Don Rebel: Remembering ‘Ace’ as driving force behind WPIAL’s success

Monday, December 9, 2019 | 3:50 PM

Charles Heberling lived up to his nickname. He truly was an ‘Ace.’

Heberling was the driving force behind the growth of the WPIAL in the 1970’s, 80’s and 90’s.

He became the league’s first executive director and brought with him a mentality that served him well for 23 years as an NFL referee.

He made the tough calls whether they were popular or not.

I started broadcasting high school sports fresh out of college in 1988. My first introduction to him was intimidating. He was the powerful Oz, and I was the scarecrow, lion and tinman wrapped in one.

When I mentioned I worked for WIXZ, a small radio station based out of McKeesport, he groused about the media, hoped I wasn’t going to be “like all of them,” and wished me well.

He also said I could always contact him if I needed anything, and he was always a man of his word.

Whether it was a phone call or a visit to the league offices in Green Tree, he always seemed to have time to answer my questions.

He always referred to me as Mister Rebel, which at my age, made me turn to see if my dad was behind me.

One of my biggest joys was in my first year of hosting an interview show where I had various local coaches come on and answer my clichéd questions, I mustered up the nerve to ask and Ace agreed to be one of my guests.

I was thrilled when with each question I asked I didn’t hear back, “Now what kind of question is that Mister Rebel?”

Ace ruled with an iron fist back in a time before PC was a thing.

A couple of steering committee members reflected back to when Ace was in charge, and they would meet to hammer out and put together the playoff brackets for whatever sport was preparing for the postseason.

The committee would be gathered and Ace would walk in, put HIS brackets up on the projector and ask if there were any questions. Then he would ask what was for lunch.

Athletic directors would tell me, “It’s Ace’s way or the highway.”

However it wasn’t ego that drove Ace to be a great leader. If somebody had a good idea, Ace would listen. It was always what was “best for business” for Ace. And the business was making the WPIAL a league emulated by many.

When the league started playing some of its football championship games at Three Rivers Stadium, he wondered why not make it an event and play all four title games there in one day? Since 1986, the league has done just that at both Three Rivers Stadium and now Heinz Field. It has made a lasting memory for tens of thousands of local high school football players over the decades.

I contend that a lot of what we do at Trib HSSN and the other previous networks over the last 20 years was born at that small radio station I worked at in the late 80’s and early 90’s.

I shared with Ace my vision of covering WPIAL sports much like the networks do with pro sports — running studio shows, scoreboard shows and the actual broadcasts.

He liked the idea, but would show his true support come football championship time in 1989.

Stations had to pay an individual rights fee to the WPIAL in order to broadcast playoff and championship games. I had pushed our station owner to broadcast all four title games, even if some of the schools were out of our coverage area.

He gave me the green light, as long as we could get a discount on the rights fees.

I nervously called Ace and hemmed and hawed my way to eventually asking for a discount. He came right out and barked a quick “no” to my question. He said if he cut us a break, he would have to cut everybody a break.

A day later, he called our station accountant and told her we could have the discount.

He later confided in me that he had to make me sweat it out a little bit, but he loved the idea of full day coverage on one radio station.

He was like the wise grandfather who if you did well, he would reward you. But if you performed poorly, well there was a price to pay.

Somehow, I ended up on his good side.

One other thing he became known for in his time as the head of the WPIAL was not allowing freebies into district postseason games, even those folks in charge of a team’s transportation.

I can just picture him now explaining to St. Peter at the pearly gates, “Now remember, the bus driver must have a ticket to get in here.”

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