Varsity Xtra: Just call 'em coach -- Many ex-Steelers move from field to sidelines coaching at schools
Former Steeler and now Avonworth assistant Jeff Hartings takes in practice Tuesday.
Seneca Valley linebackers coach Jason Gildon prepares for Friday's game.
Avonworth assistant coach Chris Hoke, right, talks with head coach Duke Johncour at practice Tuesday.
University Prep assistant Mike Logan, right, evaluates practice with head coach Lou Berry last season.
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Chris Hoke attended the Steelers game Sunday and admitted struggling while watching from afar.
For the first time in more than a decade, he wasn't a Steeler.
"It was very hard, because, for the last 11 years, I was there," said Hoke, who retired as a Steeler after last season. "But I get to be around football here. This is where I get my fix of football now."
Hoke made the comment as he stared out at the Avonworth High School football team going through stretching exercises before a practice earlier this week. These days, Hoke wears a red and white Avonworth football jacket and answers to "Coach."
Hoke is in his first year as an assistant coach at Avonworth and one of a handful of former Steelers who have gone from NFL to WPIAL. While schools show off their colors, some guys who wore the black and gold are having an effect on teenagers as coaches at district high schools in the WPIAL and also the City League.
"I'm an intense guy and, sometimes, I have to tone down the intensity a little, but I love the coaching," Hoke said as a light rain dampened his jacket, but not his enthusiasm.
Other former Steelers coaching in the district are:
• Jeff Hartings, a two-time Pro Bowl selection, is a comrade of Hoke. Hartings is in his second season as an Avonworth assistant, coaching the offensive line.
• Jason Gildon, a three-time Pro Bowl linebacker with the Steelers, is in his first season as linebackers coach at Seneca Valley after coaching last year at Peters Township.
• Mike Logan, a defensive back with the Steelers from 2001-06, is in his second season coaching running backs, defensive backs and special teams at University Prep. A year ago, University Prep won the City League championship.
• Eric Ravotti, a Steelers linebacker for three years in the mid-1990s, is in his second season as head coach at Fox Chapel.
• Josh Miller, a punter for the Steelers from 1996-'03, helps coach kickers and punters at Fox Chapel.
But other former Steelers are coaching high school football in other states. Hardy Nickerson is the head coach at Bishop O'Dowd in Oakland, Calif. Levon Kirkland is the head middle-school (7th through 9th grade) coach at Shannon Forest Christian School in Greenville, S.C. The school hopes to start JV and varsity teams in the next few years, and Kirkland would be the head coach.
Also, former Steelers offensive lineman Jim Sweeney was an assistant coach at South Fayette High School before stepping down after last season. Sweeney hopes to coach again, possibly at the college level or higher.
For high school head coaches, it's hard not to welcome a former Steeler to the staff.
"Yeah, I'm pretty sharp, aren't I?" said Seneca Valley coach Don Holl. "I took a Steelers linebacker and made him our linebackers coach."
Gildon coached at Peters Township last year. He lives in the North Allegheny district and has a son, Jason, a junior on North Allegheny's team. Holl was put in touch with Gildon through a mutual friend.
"It was just a case of him wanting to coach perhaps closer to home, but not necessarily his own son," Holl said. "It just worked out that one of our defensive guys kind of had to bow out of coaching, so we had an opening. We were lucky to get hooked up with [Gildon]."
Coaching high school football in Pennsylvania is not a full-time job. Assistant coaches who are paid by the school might make maybe a couple thousand dollars. Obviously, the former Steelers aren't doing it for the money.
Hoke coaches Avonworth's defensive linemen. He comes to all games and to practices usually once or twice a week. Hartings is at all Avonworth practices and games.
"I love it," said Hartings, who lives in Avonworth's district with his wife, Rebecca, and eight children. "I love football, and it's just a good fit. Avonworth is the district where my kids go to school, and I have a lot of kids activities every night. I'd love to coach at a higher level, but there is too much of a time commitment.
"I'm just getting started in coaching. If I had any desires to coach at another level, God is in control for one thing. Secondly, I want to stay focused with the ministry, too. If I had any desires to be coaching at another level, it would be in the NFL. But this is great being able to coach kids and teach kids the fundamentals of football."
But Hartings has found that he had to lower his expectations.
"You kind of have to adjust the way you coach," he said. "These kids don't have the experience. They don't do this year round. We don't have long position meetings, so you can't really have complex plays and offenses."
Holl and Avonworth coach Duke Johncour both said they often see that players are more open to coaching from Gildon, Hartings and Hoke, just because the players know they were Steelers.
"Not that kids don't respond to other coaches, but what those guys bring in terms of technique and some other things helps a lot," Johncour said. "I think with our kids, the mystique of them being Steelers has worn off. To the kids, they're just coaches now -- and that's good."
Hartings, Hoke and Johncour all have boys the same age who play sports together. Johncour said it took some convincing to get Hoke to come aboard.
"When our kids were in summer baseball, I beat his ear pretty good about coaching," Johncour said, with a laugh. "I just thought he could make a big difference in these kids, not just in football but in their lives. The kids really enjoy him. I think they enjoy both [Hoke and Hartings]."
Hoke also lives in the Avonworth district with his wife, Jaimee, and their five children.
"Duke kept bugging me," Hoke said, "and I finally just said, 'What else am I doing, anyway?' I'm doing some TV stuff and I'm helping coach my son's [midget-league] team, too. ... I always wanted to coach. It has always been a dream of mine. When I was playing, I was always one of those guys who would grab young guys and try to tutor them and help them."
Hoke said his dream is to someday coach at Brigham Young University, where he played. But, for now, he is extremely content coaching Avonworth, a Class A school in the WPIAL.
"What I like about coaching high school kids is they are playing just because they love the game," Hoke said. "They may not be the best at what they do, but they love playing. Sometimes, you lose that in professional sports.
"People playing professionally might not love the game any more. They're playing because it's their job and they're doing it to provide for their family and make good money.
"The biggest adjustment for me has been the intensity. I'm a very intense guy and I played at a high level [in the NFL] for 11 years. Now I come here and I have to realize not every kid has that intensity and focus you see at the professional level. I have to remind myself that these are just high school kids."
Former pro athletes who are coaching in the high school ranks today in various sports:
BRETT FAVRE -- The legendary former NFL quarterback is in his first season as offensive coordinator at Oak Grove High School in Favre's hometown of Hattiesburg, Miss. Is Favre making a difference? Well, Oak Grove scored 64 points in its opener.
CRAIG BIGGIO -- Biggio had more than 3,000 hits in his career with the Houston Astros and has been a big hit the past few seasons as the head coach of the St. Thomas High School baseball team in Houston. Biggio's team won private school state championships in 2010 and '11. Two of his sons have played for him.
WADE BOGGS -- A member of the Baseball Hall of Fame, Boggs has been the hitting coach at Wharton High School in Tampa, Fla., for more than a decade.
CHARLIE WARD -- A former Heisman Trophy winner who also played in the NBA, Ward is the head football coach at Westbury Christian High School in Houston.
DAVID WELLS -- Wells, who pitched 21 seasons in the majors, was the pitching coach this past spring at Point Loma High School in San Diego. Wells is a Point Loma graduate.
First Published September 21, 2012 12:00 am