Puffer had great guidance
Conneaut star played for 2 HOFers
By CHRIS LARICK
For the Star Beacon
Not many basketball players can claim to have played for a Hall of Fame coach for five years.
Jeff Puffer (Conneaut High School Class of 1970) is one of them, having played for coach Harry Fails (Ashtabula County Basketball Foundation Hall of Fame, Class of 2005) for that many years, beginning in the eighth grade, as both Puffer and Fails moved up the ladder of playing and coaching.
“Under Harry, we won the NEC (Northeastern Conference) and sectional championships my junior and senior years,” Puffer, whose father, Jerry, will also be inducted into the ACBF Hall of Fame this year, said. “In my junior year, we were 17-5 and beat Ashtabula by two points to move on to the districts. We played St. Joe’s there; we weren’t ready for them.
“My senior year, we went 19-4; the only games we lost were to two Erie teams. In the tournament, we bear Riverside when we were underdogs and Willoughby South when we were heavy underdogs.”
Fails had inherited some very good basketball players when the legendary Andy Garcia (ACBF Hall of Fame, first class) retired. Among them were 6-foot-2 forward Scott Humphrey, who became only the third player in Ashtabula County basketball to score 1,000 points. He entered the ACBF Hall of Fame in 2009. Tim Richards (ACBF Hall of Fame, 2011) was also a member of that team, along with Puffer, Randy Adamick (in Puffer’s junior year), Tom Church and Al Razem. Richards, Razem and Puffer were all guards who stood about 5-11. Six-foot-two John Colson took the graduated Humphrey’s spot in Puffer’s senior year.
Puffer was nearly as slender as his father, Jerry, at 5-11, 130 pounds.
“I think my teammates made me better,” Puffer said. “And I think I made my teammates better. I was a flashy guy. You put the basketball in my hands and I swear I could run faster while dribbling than I could without the ball. People compared me to Pistol Pete Maravich and Larry Bird. I threw behind-the-back passes and no-look passes. If I had the ball and you were open, you got (the ball). If I had the ball, I would dish it off. I was 100 percent totally for the team.
“I think better than all the rewards you can receive was when Scott (Humprhey’s) dad Stan came up to me on the golf course 10-15 years ago and said, ‘Jeff, I have to thank you for all those passes you threw to Scotty.’ That meant more to me than any awards I could have received.”
As good as the Conneaut players were, Fails made them better, Puffer said.
“He was such a smart coach. He taught us everything. We could play the 1-3-1 trap, the matchup zone or man-to-man.”
Fails also thought it would improve his team if it played better competition. So he scheduled scrimmages against Pennsylvania teams like Erie Prep and oft-state champion Farrell, Pa.
“They had all these state (championship) banners hanging there in their gym,” Puffer said. “It got all of us used to obstacles.”
Puffer also credits the Conneaut reserves with making the starters better.
“Those guys showed up every day for practice and helped us get better because they were so tough,” he said. “They would have started on most teams.”
Puffer was selected to the All-NEC and Star Beacon All-Ashtabula County first teams as a senior. He averaged 14.7 points and set a Conneaut record by making 13 (of 16) free throws in a 29-point effort against Harbor. Though assists weren’t kept well at that time, he figures he averaged five or six a game. He shot 45 percent from the field that year.
Playing shortstop on the Spartan baseball team under Fails, he was a “terrific hitter,” batting .454 one year and leading Conneaut to a 22-2 record one year and winning the NEC in the process. The Conneaut American Legion team he played for finished as runner-up in the state, losing to a Cincinnati team.
After graduation in 1970, Puffer went on to Youngstown State, where he was coached by the legendary Dom Rosselli, who coached the Penguins for 38 years and compiled 600 victories. He had gone to Youngstown State as a baseball player, but once he made the basketball team, Rosselli didn’t want him to play baseball.
“He only stood about 4-foot-11,” Puffer said of Rosselli. “I walked on. There were 400 guys who tried out, but I made it.”
Puffer played, though sparingly, as a freshman, then was redshirted the following year. He returned to the team and played from 1972-74.
“I didn’t start a lot of games,” he said. “I worked my way up to a starter in ’72-’73. Then, in winter semester, I got sick and had to sit out. I lost my starting position.”
In Puffer’s senior year at Youngstown, Rosselli brought in several younger players. Puffer didn’t get to play much, but the Penguins did make it to the NCAA Tournament that year.
“That was a lot of fun,” he said.
Puffer graduated from YSU in 1974 with a degree in business administration. He married Gretchen Goodale, whom he had known since he was 4 and she was 2, in 1976.
“We thought we were cousins (at one time), but we were not related,” Puffer said.
The Puffers have two sons, Jeffery, 28, and Scott, 23. Puffer has run an insurance agency in Conneaut Lake, Pa. for the past 24 years. He coached junior high basketball at a number of schools for about 15 years and junior-varsity girls at Conneaut Lake.
“I’ve touched a lot of lives doing that,” he said.
Of his upcoming induction into the ACBF Hall of Fame, he said, “I’m honored, but in another way, humbled. I played with good teammates and good coaches, who weren’t out for themselves but for the team.”