Ernie Modugno, Collier's longest-tenured AD, retiring after 33 years at Naples High

Adam Fisher
Naples Daily News

There were many mornings in the past 33 years when Ernie Modugno could have hit the snooze button.

Because of his job as athletic director at Naples High School, Modugno spent many late nights at the field or at the gym, and no one would have faulted him for getting to work a little late the next day.

But no matter how deep into the night the Golden Eagles played, Modugno always made a point to be at school bright and early the next day.

“I’m a very competitive person. I wouldn’t want to think anyone is outworking me,” Modugno said. “It was always important for me to be here before 7 each morning regardless of how late I was up (the night before). I always go back to the kids – if they’re expected to be here, then I should be here.”

Naples High School athletic director Ernie Modugno poses for a portrait, Wednesday, June 9. 2021, at Naples High School. Modugno is retiring after 33 years as athletic director  40 years at the school. He is the longest-tenured AD in Collier County.

Modugno’s drive and passion led Naples’ athletic programs to countless wins and hundreds of championship trophies in his three-plus decades.

Those qualities also made Modugno a Hall of Fame AD. And they’re also why he’ll be so dearly missed by his coaches and co-workers.

On Friday, Modugno will be at his desk bright and early for the final time. After 33 years as the Eagles’ AD and 40 years at the school, Modugno, 67, is retiring.

The role of athletic director is a grind. ADs work 40 hours a week as a school administrator during the day, then attend sporting events most evenings. And unlike a coach, there is no offseason. In Collier County, the official job title is “activities coordinator” because ADs oversee all extracurricular programs, not just sports.

Ernie Modugno, Naples High School athletic director

That leads to turnover in the position. Of the 15 high schools in Collier County with varsity sports, only three ADs other than Modugno have been in the job for longer than seven years.

Modugno has been at Naples twice as long as the second-longest tenured AD in Collier County, Pete Seitz, who’s been the AD at Golden Gate for 17 years.

Modugno said he’s lasted so long because he loves the work and loves Naples High, which has allowed him to approach his job differently.

“It’s not really a job; it’s a lifestyle,” Modugno said. “Some people work really well in that lifestyle. Other people treat it as a job and it doesn’t work out well.

“You adapt to it. You’re not on a regular eating schedule, not on a regular sleep schedule like everyone else. To do it right, you have to adapt. You either love it or you leave it.”

‘The highest of expectations’

Under Modugno, who became AD in 1988, Naples High School teams have won 169 district, 59 regional and 36 state championships. The Eagles can even claim two national championships – ESPN's high school website ranked Naples' 1998 softball team and 2009 baseball team No. 1 in the country.

“First and foremost, (Modugno) provides a vision for what he wants from the athletic experience for our students,” Naples principal Darren Burkett said. “He is there to support our coaches and athletes while maintaining the highest of expectations. There is no uncertainty of the standard he aims to maintain on all teams.”

A display of Naples High School star championship achievements is pictured, Wednesday, June 9. 2021, at Naples High School.

Those values, plus the overall success of the Naples program, are why Modugno was elected to the Florida High School Athletic Association Hall of Fame in 2019.

Coaches who worked for Modugno said his support and his wealth of knowledge and experience helped them be successful.

“He makes you feel like he works for you instead of you working for him,” Naples girls cross country coach Rich Haralson said. “He makes our job easier. We have been very successful, and (Modugno is) a big part of that.”

Haralson might be the only coach at Naples who wasn’t hired by Modugno. Haralson, 74, just finished his 41st season coaching cross country at the school. He led the girls team to two state championships.

Although he retired from teaching in 2007, Haralson has continued to coach because Modugno has helped foster a strong culture at Naples.

“I really enjoy it, and I think Ernie is a big reason I still love coaching,” Haralson said.

Golden Eagles coaches describe Modugno as “by the book” when it comes to following rules. They say that takes pressure off them when anyone wants them to bend a rule to get an edge.

Naples High School athletic director Ernie Modugno recalls his relationships with students that are featured on the Naples High School's Wall of Fame, Wednesday, June 9. 2021, at Naples High School. Modugno is retiring after 33 years as athletic director  40 years at the school. He is the longest-tenured AD in Collier County.

Coaches also say Modugno’s even-keeled demeanor makes him easy to work for and allows the AD to deal with difficult situations better than most.

“Whatever stress is going on, he’s calm. His blood pressure never goes up,” said former Golden Eagles football coach Bill Kramer. “He is exceedingly linear and logical.

“The fact that he’s been with Collier County Public Schools so long, he’s seen a lot and knows a lot. There’s no accounting for that experience. It’s hard for me to place a high enough value on his experience.”

Modugno hired Kramer in 1998 to take over a football program that had one winning season the previous 14 years. In 2001, Kramer’s fourth season, Naples became the first high school football team in Southwest Florida to win a state championship. The Golden Eagles did it again in 2007. They remain one of only two local programs to win a state title (Immokalee did it in 2004).

Naples High School athletic director Ernie Modugno stands at attention during the national anthem on Oct. 9, 2015, before Naples' home game against Lely. (Daily News file)

In 22 seasons on the sidelines (1998-2019), Kramer also led Naples to 17 district and eight regional titles. The legendary coach routinely thanked his administrator, including Modugno, during his coaching run.

“He is the best in the business,” said Kramer, who is a guidance counselor for CCPS alternative schools. “It will be very difficult for Naples High to replace him. We’re losing a valuable resource when we lose Ernie Modugno.”

From officer to AD

Modugno never intended to get into education.

However, after graduating college, his best friend and roommate worked in the schools as a youth and public relations deputy (YRD) with the Collier County Sheriff’s Office (the position is now called a school resources officer). Seeing how much his friend enjoyed his job, Modugno decided to try it.

There was one problem – Modugno was not an American citizen.

Ernie Modugno started at Naples High School as a Youth and Public Relations Deputy with the Collier County Sheriff's Office in 1981. He became the school's athletic director in 1988 and will retire this week after 33 years. This photo is from Modugno's days as a YRD officer in 1983.

Modugno was born in Germany to German parents but was adopted by an American soldier serving in the country and his wife. When Modugno was 8, the family moved to Northeast Ohio.

At the end of his junior year at Stow-Munroe Falls High School, Modugno’s family moved to Fort Myers. Modugno graduated from Fort Myers High in 1972, then attended the University of South Florida.

In 1980, Modugno passed his citizenship test, and in 1981 he started at Naples High as a YRD officer.

Part of his job was to give presentations in classrooms. Modugno showed a knack for it, and other Naples teachers suggested he become an educator. Modugno took a year off to earn his teaching degree, then became a history and social studies teacher at Naples in 1986.

In 1987-88, Modugno was named the state’s American History Teacher of the Year.

Modugno also holds the distinction of being the first varsity soccer coach in Naples High history. He played the sport in Ohio, but Fort Myers didn’t have a team when he was in school. In 1982, the boys soccer program at Naples moved from club to varsity, and Modugno was its coach.

Ernie Modugno, who is retiring after 33 years as the Naples High School athletic director, was the school's first varsity soccer coach. He led the team in the 1981-82 season. This article is from the May 28, 1982, issue of the Naples Daily News.

In 1988, when then-AD Roy Terry became a principal at another school, the Naples principal at the time, Dan White, asked the 34-year-old Modugno to take the position.

“That was a shocker to me,” Modugno said. “I was happy teaching and coaching. I gave it a shot, and I absolutely hated it.

“Teaching is a finite thing, whether it’s creating a lesson plan or doing any other task. I found out quickly athletic director is completely the opposite. You’re constantly juggling things that are incomplete. That created a lot of anxiety and cognitive dissonance early because I was a task completer.”

While Modugno said the first year was rough, he found his groove and learned to love it. The athletic program also found success early under Modugno. In addition to the girls cross country title in 1990, the Eagles’ softball team won seven state championships in Modugno’s first eight years.

“It’s very challenging every day,” Modugno said of his job, “but there have been very, very few instances where I said to myself in the morning, ‘Gosh, I wish I didn’t have to go to work today.’”

‘A joy and a privilege’

When Modugno took over the Naples athletic department, nine of the 15 high schools in Collier County didn’t exist. Now the Golden Eagles are tasked with replacing all that Modugno has given the school for four decades.

“His role as an activities coordinator does not fully capture the impact he has on our school,” said Burkett, the Naples principal. “Mr. Modugno not only leads our athletics and activities, he has also served as a listening ear and advisor to school administrators over the years.”

Naples High School athletic director Ernie Modugno (right) poses with former softball coach Robert Iamurri and Golden Eagles player Caroline Figueroa at the Bill Longshore Memorial Tournament in April 2021. Modugno is retiring at the end of the 2020-21 school year after 33 years as the AD.

The school’s administration will undergo another change next school year when current Lely principal Ellen Keegan takes the same position at Naples. Burkett, who was named the school district’s principal of the year this year, is being promoted to CCPS administration.

However, Burkett doesn’t expect Golden Eagles athletics to suffer.

“The success of Naples High School is in our school community members,” the principal said. “We have outstanding students, coaches, teachers, and administrators who are dedicated to working hard. When you pair that foundation with incredible parent and community support, great things happen. I’m confident that with Mrs. Keegan and our next activities coordinator even greater heights will be achieved.”

As for Modugno, he has no concrete plans. He hopes to travel and spend time with his wife, Mary. And he plans to be at as many Golden Eagles games as he can in the fall – only in the stands, not on the sidelines.

Naples High School athletic director Ernie Modugno talks about his school's athletic achievements as he looks over  trophies and memorbilla, Wednesday, June 9. 2021, Naples High School.

“It’s just been a joy to be here,” Modugno said. “It’s been a fantastic experience and a privilege for me to be at a place like Naples High School where there are great people to work with. I’ve been very, very fortunate I’ve gotten to do something I’ve enjoyed for so many years.

“I’ve been blessed, and I don’t take that for granted.”