Thursday, August 23, 2012

Varsity Xtra: Four aces -- Render, Novak McCurry, Hamilton still tops - Pittsburgh Post Gazette

They hail from the North, South, East and West of Pittsburgh, but North Hills' Jack McCurry, Upper St. Clair's Jim Render, Woodland Hills' George Novak and Blackhawk's Joe Hamilton seemingly have a meeting point. It would be at the Mount Rushmore of WPIAL football coaches.

Consider their longevity, success and impact on high school football. Like them or hate them. But you could easily make a case that the four have become the faces of WPIAL football coaches.

With longtime coach Chuck Wagner retiring after last season, Render, Hamilton, McCurry and Novak are now the four winningest active coaches in the WPIAL (Render, Hamilton and McCurry are the top three of all time). And, when high school football games in Pennsylvania kick off a week from today, never before has there been a start of a WPIAL season where the four winningest active coaches have had so many WPIAL championships and so many victories between them.

Two of the four are now in that 70s show -- Render and Hamilton are both age 70. McCurry is 63 and Novak 62. All four have survived and thrived, with McCurry, Render and Hamilton all pulling through attempted firings at some point. Their teams have all played against each other, with the exception of Hamilton and Novak. Between them, the numbers are surreal: 156 years of head-coaching experience, 19 WPIAL titles and 1,220 victories.

Render has 354 wins and four WPIAL titles; Hamilton 333 wins and four WPIAL championships; McCurry 275 victories and four titles; Novak 258 wins and six championships. You don't see coaching longevity like this in high school football nowadays. And there are no signs of these four coaching horsemen slowing down, although McCurry said this "could" be his final season. All four are highly anticipating their seasons.

"Well, I read the obituaries every day, and my name is not there, so I might as well keep going," McCurry said.

In Render's office next to Upper St. Clair's stadium, he has a framed article on the wall with a big headline on it: "What does it take to be No. 1 by Vince Lombardi"

"I would guess all four of us have our days where we think maybe I ought to write a bucket list and start working on some other things," Render said. "But I would imagine they would say the same thing I'm about to say, and that is the real kick to this comes on Friday nights. It's not on Tuesdays or the offseason where you do the same boring preparation. It's the Friday nights that keep you going."

Here are some facts and figures on this WPIAL front four of coaches, as well as some comments from each:

JIM RENDER

Coaching experience: Entering 44th year. Coached at Carrolton (Ohio), Uniontown and Upper St. Clair.

Record: 354-116-6

Notable players: Sean Lee (linebacker with Dallas Cowboys); Doug Whaley (played DB at Pitt and is now assistant general manager of Buffalo Bills); Kevin Orie (played Major League Baseball).

Did you know? Render's first game as Upper St. Clair's coach in 1979 was against North Hills and McCurry. North Hills won, 12-0. ... Render was a quarterback who played one season at Northwestern under Ara Parseghian, who went on to fame as Notre Dame's coach.

Best players you've faced? [North Hills'] LaVar Arrington would have to be one. Bob Schilken of Mt. Lebanon was something in his day. Maybe Brandon Short [of McKeesport].

How do you keep going? First of all, I think being around these young people keeps me young. I think it's helped me mentally and I think sometimes physically. I don't spend a lot of time discussing medications with other people my age.

You have a reputation of not handling losing well. Does winning still drive you a lot? The only problem is that once I heard [legendary former Marquette University basketball coach] Al McGuire say that sometimes if you build a monster, sometimes it winds up swallowing you. I think about that sometimes. A lot of times I'm coaching not to lose because I've built this program up pretty well and a lot of people want to beat us. Sometimes, I don't enjoy the victories as much as I probably should, and that's not the right way to have fun.

People said Joe Paterno coached way too long. Do you ever think of that? Yeah, I think of that. In fact, I had a meeting this spring with our school principal and superintendent and I asked a couple times that if you think I'm too old or not what you want, speak up.

JOE HAMILTON

Coaching experience: Entering 47th year. Coached at Midland, New Brighton, Hempfield and Blackhawk.

Record: 333-149-11

Notable players: Greg Best (played DB with Steelers in 1983); Jim Peel (DB at Ohio State); Scott Weaver (QB at University of Illinois); Brad Jones (OL with Penn State).

Did you know? In 1983, after a fourth consecutive losing season, the Blackhawk school board voted to fire Hamilton in a private meeting. But it never came to a public vote, and Hamilton kept his job. ... Hamilton was an honorable mention "Little All-American" at Geneva College in the early 1960s.

Best players you've faced? There are a whole bunch of them. Sean Gilbert, when he was at Aliquippa, was so big and so good. He could've been their best linebacker, lineman, quarterback, receiver, running back. He could play wherever he wanted. I coached against Dan Marino in an all-star game. Tony Dorsett, too. I didn't go against him, but I saw him play when I was coaching at New Brighton.

You're still going strong, aren't you? I think sometimes I'm going stronger than the kids [laugh]. I have no health issues and believe it or not, I like preseason camp. I like teaching fundamentals. Obviously, I like the competition in games, but I still like being able to prepare a team and helping young guys with their lives. I know those things sound corny, but it's true. The alternative would be I could retire and I wouldn't be happy. Nobody wants to hire an old man. I'd be working carts on a golf course or be a greeter at Wal-Mart, but I don't want to do those things. I'm doing what I like to do.

Do you think longevity in high school coaching is a thing of the past? The most difficult thing is to survive those bad seasons, which you are going to have sometimes unless you are in a unique situation or you are recruiting well. Too often school boards get antsy, people get antsy and some guys get fired. Some coaches can't take the pressure, either. People are going to say bad things about you when they don't even know you, and they don't even know the personnel of your team compared to other teams. But if you can't handle those things, you should get out. I mean, I criticized Chuck Noll when he coached. It's the nature of the game.

But I think what the four of us [Hamilton, Novak, McCurry and Render] have proven is that the consistency of a program is important.

JACK McCURRY

Coaching experience: Entering 35th year, all at North Hills.

Record: 275-104-9

Notable players: LaVar Arrington (All-American LB at Penn State and NFL Pro Bowl player); Mark Kelso (played DB in four Super Bowls with the Buffalo Bills); Eric Kasperowicz (Parade All-American QB); T.J. Osman (DL at the University of Michigan).

Did you know? McCurry's first WPIAL playoff game at North Hills was against Blackhawk and Hamilton in 1979. North Hills won, 6-0. ... McCurry was an honorable mention "Little All-American" at Edinboro University. ... McCurry's defensive coordinator, Pat Carey, was a standout on the 1987 team that finished with the No. 1 ranking in the country by USA Today.

Rumor is this could be your last year? I've told the kids it could be. I don't know. It depends on a lot of factors.

Why are you still coaching? Because I enjoy it. I think that's why all four of us still do it. We're all competitors, but we're different in personalities. George is the laid-back guy. I get excited now and then, and then there's Render. He thinks there is always someone out to get him.

Best player you've had? LaVar Arrington, no question.

Best player you've gone against? There have been so many. Dan Marino was one. He beat us, 14-0, as a senior and ran a bootleg for a TD. I remember telling Bob O'Rourke, 'Watch the bootleg.' He says, 'I got it.' Yeah, he got it. There goes Marino right by him for a touchdown. I think [Upper St. Clair's] Sean Lee has to be up there, and all those Woodland Hills kids, too.

Does winning still drive you? It used to, but not so much now. I still just like to see the kids develop and see how they turn out and grow. I think I'm a better coach because I just know more.

You, Render and Hamilton all survived firing attempts? I don't think we're a very bright group [laugh]. It always amazes me how people think we actually put somebody on the field for some reason while we have a better player standing on the sideline. I love that. It just makes no sense to me when people think that, especially the way all of us are driven to win.

If a coach is going to last long and be successful, how important is the wife? It's one of the biggest keys to being successful for a long time. We raised a family [two children]. Well, my wife did. I only saw my son play high school football twice [at Pine-Richland] and I regret that. I really do. Your wife is a key to this. She sacrifices a lot, runs things and supports you.

GEORGE NOVAK

Coaching experience: 35th year. Started at Steel Valley in 1979 and is the only coach in Woodland Hills history, starting in 1987.

Record: 258-126-1.

Notable players: Novak has sent loads of players to Division I colleges. In 2010, Woodland Hills had six graduates in the NFL, the most of any high school in the country. They were Steve Breaston, Jason Taylor, Rob Gronkowski, Shawntae Spencer, Ryan Mundy and Lousaka Polite.

Did you know? Novak is one of only four coaches in WPIAL history with six WPIAL titles. He won one at Steel Valley and five at Woodland Hills. ... In the preseason, Novak regularly drives around the Woodland Hills district, picking up players who don't have a way to get to practice.

Best players you've faced? Back when I first started here at Woodland Hills, we faced Curtis Bray at Gateway. He was really good. LaVar Arrington was a great player at North Hills, and so was [Marc] Bulger at Central Catholic.

How about the best teams? Upper St. Clair in 1989. North Hills in 1993 when LaVar Arrington was a freshman was a great team. Those Parkland and Downingtown teams we played in state championships were great teams.

Are you, Render, McCurry and Hamilton a lot different in personalities? Those three are a lot smarter [laugh]. I have to work a lot harder than them.

How long will you keep going? I tell my wife that I take it one year at a time. I still enjoy it and I still enjoy working with kids. You have a lot of challenges every day, and every year is different. But football is still important in the Woodland Hills communities. We have four midget leagues within our district now.

Will we ever see high school coaches last four decades any more? It's tough. This is a different era. Communities are different and school boards are different. I think kids still need discipline, and they appreciate it. I think discipline helps our kids get through school. But, if you look around at the things that happen in different communities nowadays, and around school boards in the WPIAL, it's tougher to be a coach now.

Post-Gazette photos

Upper St. Clair's Jim Render, Blackhawk's Joe Hamilton, North Hills' Jack McCurry and Woodland Hills' George Novak are the winningest active coaches in the WPIAL.

The winningest coach in Pennsylvania history is out of retirement.

George Curry, who has 413 career wins, is back as Berwick's coach. Curry had a legendary run at Berwick in eastern Pennsylvania, going 387-83-5 with six PIAA titles, before resigning after the 2005 season. He went on to coach Wyoming Valley West for three years before retiring.

Curry, 68, came out of retirement to take over Berwick after coach Gary Campbell resigned in June to take a coaching job in Massachusetts.

Besides coaching at Berwick and Wyoming Valley West, Curry started his career at Lake Lehman in 1967. His all-time record is 413-94-4 and the 413 wins put him seventh on the all-time national list. The leader is John McKissick of Summerville, S.C., who is entering his 61st season with a 594-143-13 record

Coach, Record, Years, Schools

George Curry, 413-94-4, 1967- , Lake Lehman, Berwick, Wyoming Valley West

Jack Henzes, 357-152-8, 1967- , Blakely, Wyoming Area, Dunmore

Jim Render, 354-116-6, 1969- , Carrolton (Ohio), Uniontown, Upper St. Clair

Frank Pazzaglia, 340-141-8, 1970- , Metuchen (N.J.), Blakely, Valley View, Mid Valley

Jim Roth, 330-59-2, 1984- , Southern Columbia

Joe Hamilton, 333-149-11, 1965- , Midland, New Brighton, Hempfield, Blackhawk

Mike Pettine, 326-42-4, 1968-99, Central Bucks West

Don Bailey, 324-86-6, 1974- , Forest Hills

Bill Scott, 303-175-1, 1963-2008, Elkton (Md.), P.S. Dupont (Del.), Wilmington (Del.), Warrior Run, Selinsgrove

Mike Williams, 318-64-3, 1980-2011, Manheim Central

Jim Render, 354-116-6, 1969- , Carrolton (Ohio), Uniontown, Upper St. Clair

Joe Hamilton, 333-149-11, 1965- , Midland, New Brighton, Hempfield, Blackhawk

Jack McCurry, 275-104-9, 1978- , North Hills

Chuck Wagner, 270-202-11, 1961-2011, Oakmont, Riverview, Fox Chapel, Springdale

Pat Tarquinio, 269-143-11, 1959-99, Ellwood City, Beaver

Phil Bridenbaugh, 265-64-25, 1922-55, New Castle

Jim Garry, 265-153-14, 1958-99, McDonald, Fort Cherry

George Novak, 258-126-1, 1979- , Steel Valley, Woodland Hills

Pete Antimarino, 255-93-13, 1954-1989, Pitcairn, Gateway

Don Yannessa, 249-137-7, 1972-2008, Aliquippa, Baldwin, Ambridge

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