The meetings were held over a two to three year period starting in 1958, at the former Kunkels restaurant in Bridgeport, not far from Central High School.

It was there a group that included athletic directors, coaches and principals from several high schools throughout Fairfield County convened periodically. Their agenda: solve the mutual problems of scheduling, assigning of officials and other administrative duties that were being done with handshake deals and little organization.

"These guys were very serious and anxious to get a league going and were determined to do it," recalled John Kuczo, who used to chauffeur his father, Paul, a renowned coach at Stamford High School, after he had suffered a stroke.

What emerged, in 1961, was a 12-school league that extended from Fairfield to Greenwich, and up to Danbury.

Now, 50 years later, the Fairfield County Interscholastic Athletic Conference has expanded to 19 members and emerged as a model of excellence in Connecticut, with a collective 839 state championship trophies and 356 runners-up crowns. Renowned athletes like Bobby Valentine, Kristine Lilly and Steve Young turned the national spotlight to this area, which usually garners more attention for its tony towns than sports accomplishments.

"I have a lot of pride in this," said Kuczo, who will turn 75 in June and has served as the FCIAC's executive secretary since 1978. "You look back and what the vision was, and what the league has become. I'm very proud of it."

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The original members included Brien McMahon, Darien, Danbury, Greenwich, New Canaan, Norwalk, the former Rippowam High School, Stamford, Staples and what were then known as Andrew Warde, Roger Ludlowe and Stamford Catholic.

"It was a great league even to start out with," Kuczo said. "Schedules were made up by chairpersons. The stability was much greater after the league was formed. They all played for one another."

Something special in the making

Laddie Lawrence is one of the league's longest-tenured coaches, starting his 44th season this spring with the boys track and cross country programs at Staples. When the FCIAC was formed, Lawrence attended the school.

"You didn't realize as a student that you had a brand new league," Lawrence said. "You didn't realize the history or the development. Cross country and track were different. You had all dual meets so there were a lot of them. It certainly has grown a lot."

The league split into two divisions based on male enrollment in 1966. During that first decade, Stamford schools were the center of power.

"There were just some great athletes at that time," said Kuczo, who was the coaching track at Rippowam. "There were people like Bobby Valentine, Nick Wright and Ed Lane. The competition between Stamford Catholic, Stamford and Rippowam was unbelievable, just phenomenal. Stamford had 2,000 kids and was one of the most powerful schools in the state."

The very first FCIAC football championship is arguably the most famous event in league history. A crowd of 11,000 people crammed Boyle Stadium in 1966 to watch Stamford Catholic, which was quarterbacked by Rick Robustelli, the eldest child of NFL Hall of Famer Andy Robustelli, pull away in the second half to defeat Rippowam and its star, Valentine.

"I remember being a freshman and making an FCIAC team and I had no idea what it meant," said Valentine, who was highly recruited to play college football, chose baseball and enjoyed a major league career that was shortened by a broken leg after crashing into a fence. He has gone on to a successful managing career and is about to start his first season leading the Red Sox.

"Three years later I was playing at Boyle Stadium," Valentine said. "I still have the program. It is one of my greatest memories, the size of the crowd, the excitement and it was a good game for a half. It is still talked about so often."

As the decade came to a close, the first in a series of several major changes occurred. Trumbull joined the league in 1969, and Westhill, Wilton and Ridgefield followed two years later. An entire girls program that had been part of what was known as the WFCIAC was fully incorporated. The two divisions were realigned to account for the expansion and were based on geography. And in 1975, the FCIAC legislative body restructured the constitution to what remains its current format.

Restructuring

Two events three years apart forced the league to retrench for the first time. Rippowam closed in the spring of 1983 and then Ludlowe and Warde consolidated to become Fairfield High School. In 1990 the two divisions were restructured based on total school enrollment.

What was perhaps the most controversial decision in league history took part during the winter of 1994, when the league principals agreed to admit Central, Warren Harding and Bassick after the dissolution of the old MBIAC league. St. Joseph was added in the fall of 1995 to give the FCIAC 18 schools that were split into three divisions.

The admission of the Bridgeport schools was a somewhat divisive issue played out in the media. Some were outspoken that the schools would add little competitively except in boys basketball. Others expressed security concerns.

Administrators, said Kuczo, were close to unanimity about the move.

"Quite frankly there was not much debate," Kuczo said. "Nobody would play them. They promised to bring their level of sports up to the level of the league. I don't think there has been one incident of safety. Their facilities leave a little bit to be desired. There have been some frustrating things. One is fulfilling the promise. They are a few miles away from doing that. It is what it is. The city is broke and has no money. The coaches and kids have been very good."

The final change came in 2004, when Fairfield split back into what are now known as Fairfield Warde and Fairfield Ludlowe, leaving the league with 19 schools.

Achieving glory

The FCIAC Hall of Fame currently has 89 members, including founding fathers like Paul Kuczo, Frank Dornfeld and Joe Sikorski, luminary leaders like Staples football coach Paul Lane and soccer coach Albie Loeffler, Mickey Lione at Stamford Catholic, Jack Hagen at Stamford, current Stamford schools interim superintendent Winnie Hamilton at Westhill, Bill Mongovan at Greenwich, the former New Canaan athletic director Vinny Iovino, the late official Nick Koules and Valentine, the lone athlete.

New Canaan is the leader with 132 state titles, followed by Greenwich (103), Darien (101) and Staples (100).

There have been a number of dynasties, most notably the Greenwich boys swim program, which has 41 league titles in the last 42 years, the Danbury wrestling team, with 24 of the last 25 championships, the Darien volleyball program, with 18 of the last 19 titles, and the Greenwich girls swim team, which has gone 26 for the last 28.

There have been schools that have sustained excellence to the point that they are associated with certain sports, like Staples and boys soccer, to more recent ones like Trinity Catholic and boys basketball.

As the league begins its second half century, a new generation is ready to start playing more prominent roles, like Westhill athletic director Mike King, who is the second vice president and head of the girls basketball committee.

"I've really enjoyed it because it has given me the opportunity to become more involved in league-wide decisions and to see how the league functions," King said. "I think one reason the league has done so well in state tournaments is because teams are prepared by the stiff competition they face on a daily basis."

Kuczo, who said he has no immediate plans to give up a job he still loves, said there were still a number of future plans for improvement. The league has been frustrated by the inability to attract a 20th member, which would solve scheduling problems, particularly in football, and not leave teams looking to scramble to fill byes in all sports.

And in a time of decreasing school budgets, Kuczo would like to see the FCIAC continue to deliver even greater opportunities.

"Maybe some expansion into other sports," he said. "I can see in the future water polo and rugby. A lot are club sports and usually financed by the parents."

Whatever the future holds, the FCIAC will continue to service its several thousand student-athletes, some who will find high school to be the end of their competitive careers, many who will go onto play in college, and all who will continue to dream of being the next Bobby Valentine.

"I was All-FCIAC in several sports and the memories are great," Valentine recalled. "I know the FCIAC will look to continue to grow and continue to build memories for other athletes."

dave.ruden@scni.com; Twitter: @DaveRuden