From humble beginnings, the WPIAL moves into its 100th year

The WPIAL -- one of the largest high school organizations in the country -- has survived, flourished and produced some memorable athletes

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TWO OF THE ALL-TIME GREATS: In this 1957 Post-Gazette photo, Baseball Hall of Famer Stan Musial and Pirates shortstop Dick Groat share a laugh before a game. Musial played football, basketball and baseball at Donora High School while Groat excelled at baseball and basketball at Swissvale High.
Click photo for larger image.

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Click on the image above to a slideshow exploring some of the highlights of WPIAL history.

There was a birthday party in the Heinz Pittsburgh Regional History Center last night. About 400 people attended the bash and toasted the honoree whose 1906 birth certificate reads "Western Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic League."

Maybe you don't know the old guy by his full name. To most, he is known by his five-letter nickname.


One of the granddaddies of high school athletic leagues has hit the century mark. The WPIAL is 100 this year. With the start of a new school year looming, the league threw itself a party last night. In a nutshell, it was a toast to excellence and also survival.

The excellence is represented by the great athletes who have competed in the league. Eight members of the Pro Football Hall of Fame played in the WPIAL. The league also has produced three Heisman Trophy winners in college football, a golfing legend in Arnold Palmer, one of the greatest baseball players of all time in Stan Musial, Olympic gold medalists in men's and women's sports, and countless college All-Americans. That's just to name a few.

And then, there is the survival factor. The WPIAL has endured many ordeals, including a 1918 influenza epidemic that forced the cancellation of a football championship.

The WPIAL used to be run out of the home of the league director. And how's this for surviving absurd rules? In the football playoffs in the early 1970s, there was no overtime for games that ended in a tie. The winner was the team that had the most total yardage.

According to newspaper stories and documents researched by some sports historians, the league had 13 original schools 100 years ago. For many years, champions were crowned only in football and basketball.

These days, the league has a $1.8-million budget, five full-time employees who work out of the league's Green Tree office, 138 member schools in 10 different counties, and sponsors competition in 24 sports (11 for boys, 12 for girls and rifle, which is co-ed).

"One-hundred years, that's saying something right there," said Doug Huff, who has spent more than three decades compiling national high school football and basketball rankings for various publications.

"To start with, there are very few massive leagues or conferences around the country like the WPIAL. And the leagues and conferences that are 100 years old have to be few and far between."

The start of it all

In 1906, the same year a San Francisco earthquake killed 3,000, school officials at Allegheny Preparatory School, Shady Side Academy and the Pittsburgh Public Schools gave birth to the WPIAL. They simply wanted some rules in place for interscholastic athletics.

At that time, teams were using players who didn't attend their school and reports also suggested students were attending different schools just to play for the best teams.

"A lot of the problems they had 100 years ago, we still have left today," said former WPIAL executive director Charles "Ace" Heberling.

He was referring to the hottest topic in WPIAL sports these days -- student-athletes changing schools for athletic reasons. But that's a whole other story.

Although teams started playing sports in the WPIAL in 1906, the first champion wasn't crowned until 1909 when Pittsburgh Central was named the basketball champion. The first basketball championships were played in 1913.

No football champion was crowned until 1914, when the Pittsburgh chapter of the Syracuse University Alumni Association established a Syracuse Cup that would be awarded to the WPIAL team judged to be the best. In some years, the group picked a champion. In other years, two teams were picked to play in a championship.

The last Syracuse Cup was awarded in 1927. After that, the WPIAL started either naming the champion or having a title game to decide the champ.

The changes

As the WPIAL grew, there were some notable changes that shaped the league and made it what it is today. Three of the biggest were the addition of more classifications in sports, the acceptance of private and parochial schools and the addition of girls' sports.

It used to be that no matter the size of a school's enrollment, everyone played in the same league. In 1928, the WPIAL made two classifications for football and added another in 1932. Schools were placed in classifications based on enrollment.

More basketball classifications also were added to the league in the 1930s. These days, a handful of WPIAL sports have four classifications.

But while the league was changing and adding classifications, private and parochial schools remained outside the WPIAL. Schools such as Central Catholic, North Catholic and Bishop Canevin played in the Catholic League and had their own championships. But some Catholic schools pushed to join in the WPIAL, and some were accepted in 1973. Central, North Catholic and Bishop Canevin started WPIAL play in 1975.

The addition of the private and parochial schools changed the landscape of the WPIAL forever, but maybe nothing changed the face of the WPIAL more than the women's sports movement. The WPGAL (Western Pennsylvania Girls Athletic League) was formed in the 1960s and staged some basketball championships in the 1970s. The league was under the WPIAL's umbrella, but not formally part of the league.

"I've read some minutes from league meetings," said Tim O'Malley, current WPIAL executive director. "There was a time where the WPGAL was basically given $200 and told to 'go in the corner' and do their own thing."

But when Heberling took over in 1976, the WPGAL disbanded and the WPIAL took in all of girls' athletics.

"Everything used to be separate with the girls," Heberling said. "We had separate committees for girls' basketball and boys' basketball, girls' and boys' track. Everything. That had to change."

Lake Fong, Post-Gazette
Charles "Ace" Heberling: Had the greatest impact on WPIAL athletics.
Click photo for larger image.

The 'Ace' effect

Ace Heberling is known as the man who had maybe the greatest impact on WPIAL athletics. A former City League athlete at Perry, he got involved in the WPIAL as a sports official and eventually became part of the WPIAL Board of Control.

In 1976, the WPIAL changed drastically. That's when the league's Board decided to open an office in Green Tree and make the executive director a full-time job. Heberling was hired and took over for Bill Lohr, who was running the league out of his Monroeville home. "He didn't even have a copy machine," Heberling said.

Heberling was a salesman for General Electric who had a business mind and an iron fist. Also an NFL official, Heberling took a hard stand on many WPIAL issues and ran the league with a certain boldness that infuriated some school officials, coaches and members of the media.

But many will tell you Heberling did great things for the league. He got the football championships at Three Rivers Stadium. He also made the league money, which was not happening in previous years.

Heberling retired in 1997 and was succeeded by Larry Hanley, who retired earlier this year.

"Ace put this league on the fast track for organization and development," O'Malley said. "Larry continued that and it will be my job to maintain that."

The reputation

Some who have played sports in the WPIAL have gone on to big things. They will tell you the league has an aura about it, especially for football. Maybe people familiar with high school sports in other areas don't know the WPIAL name, but they know the reputation.

"I don't know that people around the country know specifically what the WPIAL means, but they do know what football in Western Pennsylvania means," said Pitt football coach Dave Wannstedt, a former player at Baldwin High and Pitt who also has coached in the NFL.

"You go anywhere in the country on any NFL and college team, and you can talk Namath, Ditka, Montana, Marino, Fralic and Dorsett. That's all you have to say, and eventually someone says, 'Where are all those guys from?' Then the [WPIAL] name recognition takes care of itself."


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