Varsity Xtra: Replacing a legend is tough for the guy following 'The Man'
August 23, 2013 12:00 PM
Bishop Canevin coach Darren Schoppe, right, takes over for Bob Jacoby who retired after 40 seasons leading the Crusaders.
North Hills football coach Pat Carey, left, faces the tall task of replacing the WPIAL's third winningest coach in Jack McCurry, right.
By Mike White Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Every time he walks into North Hills' Martorelli Stadium, new coach Pat Carey runs into former coach Jack McCurry -- or at least McCurry's name.
The building that sits just beyond an end zone at Martorelli houses locker rooms, equipment, a coaches office and trainer's room. In big black letters on the side is "McCurry Field House."
They named a building after the legendary former North Hills coach who won 281 games in 35 seasons before retiring in January. Every practice, every coaches meeting, every home game, McCurry figuratively looks Carey in the eye. So, really there is no running from McCurry's shadow, not that Carey wants to.
Carey wants to embrace the past and make a difference in the future. He has company in his mission.
Throughout the WPIAL, all of a sudden there are new coaches who used to be assistants and are now taking over for either a legendary coach, a coach who had been around for a long time or a coach who enjoyed loads of success.
This is the WPIAL season for "Changing Of The Guards."
• Carey, 43, is a former North Hills player and a longtime defensive coordinator under McCurry, who is the third-winningest coach in WPIAL history with a 281-108-9 record.
• Darren Schoppe, 40, takes over at Bishop Canevin for Bob Jacoby, who was the Crusaders' coach for 40 years and won 238 games. Schoppe played and coached at the school under Jacoby.
• Eric Kasperowicz, 37, is the new coach at Pine-Richland, taking over for retired Clair Altemus. Although Pine-Richland hasn't enjoyed much success since moving up to Class AAAA in 2008, Altemus was the Rams' coach for 16 years and won a WPIAL Class AAA title in 2003. Kasperowicz, a Parade All-American quarterback at North Hills, was Altemus' offensive coordinator but also coached for a number of years under McCurry at North Hills.
• Donnie Militzer, 32, takes over at Gateway for Terry Smith, who left to become an assistant at Temple University. Smith didn't have the longevity of a McCurry or Jacoby, but he won 101 games in 11 seasons, seven conference titles and made it to the WPIAL title game four times. Militzer most recently was an assistant coach at Carlynton.
The "Changing of the Guards" saw Chuck Wagner retire as Springdale's coach last year after 47 years at four different WPIAL schools, including 19 at Springdale. Dave Leasure took over for Wagner.
It's likely there will be more longtime coaches stepping down in the next few years, possibly Woodland Hills' George Novak, Blackhawk's Joe Hamilton and Upper St. Clair's Jim Render, the all-time winningest WPIAL coach.
Stepping into a legend's shoes can be a daunting task. Over the past few decades, some coaches haven't done well after taking over for a highly successful coach. Then again, a few have succeeded.
"Jack certainly set the bar high and any time you follow a coach who has a great record and championships, it's not easy," Carey said. "But I have expectations of myself. I'm happy to have this opportunity.
"I grew up here, I played here, I've coached here a long time and I live in this community. Football is important to North Hills and I want to keep those expectations."
Schoppe said, "I never wanted to see Bob leave as coach. It was tough to see him go because he's the face of Canevin. He always will be. You're just not going to replace him."
Replacing is hard
Paul Kmec is aware of the story of a few coaches taking over for legends this season. He can relate. Twenty-five years ago, he took over for a legend at Mt. Lebanon.
As coach at Mt. Lebanon from 1967-87, Art Walker won five WPIAL championships and 170 games. Kmec was an assistant for 16 of Walker's 21 years and took over the Blue Devils in 1988.
"When you follow guys like Art, you always measured yourself against their success. It was daunting, to say the least," Kmec said. "You never didn't think about it. It was always in the back of your mind. You knew how good they were and you wanted to be like them because not only were they good coaches, they were good people. I always kind of felt like I was in [Walker's] shadow."
Kmec enjoyed some success, going 46-27-3 in seven years before resigning after the 1994 season. He made it to the WPIAL semifinals twice.
Gateway's Pete Antimarino, New Castle's Lindy Lauro, Butler's Art Bernardi and Aliquippa's Don Yannessa are a few examples of legendary coaches who built powerful programs during the 1960s, '70s or '80s. Their successors enjoyed varying degrees of success.
Antimarino retired after the 1989 season with a record of 255-93-13 record. Over the next nine years under Russ Gratton and Tom Orga, Gateway had a 24-66 record.
At New Castle, Lauro won 220 games from 1961-92 and had six perfect seasons. New Castle's program started to slide a little in Lauro's final few years and when Nick Rapone took over in 1993, the Red Hurricanes went 1-9 and 4-6 the next two seasons.
Gary Schooley took over in 1994 and won a WPIAL title four years later.
Bernardi had a 179-64-1 record as Butler's coach from 1961-85. One of his assistants, Tim Nunes, took over in 1986 and went 20-19-2 the next four seasons. But Butler made it to the 1990 title game and two years later Nunes retired. Last year was Butler's first WPIAL playoff appearance since 1998.
At Aliquippa, Yannessa won four WPIAL titles in a five-year span (1984-88) before leaving to take the Baldwin job. Frank Marocco took over at Aliquippa in 1989 and started 2-2. But the Quips righted the ship and won a WPIAL title later that season. Aliquippa dropped from Class AAA to AA in 1990 and won WPIAL and PIAA AA titles in 1991.
Marocco coached from 1989-96 and had a 73-25 record before giving way to Mike Zmijanac, a former Yannessa assistant who regularly wins or challenges for WPIAL titles.
"I don't know if there will ever be a group of coaches come through here again like Art Walker, Lindy Lauro or Art Bernardi," Kmec said.
Kiski Area's Dick Dilts and Washington's Guy Montecalvo are two other coaches who built winning programs before stepping away in the past few decades. Kiski Area hasn't enjoyed much success since Dilts retired after 1991.
Washington made it to the Class AA title game last year, but after Montecalvo resigned after the 2002 season, the Little Prexies were .500 or worse five of the next eight seasons
"I don't know if I have any advice for the new guys taking over, but just try to be yourself," Kmec said. "Pattern some things you do after some of the old coach's successes, but still try to be your own coach."
Their own touch
Taking over for a highly successful coach can have its rough moments. There have been some trying times already at Gateway, including some recent changes in the coaching staff.
"There have been some changes made that I can't get into," said Militzer, who added former Gateway and Pitt player Shayne Hale to his staff. "In all honesty, I think anytime there is a change, you're going to have ups and downs and I think that's to be expected. The main thing is, you always try to treat the kids right."
The new coaches have already left their own imprints on the program. At North Hills, the Indians have new uniforms with gray in them (the school colors are red and white). Carey also got rid of the old white helmets for red ones.
"To be honest, I don't think that much about there being pressure taking over for Jack," Carey said. "One of the things he taught me is he expected to win. I really feel our kids buy into that and step up because of that approach."
Schoppe has somewhat changed how Bishop Canevin practices.
"Having a coach for 40 years and somebody comes in and changes some stuff, it has been a little bit of a challenge," said Schoppe, an assistant under Jacoby for 13 years. "The practices were more free flowing before. Having coached at South Fayette and Peters Township, practices were pretty much scripted and that's what we've tried to do here. The kids see a difference."
McCurry, 64, and Jacoby have purposely stayed away from their old schools and former teams. They don't talk with the new coaches because they simply don't want to intrude and be viewed as someone who is still hanging on. McCurry had to be coaxed to show up at Martorelli Stadium for a photo with Carey. McCurry didn't want any of the players around.
McCurry said he will only go to one North Hills game and that's because of ceremonies to induct him into the North Hills Sports Hall of Fame. Jacoby said he will only go to Bishop Canevin's game on "senior night."
"I want Pat and those other coaches to be their own coaches," McCurry said. "Some places, the coach leaves, but he's always still around. Butler always had that Bernardi influence even after he left. I thought that was a detriment to those who followed."
McCurry is coaching again, though. He's an assistant for his son, Danny, who coaches a 12- and 13-year-old youth league team in the North Hills.
"I have to do things like get the balls and the pinnies out before practice," said McCurry, who became a first-time grandfather a few weeks ago when his daughter, Katie, had a little girl.
Jacoby and his wife moved to a smaller house in Crafton a few weeks ago. He said his main job now is a "delivery service" for his 11 grandchildren.
"I know Darren very well and I don't want to be a distraction to him," Jacoby said "I'm staying away. This is his team and his program. I appreciate everything the school has done for me in recognizing me for my years, but it's time for someone else to take over."