Darien football without Johnny Maher? Might as well have fall without foliage or Christmas without Santa Claus. It's possible, but it would be pretty dreary.

It was Maher, after all, who coached Darien High School teams to gridiron glory for more than 20 years until he retired in 1967. All of the titles and trophies were notable, of course, but nothing impressed the home-town fans more than the fact that Maher teams had never lost a game to arch-rival New Canaan,

That streak extended from 1945 through 1966, though that included the nine years in which the two teams did not play because school officials thought the rivalry had grown too intense and called off the series.

The hiatus began in 1949, when Darien walloped New Canaan's Rams, 64-0. And after the rivalry resumed, New Canaan came close, but the Blue Wave prevailed, 14-12 in 1960 and 6-0 in 1961. Then the dam broke in 1962 when Darien administered the worst shellacking ever experienced by a New Canaan team, 70-0.

As fate would have it, New Canaan finally beat Darien for the first time in more than 20 years in 1967, the year Maher was no longer coaching. New Canaan won that game, 22-16, when Peil Pennington, later drafted into the NFL, flipped a touchdown pass to Greg Esty with 41 seconds left on the clock. To Joe Sikorski, New Canaan's coach, the victory was bittersweet. He would have enjoyed it much more if it had come at Maher's expense.

Maher was a superior tactician and strategist, but football to him was more than X's and O's. Former players remember him best as a "molder of men." Peter Firla, a fullback in the Maher era, recently called him a "super motivator" and Bob Hall of New Canaan, a family friend, said Maher was "a great man who cared more about the kids than about winning ... well, almost."

To many fans and rivals, Maher appeared aloof, cocky, even arrogant. It was that swagger he had, exuding confidence, and he tried always to instill it also in his players. Then, once they got it, he knocked their egos down a bit by telling them loudly whenever he thought they failed to earn the right to strut.

He was so self-assured that he didn't hesitate to wander into the Piedmont Club, that hot-bed of second-guessers, after games. Facing an inquisition by former players like "Hotch" Tuccinari and Ben Bruno, Maher loved the challenge and justified every call he made during a game. Usually the heads finally nodded in agreement, even in admiration.

Rod Barker, a halfback in the early '60s and now a New Mexico businessman, recently recalled a game in which the Blue Wave had not performed up to Maher standards in the first half. During the half-time break, he ordered the players to remove their game jerseys and put on the grubby ones they usually wore at practice. You have to earn the right to wear Darien's colors, he told the players. And then they did.

Barker was one of four members of the Darien team that had made Little League baseball's World Series in 1958 and then played football for Maher, Roger Frate, Joe Miceli and Jere Lynch, a pin-point passing quarterback, were the others.

Don Souden, former New Canaan sportswriter, once observed that "overall, I would say that the key to Maher's success was that at the time he started, he already was light-years ahead of any other coach in the area in terms of preparation -- he left nothing to chance."

A New Canaan game was case in point. Maher had a way taking his players off the field at intermission and holding them out until the last possible second to "ice" the opponents or perhaps to make them worry he was concocting something special. But his timing was off in that game and the Blue Wave, already ahead, 35-0, was late for the second half kick-off and the refs penalized the team 15 yards. Maher pleaded with them, explaining it was all a mistake and insisting a penalty wouldn't be fair to the boys. Sikorski, gentleman that he always was, relented and the penalty was revoked. Then came 35 more points for 70-0 thrashing.

For John Maher, the football season ran from Jan. 1 to Dec. 31. Nor were games confined to a couple of hours on a crisp Saturday afternoon. He'd review them, play by play, over and over, diagramming plays on his napkin as he talked with sports editor Joe Vitti at post-game dinners.

And the first thing Sunday morning, Maher switched on the films of the previous day's game and wore them out before the day was over. He made sure the films were there for breakfast by sending Frank Selas, a high kid who loved photography and took home movies of the games, to Long Island immediately after the game to a place where films were developed while you waited.

Maher always was quick to point out that the coaching laurels were shared by his assistant, Navio Ottavi, and by Dr. Tom Baker, a local dentist who scouted each coming week's opponent.

And of course Maher heaped praise on his players, but not until they graduated. There were scores of them down through the years -- Bobby Saverine, Dale Carbonier, Chuck Chapman, Jim Kermes, Toad Toscano, Clelio Improta, Bill Cushman, Tommy Sci, Russ Eggers, Gerry Channel, Andre Buchs, Nick Cardelle and so many others.

Coach Maher was especially proud of Bill Frate, who was all-Ivy League at Harvard, and Hans Schneider, who starred at the University of Bridgeport and later went on to coach in New Canaan.

Of course, the entire area was football crazy then and Maher's Blue Wave was part of what caused it. The New York Giants, playing at Yankee Stadium, held pre-season camp at Fairfield University and many of the players lived in Stamford and frequented the Piedmont Club and Phil Baker's pizza place in Norwalk, where they exchanged tips on techniques and strategy with the likes of Johnny Maher.

Ed Chrostowski was editor of the Darien Review during the '50s and can be reached at skicrow@att.net.