teach me a lot, not about the Xs and Os of football, but about how to get the best out of kids, which he was very skillful at.”

The Rams’ run to the 1989 state final is one of the more famous sports stories in New Canaan.

The No. 27 seed, New Canaan knocked off No. 6 Stamford and No. 11 Southington in the first two rounds before beating No. 3 Hamden, which was led by Scott Burrell, 73-68 in the quarterfinals.

The Rams then defeated No. 2 Weaver 56-54 in the semifinals, before falling to No. 1 Danbury 78-76 in the Class LL final, as New Canaan nearly erased a 17-point first half deficit.

Rearick said the combination of Usher and former Ram great Wilky Gilmore “revitalized the basketball program in New Canaan. Don’s teams would win and on Friday night’s there were signs all over the place that said ‘Welcome to the House of Usher.’ The gym was literally packed with stands open on both sides.”

Above all, Rearick said Usher focused on three important things.

“Get the most of your potential, have a successful team, and have fun being a part of a team,” Rearick said. “Even if you’re the 15th man off the bench, you can still be an important part of the team and contribute. That’s one of the things that’s lost nowadays — having fun just being part of a team.

“Don believed that and was just magical with what he could do.”; @dstewartsports