The late, great Eddie McCluskey is the best high school coach in Western Pennsylvania history. Know this about the basketball empire he built at Farrell and the hundreds of lives he touched in a positive way: They didn’t call him “The Legend” for nothing.
I’m thinking Aliquippa’s Mike Zmijanac is making a strong push to be No. 2 on a very hallowed list.
Don’t worry about pronouncing Zmijanac’s name. Just call him “Coach Z.” That’s what everybody does in Aliquippa, where Zmijanac keeps turning out winning football teams and quality young men against challenging odds in a small, tough town that was brought to its knees by racial tension in the 1960s and 1970s and still is staggering because of a bad economy.
Aliquippa is going to Heinz Field Saturday for the sixth consecutive year and will play South Fayette for the WPIAL Class AA championship. It will be Zmijanac’s 25th title game. As Aliquippa’s head coach since 1997, he has won five WPIAL championships, including the past two, and a PIAA title in 2003. He also won three WPIAL basketball championships and a PIAA title in 1997 in his seven-year run as the Aliquippa basketball coach from 1996-2003. He is the only coach to win PIAA championships in football and basketball.
Aliquippa wins big despite having one of the smallest enrollments in the WPIAL. Zmijanac said the 2013 graduating class had 58 kids, including 28 boys. Aliquippa could play against Class A completion but elects to play up.
It irritates Zmijanac, 70, that the naysayers continue to insist Aliquippa wins only because of its “great athletes.” All but three of his team’s 45 players are African-American. He said the racial overtone to that assertion is insulting to not just his players, but to his coaches. All but two of his 17 assistants played for him and know he demands that attention be paid to the smallest details.
“It’s not like we just roll the ball out on the field,” longtime Aliquippa assistant Sherman McBride said. “We call Z, ‘Baker Man.’ The players and coaches are the ingredients. When he thinks everything is just right, he puts the cherry on top and we go play.”
Zmijanac has few rules.
“Look right. Act right. Play right,” he said. “Be respectful, but play hard. Do everything hard. Study hard. Work hard. Play hard. Why would you do anything any other way but hard? …
“You never have to teach Aliquippa kids to be competitive. They’re going to play with an edge. If you play against us, you had better buckle up. We’re coming to play.”
Zmijanac learned those same lessons growing up the son of a single mother — Bette Swan — on Aliquippa’s Wade Street, a mere two blocks from Carl A. Aschman Stadium. But Aliquippa was a much different place in the 1950s. Jones and Laughlin Steel Company was thriving. Population was near 35,000. But then the steel business collapsed in the mid-1980s and thousands of jobs were lost. The town never really recovered. There are about 9,000 people in Aliquippa now, many of whom are retirees. They still are a proud bunch, but their community clearly is distressed. It makes you want to cry driving up the main street, Franklin Avenue.
“I like to think we give kids hope for a future — and not necessarily in football,” Zmijanac said. “They can use football to move on to an education and become a productive citizen.”
McBride runs Aliquippa’s “Academics in Motion” program. Upperclassmen tutor younger players who are struggling in class. McBride said 10 of the 13 seniors on this year’s team are on the honor roll.
Football also has helped to close the racial divide in Aliquippa. It was devastating when coach Don Yannessa took over in 1972. Zmijanac, who joined the coaching staff in 1973, said black players and white players sat on separate sides of the gym. Yannessa, who won four WPIAL titles in 17 seasons as coach, deserves tremendous credit for bringing the players together. But Zmijanac said the bonding work of McBride and teammate Dan “Peep” Short in the late 1970s should not be overlooked. Short went on to play at Pitt and is Zmijanac’s defensive coordinator.
“They got tired of it,” Zmijanac said of McBride and Short. “They stood up and said, ‘You’re either with us or you’re not.’ Some kids left. Those who stayed wanted to be here. We haven’t had a problem since.”
Over the years, the football team has healed many of Aliquippa’s wounds. Hundreds of fans — black and white — will be at Heinz Field, tailgating before the game and then cheering on the Quips. It has become a town tradition to play The Pointer Sisters’ “I’m So Excited” in the parking lot at the WPIAL championship. They’ve been there so often the fans must hear the song in their sleep.
The credibility Zmijanac brings as an Aliquippa guy is important. He taught Creative Writing and American Literature at the high school for 39 years before retiring in 2003. “I was a better teacher than I am a coach,” he said.
Zmijanac has been around so long that he doesn’t have to deal with the parental interference so many coaches do. He refuses to take those phone calls, not that there are many. He coached many of the fathers of his players. They know he’s going to play the best players.
“I don’t want to have to tell a parent that his or her kid isn’t good enough, but — guess what? — I wasn’t good enough to play here, either,” Zmijanac said. “I got cut from the basketball team and wasn’t good enough to make the football team.”
Zmijanac, who also has been Aliquippa’s athletic director since 2000, said he will coach next season but made no promises after that. You can bet he’ll savor every minute Saturday. His opportunities for championships are dwindling.
Zmijanac taught English, but he’s also a historian. He treasures his memories of the great games at Aschman Stadium and the great players who played there. Sadly, the place known as “The Pit” is decaying badly.
“They tell me I need to do something with it,” Zmijanac said. “I tell them I’ll never put in turf. Bruce Clark’s footprints are on that field. Tony Dorsett’s. Dan Marino’s … ”
Tonight, after practice, Zmijanac will gather his players and point to the roof of the stadium’s field house, where each of Aliquippa’s WPIAL championships is marked by the year. There have been so many — a record 15, in all — that there’s no room for another, although Zmijanac promised he will make room.
“This is your chance to get your team — this team — up there,” he will tell the players.
Zmijanac’s pregame speech will be just as brief.
“Your dads played at Aliquippa. Your grandfathers. Your uncles. Your brothers. Your cousins … don’t let ’em down.”
With that, the Quips will walk down the Heinz Field tunnel and play a little hard-nosed football. They won’t just be representing themselves, their families and all of Aliquippa. They’ll be representing their coach.
Win or lose, the players won’t let him down.
Ron Cook: firstname.lastname@example.org. Ron Cook can be heard on the “Vinnie and Cook” show weekdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan.