George Guido: Finding high school coaches with staying power a difficult task

Saturday, July 31, 2021 | 12:01 AM

Prior to 1979, a coach and a teacher were one and the same at any high school.

But times really have changed.

Now, the specter of having your coach in a classroom is less and less likely.

Schools are having more challenges finding coaches inside and outside of the faculty lounge.

An example is Fox Chapel, the Alle-Kiski Valley’s largest high school, enrollment-wise.

“Things have changed in teachers contracts,” said Mike O’ Brien, Fox Chapel athletic director. “There are now additional responsibilities, and the demands of the classroom are spilling into the evenings.”

Teachers these days often have to meet with parents in the evenings if both parents work and have to respond to other parental queries by email.

Teachers once used coaching as supplemental income. When the legendary Chuck DeVenzio began his teaching and coaching career at North Lima, Ohio, in 1947 for $650 per season, he thought he’d struck gold.

Now, a starting teacher at Fox Chapel gets in the neighborhood of $26,000 per year.

Sometimes, the old requirement that a coach could only serve where he taught allowed for strange situations.

In 1943, all of the male teachers at Bell Township High School were serving in World War II. The principal, Quentin Kintigh, tabbed Pauline Rugh Smith to become the only female football coach in the nation.

There was a time when the same person had multiple coaching duties. At the former Washington Township High School, Don Earley was the football coach, the basketball coach and the athletic director.

What really opened the door to nonteachers coaching was a move in 1979 to allow teachers from other schools to coach elsewhere.

An early example was Don Bender, who taught at Shaler, but was named head coach at Deer Lakes.

“I’d say about 80 percent of our coaches are non-Fox Chapel teachers,” O’ Brien said. “Our boys basketball coach, Zach Skrinjar, teaches at North Hills, and our baseball coach, Jim Hastings, is with the AIU (Allegheny Intermediate Unit). It can be tough going sometimes to find coaches.”

These days, many outside the teaching profession coach on the high school level, which has served many programs well.

Fox Chapel’s softball coach, Chris Olbrich, is a family physician. He guided the Foxes to their first PIAA berth this past season.

At Freeport, nonteacher coaches are from various professions. Girls basketball coach Fred Soilis is an attorney with law firm of Caroselli, Beachler & Coleman. New boys basketball coach Sean Devinney is a Pittsburgh firefighter. Softball coach Sam Ross has been a code enforcement/zoning officer.

“We’ve not had a lot of turnover here at Freeport,” said athletic director Shawn Stiveson, alluding to the lengthy tenures of John Gaillot, head football and track coach, along with veteran volleyball coach Tom Phillips.

Added Stiveson: “It’s definitely not the way it used to be. There’s all these requirements now like background checks, CPR certifications and learning concussion protocols.”

Coaches also have been driven from the profession by nasty social media posts and goofball parents who organize drives to fire coaches when their scholar-athletes don’t get enough playing time. Three of the top four winningest football coaches in WPIAL history — Jim Render (Upper St. Clair), Joe Hamilton (Blackhawk) and Jack McCurry (North Hills) all had to survive school board moves to be fired.

As many coaches near retirement, Stiveson and other athletic administrators hope for smooth handoffs.

“Some of our coaches have been around for a long time,” Stiveson said. “We hope they will mentor the young ones who could take over.”

Gone are the days of Chuck Wagner, Dick Dilts and DeVenzio, who all coached 40-plus seasons.

Freeport, like many other schools, hope under-30, teacher-coaches such as Tahlon Kirkland in boys soccer and Mallory Heinle, assistant varsity and junior high head girls basketball coach, stick around for a long time.

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