From the wrestling mats of New York State to footprints on the moon, Lou Giani Sr. always soared.
When Giani wasn’t molding state wrestling champions at Huntington High School, he was busy working at Grumman Aerospace Corporation on the Lunar Escape Module (LEM) project for NASA.
Giani died at Visiting Nurse Service & Hospice of Suffolk in Northport, surrounded by family, on Jan. 19 after a four-year battle with pulmonary fibrosis. He was 86.
The Huntington resident was one of Long Island’s most respected wrestlers and represented the United States in the 1960 Olympics. Perhaps his greatest achievement was building Long Island’s greatest mat dynasty in Huntington.
"Coach Giani is a wrestling legend in every aspect of the sport," former East Islip coach Guy Leggio said. "He is the godfather of New York State wrestling. He was a fierce competitor and became an iconic coach. He earned the respect of generations of wrestlers for his guidance and passion for the sport that ultimately helped them become positive role models in society."
Giani was inducted into the National Wrestling Hall of Fame in Stillwater, Oklahoma, in 2003, one of a handful of high school coaches to be so honored.
He was inducted into the Suffolk County Sports Hall of Fame in 1995 and the New York State Wrestling Hall of Fame in 1997.
During his career, he developed 23 Division I state champions — an all-time record for one classification. No other coach matched that total until the state went to two classifications.
"It’s an incredible record that can never be broken unless they go back to one classification," said former assistant coach Jim Hoops, who now serves as the coordinator of physical education and athletics for the Huntington Union Free School District. "Coach Giani was the master of preparation. He could teach a move and break it down into easy-to-understand sequences. He had drilling techniques perfected."
Giani was born in New York City and moved to Huntington in 1949. He graduated in 1953 after becoming Huntington’s first Suffolk wrestling champion, winning the 141-pound weight class.
"We were high school sweethearts and got married right after school," said Rose Giani, his wife of 65 years. "He would eat, drink and sleep wrestling. He worked hard to be a great provider for his family and was a very good father and husband."
Giani was a two-time YMCA national champion in 1958 and 1959 and earned the gold medal at the 1959 Pan-Am Games.
He represented the United States at the 1960 Olympics in Rome (freestyle, 136.5 pounds). He had wins over wrestlers from Italy and Iraq and a loss to an Iranian, at which time he was withdrawn from the Games because of a mastoid infection.
"He was always training for the Olympics and going to school at night," Rose said. "He earned that master’s degree in education from Adelphi College."
After a 19-year career with the Grumman Aerospace Corporation, he went into teaching and coaching.
Giani had a career record of 436-36-1, including 28 undefeated seasons. He briefly coached at Eastern Military Academy before leading Huntington to nine Suffolk titles and crowning 61 individual champions from 1971-2008. The Blue Devils won a Suffolk-record 81 consecutive dual meets from 1995-2004.
"We first met in 1952 on the mat, where our paths crossed a few times," said Gombatista ''Jumper'' Leggio of Bay Shore. "And we traveled the country wrestling for the New York Athletic Club. We became family, the best of friends. We bought land in Gilbertsville and went hunting all the time. I’m going to miss him.
"I saw him last week and he was struggling but I made him laugh," he added. "I said, ‘You’re the only guy I know that lives with his 104-year-old mother-in-law.’ And she [Connie Fusaro] supported him all through the years, always cooking for his wrestlers. Wonderful lady."
Giani loved everything outdoors: hunting, fishing and golf.
"Sitting in a tree stand was his peaceful place," Jumper Leggio said. "He’d be quietly scouting the area and waiting and observing. It was very similar to his coaching style, which was all about scouting an opponent and looking for ways to beat him. He was masterful."
Rose Giani said her husband had a unique touch with his wrestlers, able to connect with each of them.
"He was no-nonsense and kept them all in line," she said. "And they loved him for caring so deeply for them. He was tough and disciplined and knew when a kid really needed him. He was so proud of them as they became doctors, lawyers, law enforcement and military — all walks of life."
He is survived by his sons Lou Giani Jr. (wife Marie) of Huntington, Joe Giani (wife Linda) of Centerport and daughter Rosemarie Canino (husband Tony) of Greenlawn, seven grandchildren and five great- grandchildren.
Visitation is private at the M.A. Connell Funeral Home,934 New York Ave., Huntington Station from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. Sunday. A funeral mass will be held at St. Hugh of Lincoln Church in Huntington Station at 9:30 a.m. Monday. Private burial will follow at St. Patrick’s Cemetery in Huntington.
With Andy Slawson