Varsity Xtra: The right guy


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Joe Rossi wasn't ready to walk in the middle of the season, but there was a time not so long ago that he was convinced he was not the right man to coach South Fayette football.

It was near the end of the 2008 season, Rossi's second as the Lions' coach. His struggling team hit rock bottom, losing to previously winless Cornell. Before Rossi went into the locker room after the game, he talked with his wife and father. It was raining and Rossi's gloom matched the weather.

"I remember standing outside the locker room, I shook my head and told my wife and my Dad that this job wasn't for me," Rossi said. "I remember saying, 'I don't think I can get it done here.'"

Then Rossi walked into a somber locker room, looked at his players and changed his tune. Something hit him.

"I will never forget there were a bunch of sophomores crying. They were just sitting there and crying in their uniforms," Rossi said. "I looked at them and said, 'I can win with kids like this.' I told them from that day on we could be successful because that showed me we had kids who cared.

"That game and that night changed everything. It changed my heart."

Six years later, Rossi is the heart of the Lions.

Rossi has taken a South Fayette program and put it on the WPIAL football map of superiority. On Saturday at Heinz Field, South Fayette (12-0) will play Aliquippa (12-0) for the WPIAL Class AA title. While the 38-year-old Rossi may not be mentioned in the same breath as some veteran coaches who have a handful of WPIAL titles, what he has done during his seven years at South Fayette is impressive and compares favorably with some coaches who sit at the WPIAL head table.

In seven seasons, Rossi has a 65-16 record (.802 winning percentage). It doesn't match the record of Clairton's Tom Nola (98-6), Aliquippa's Mike Zmijanac (85-11) or Thomas Jefferson's Bill Cherpak (81-10). But in the same amount of years as Rossi, Woodland Hills' George Novak is 54-28, Upper St. Clair's Jim Render 59-20 and West Allegheny's Bob Palko 60-22.

Rossi has guided South Fayette to the WPIAL Class AA title game Saturday for the second time in four years. Before 2010, South Fayette's previous championship game appearance was 1967.

South Fayette started playing football in 1928. Since then, the school has had only five undefeated and untied regular seasons. Four of them have been on Rossi's watch.

"It's not like I took over a program that was always 2-7," said Rossi, who played football and baseball at Chartiers Valley and then attended West Liberty University. "T.J. Plack [who preceded Rossi] did good things here. They just needed to get over the hump."

Plack went 26-13 in his final four seasons at South Fayette, but the Lions didn't win a playoff game in that time and the school board opened his position after the 2006 season. South Fayette hired Rossi, who spent the five previous seasons as Riverview's coach. Before that, he was an assistant coach at Carrolton High School in Ohio, the same place where Jim Render started his coaching career. Render, now at Upper St. Clair, is the winningest coach in WPIAL history.

"I got to know Jim and he helped me get this job," Rossi said.

When Rossi interviewed for the South Fayette job, one of the board members asked him how long it would take for him to win a WPIAL championship.

"I was thinking to myself, 'Am I going to take this job because expectations are high?'" Rossi said.

But he took the job and met those high expectations. In fact, he has exceeded the expectations in an ever-growing district ("a lot of teams' numbers are down, but we keep going up," Rossi said.). South Fayette could move up to Class AAA next season.

Rossi has built a big winner with a style that was somewhat foreign to Western Pennsylvania. Many WPIAL programs were built on strong running games. Rossi uses a spread offense with plenty of passing. Christian Brumbaugh, quarterback of the 2010 WPIAL championship team, was the leading passer in WPIAL history until his record was broken this season by Sto-Rox's Lenny Williams.

Brumbaugh's youngest brother, Brett, is now one of the best junior quarterbacks in the state and already has 6,210 yards passing for his career.

Rossi used a spread offense in his first season, "but it was more of a run spread," Rossi said.

Rossi knew he had a good young quarterback coming the next year in Christian Brumbaugh. Rossi went to Northwestern and Villanova to study the spread offense.

"I just thought using the spread was something we had to do," Rossi said. "What convinced me is that we have linemen who are 205, 210 or 220 pounds. If I tried to line up in an 'I' formation and tried to go against Aliquippa, they would crush us.

"If we lined up in the 'I' and played that way, we could go maybe 7-2 or 6-3. Fortunately, we have kids who can run this type of offense."

Rossi is a man who is consumed with two things -- his family and South Fayette football. He and his wife, Karley, have four children, ages 3 to 10. They are both teachers in the South Fayette district -- Joe a physical education teacher at the middle school. They live about a quarter mile from South Fayette High School.

"Honestly, I really enjoy cooking," Rossi said of his hobby away from football. "My dream is to open a restaurant someday. But besides cooking, I don't hunt, fish and I don't golf. I either coach football or spend time with our four children."

But there is something else that drives him -- winning. The first time he met with South Fayette's players in 2007, he gave them all a picture of Heinz Field.

"I think I have a fear of failure," Rossi said. "You put so much time and effort into this and I have wanted so bad for these kids to walk out of that tunnel at Heinz Field. We had some good teams the last couple years and didn't make it. I will never forget that vision in 2010 of walking out of that tunnel, seeing all those yellow seats and all that [South Fayette] green. I can't wait to have that feeling again."

It was a much different feeling than that night in 2007.


For more on high school sports, go to "Varsity Blog" at www.post-gazette.com/varsityblog. Mike White: mwhite@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1621 and Twitter @mwhiteburgh

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