EAST BRUNSWICK, NJ -- Shortly before schools were shut down for what turned out to be the rest of the academic year in March, Chris Yannazzo of East Brunswick was informed that he was being named the Greater Middlesex Conference Athletic Director of the Year.
The honor, which is voted upon by all member ADs in the conference, was a culmination of six years that Yannazzo has put in since taking over as the AD at East Brunswick from a legend among New Jersey athletic directors, Frank Noppenberger.
"In his short (six) years as the supervisor of athletics at East Brunswick, Chris has demonstrated skills of a veteran athletic director," said Noppenberger, who, though retired, remains a frequent presence at school sporting events. "He has chaired four GMC tournaments and has the respect of the entire conference. As a student athlete, teacher and coach he was always polished beyond his years and earned the respect of everyone. He has the unique ability to be friendly with staff and the student body and still maintain the necessary professional atmosphere."
Yannazzo is a 2000 graduate of East Brunswick who played four sports at the school: football, wrestling, baseball and track. Noppenberger, who was the East Brunswick AD for 27 years, was the athletic director when Yannazzo was a student-athlete.
"Frank was a huge influence," Yannazzo said. "He was my AD, and athletics was essentially my life growing up. My dad was a phys ed teacher, and I followed in his footsteps. I had always wanted to teach lifelong fitness and wellness. Becoming a coach, I wanted to give back to the community i grew up in. I am able to run athletic department after I saw what 'Nop' did for so long. He built a great foundation; You hear 'Go Bears' everywhere now, and he is the one who built that culture."
Yannazzo said the award reflects something well beyond just the work he has done.
"This award is more than just me; it’s the athletic office and athletic secretary Julie Cirkus and all the coaches, athletes and the board of education," Yannazzo said. "It is collective, and I am just the figurehead."
"Congratulations to Chris Yannazzo for being named GMC Athletic Director of the Year," East Brunswick head football coach Andy Steinfeld recently tweeted. "No one more deserving than Chris. The passion that he has for EB Athletics is second to none. Honored to work with him!!!"
So far, Yannazzo said that the biggest challenge of his job has been "battling the specializing athletes and the club sport mentality. You have a vision of what high school athletics should look like, and club coaches have a different vision of what that should look like."
But the East Brunswick AD's biggest challenge may end up being what lies immediately ahead as school districts come to terms with what scholastic sports might look like next academic year in the wake of yet-to-be-determined post-pandemic guidelines.
"I meet with the GMC Executive Committee quite often," Yannazzo said. "It is difficult for us, but we want to make a decision that is best for the athletes. Athletics are such a good avenue for these kids, and missing a season and the opportunity to be with friends is so important. They are missing that. We want to make sure within the guidelines that we get these kids back to some normalcy.
"We have come up with contingency plans for what if this happens or that happens. The NJSIAA has put together a COVID release team, and there are a lot of great minds working on that so we can do what is best for the kids. Everybody is chomping at the bit, but health and safety is still the first priority."