North/South/East/West: Plenty of coaches on the NFL tree have deep Western Pennsylvania roots
March 18, 2016 12:00 AM
Robert Morris photo
Longtime Robert Morris coach Joe Walton led the New York Jets for seven years.
Charlie Neibergall/Associated Press
Mike McCarthy, head coach of the Green Bay Packers, is a graduate of Bishop Boyle High School.
By Ed Bouchette / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
They passed one another in the coaching hierarchy without much fanfare in this area of the football country. The San Francisco 49ers fired Jim Tomsula after one year as their head coach. The New York Giants hired Ben McAdoo as the 18th head coach for their 92nd season.
One more native Western Pennsylvanian down among NFL head coaches, another added. It has become so routine that it no longer attracts much notice in the region in which these men grew up.
Tomsula, a West Homestead native from Steel Valley High School, was the latest in a long list of natives from the Pittsburgh area to become an NFL head coach when the 49ers promoted him a year ago. Now it’s McAdoo, a Homer City native who played at Homer-Center High School and IUP, as the fraternity rookie.
He joins Mike McCarthy of Pittsburgh’s Greenfield neighborhood and Bishop Boyle High, and Marvin Lewis of McDonald and Fort Cherry High among current NFL coaches.
Impressive, but the NFL has a deep history of those from this region who have became head coaches in the league. It was no more evident than in 2006 when there were six – Lewis, McCarthy, Bill Cowher (Steelers) of Carlynton High School, Dave Wannstedt (Bears, Dolphins) of Baldwin, Jim Haslett (Saints) of Avalon High and Marty Schottenheimer (Chiefs, Chargers, Redskins) who preceded Lewis at Fort Cherry.
There were many more. Just to list a large fistful: Joe Walton (Jets) of Beaver Falls, Chuck Knox (Rams, Bills, Seahawks) of Sewickley and Quaker Valley, Ted Marchibroda (Colts, Ravens) of Franklin, Joe Bugel (Cardinals, Raiders) of Munhall, Bud Carson (Browns) of Brackenridge, Frank Kush (Colts) of Windber, Mike Nixon (Redskins, Steelers) of Masontown, Joe Schmidt (Lions) of Pittsburgh, Mike Ditka (Bears, Saints) of Aliquippa, Frank Gansz (Chiefs) of Altoona, Dick Nolan (49ers, Saints) of Pittsburgh, Hal Hunter (Colts) of Canonsburg and John Michelosen (Steelers) of Ambridge.
Hunter had the shortest tenure of all – he was interim coach for the Colts’ final game, a loss, in 1984 after Kush abruptly quit.
Even before the Steelers hired Michelosen in 1948, the old Brooklyn Dodgers of the NFL hired Jeannette native Mike Getto to coach them in 1942 – after former Pitt All-American, Panthers coach and future Steelers coach Jock Sutherland left that job to accept a war officer’s commission into the U.S. Navy.
So why so many NFL head coaches from this part of the world?
“I think it’s the importance of football in Western Pennsylvania and how big a part of our culture that it is,’’ said Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert, a Northside native who graduated from North Catholic High School. “You just kind of take it for granted that it’s been a big part of our culture, having grown up here.
“You’re not surprised by those numbers and it extends beyond NFL head coaches – a ton of personnel people and a ton of college coaches from this area as well.”
Walton, an All-American at Pitt who like his father played in the NFL and coached the Jets for seven years, added some other reasons for that success.
“I always felt that playing in Western Pennsylvania we were better prepared for college football because we were used to big crowds, we were used to newspaper scrutiny. Just being involved in the hoopla of Western Pennsylvania football made us better prepared for a lot of it.
“My son played on Long Island; they’d get 200 people for the game. When he got to Pitt, and Pitt Stadium and the crowds, he wasn’t used to that. Whereas when I went to Pitt, shoot, I was used to jam-packed stadiums, people throwing tomatoes at the bus, you know? It was a tough.
“Ambridge, Aliquippa, New Castle, Ellwood City, Beaver Falls – that was tough football and a lot of good teams. That was always my theory about some of the guys who did so well in college football out of Western Pennsylvania, and it carried over to the coaching aspect.”
Colbert, who is in the business not only of evaluating players but also NFL head coaches and assistants, believes the training they get as youngsters in this region is what makes them good candidates to coach.
“The old work ethic,’’ he explained. “Most of the people have that who have come up through Western Pennsylvania. They most likely have come from working class families and understand the importance of hard work – no matter what field they went into, they just happened to get into coaching.
“There are two important parts of our culture in Western Pennsylvania – hard work and football, and if you put the two together, there probably are no surprises there are a lot of NFL head coaches from Western Pennsylvania.”
While not as famous as their NFL counterparts, high school coaches in Western Pennsylvania provided the foundation for their careers.
“I always felt we were very well prepared in fundamentals, the basics of blocking and tackling,” Walton said. “We always had great instruction. There are a lot of great high school coaches in Western P-A. I think we learned it that way and it was all part of our education into football and it made it easier to that transition to college football.”
McAdoo mentioned his own roots and a work ethic during an interview on Giants.com shortly after he was hired as their coach.
“I grew up in southwestern Pennsylvania, in a blue-collar coal-mining town. My father was a coal miner. Grandfather was a coal miner. Growing up there was a little bit different than a lot of people around [metropolitan New York] can be familiar with. What was important to us – work ethic was important, grit. Sticking together.
“Played a lot of sports growing up. Just about everything you could play. I am not going to sit here and say I was great at any of them. I was never the pretty girl in anything I did. I always had to work for what I wanted. ... We had a lot of pride in our work ethic and our grit and our resolve. That was something we like to hang our hat on.”
Those Western Pennsylvania connections helped, too. Haslett hired McAdoo on his New Orleans staff, where McCarthy was offensive coordinator. McCarthy joined the 49ers and McAdoo followed, and then McCarthy hired McAdoo to his Green Bay staff. One of McAdoo’s first coaching jobs was on the Pitt staff.
People often talk about coaching “trees” in the NFL. McAdoo is part of McCarthy’s and both are part of Haslett’s, who is part of Cowher’s, who is part of Schottenheimer’s.
See how it works?
“One thing you can say is that Western Pennsylvania ties obviously helped, no matter what tree they come from,’’ Colbert noted.
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