Influential WPIAL administrator Charles ‘Ace’ Heberling dies
Monday, December 9, 2019 | 11:50 AM
Charles “Ace” Heberling, who directed the WPIAL for more than two decades and is credited with making the league what it is today, died Monday. He was 94.
The former NFL official became the first full-time administrator of the WPIAL in 1976, a job he held until retiring in 1997. Under his leadership, the WPIAL elevated girls sports to be equal with boys, created a centralized system for scheduling and made the football championships a four-game event at Three Rivers Stadium.
He also saw the league headquarters move from a home in Monroeville to an office in Green Tree, one of many upgrades that brought structure to the WPIAL.
“The WPIAL — what it is and how it’s thought of — you have to attribute that to him,” current WPIAL executive director Tim O’Malley said. “He’s the guy that built the league. It’s the league that Ace built. And candidly, when I came in, my goal was not to screw it up.”
He was in declining health and had recently undergone treatment for cancer, O’Malley said.
Born April 28, 1925, Heberling was a multi-sport high school athlete at Perry in Pittsburgh’s North Side and later for Washington & Jefferson College, where he graduated in 1949. He went on to work as a salesman for General Electric, became a respected referee and had a 23-year career as an NFL official. Among his top games, he was referee for the 1986 AFC Championship, remembered for “The Drive” by Denver Broncos quarterback John Elway late in the fourth quarter.
Heberling also officiated high school football and basketball games, a connection that earned him a seat on the WPIAL Board of Control and ultimately led him to work for the league. When William Lohr resigned as executive director (then called executive secretary) in 1976, Heberling was hired to run the rapidly growing organization.
Heberling led the WPIAL to many achievements while ruling at times with an iron fist. He was charismatic but also could be cantankerous with school administrators, coaches and media members.
“I always told him, ‘God doesn’t know what to do with you, so you might be here forever,’” O’Malley said. “Because he’s never lost a debate up there and you’ve probably never lost a debate here.”
O’Malley called this “a tough day for the WPIAL.”
Heberling was proud of the WPIAL’s strength and used to give away ink pens that declared it the largest and the best athletic league in the country, O’Malley said. The WPIAL, founded in 1906, includes more than 130 schools.
Among his accomplishments, Heberling oversaw the consolidation of the WPIAL and the WPGAL into one organization in the late 1970s, boosting support for girls athletics. He also founded a WPIAL scholar-athlete program in 1992 that continues to award scholarships to students annually.
“He was a good one,” former Upper St. Clair football coach Jim Render said. “He was controversial, but he ran a pretty good ship. He and I had a great respect for each other, especially toward the end of his career. But we had our moments a couple of times.”
Once, Render recalled, Heberling complimented him on the radio, so Render called him at the WPIAL office the next day.
“I asked him, ‘What are you doing?’” Render said with a laugh. “He said, ‘Who is this?’ … I said, ‘I’ve got a reputation to maintain and here you go saying nice things about me.’ He knew who it was and started laughing.”
In 1986, Heberling made arrangements for all four football championships to be played on the same day at Three Rivers Stadium, a tradition that continues today at Heinz Field. Playing the championships at marquee sites was important to him.
“We’ve lost a powerhouse,” said John Giammarco, founder of the Pittsburgh Basketball Club. “He was so far ahead of his time, playing the championship games at the big venues. He ruled with an iron fist but deep down, he cared.”
Giammarco remembered his first conversation with Heberling in the 1990s.
“I got off the phone and said, ‘I think I just talked to God,’” Giammarco said. “The guy sounded like John Facenda,” the voice of NFL Films.
Larry Hanley followed Heberling as WPIAL executive director for a decade, and O’Malley took the job in 2006.
Several weeks ago, O’Malley and WPIAL associate executive director Amy Scheuneman met Heberling for lunch. Scheuneman, who was hired in July, is expected to eventually replace O’Malley as executive director.
“He can be as gracious as anybody,” O’Malley said. “He was a charming, very gracious guy, but he can be cantankerous and everybody knew that side of Ace. During lunch, he just looked over at her and asked, ‘Can you say no?’ in a very stern way. That was Ace.”
Heberling was inducted into the WPIAL Hall of Fame during its inaugural class in 2007. He’s also a member of the Washington & Jefferson Hall of Fame and the Washington-Greene County Chapter of the Pennsylvania Sports Hall of Fame.
The WPIAL is one of 12 districts statewide that combine to form the PIAA, but the WPIAL is unique because of Heberling, said Bill Sinning, who represents male-sports officials on the WPIAL board of directors.
“We are different than the others, and that’s because of everything that he did,” Sinning said. “He was the key. He’s why we are who we are.”
As an NFL official, Heberling also used his connections to help others from Western Pennsylvania break into that field, Sinning said.
Heberling was preceded in death by his wife Jane, who died in 2015. They were married for 65 years and had four children, Karen, Kevin, David and the late Daniel Heberling.
Visitation is 6-8 p.m. Wednesday, and Thursday from 2-4 p.m. and 6-8 p.m. at Devlin Funeral Home in Ross. The funeral service is noon Friday at St. Alexis Church in McCandless.
“When he came into the position as executive director, the league was a shadow of what it is now,” O’Malley said. “He had a vision when he came in that it should run in a certain way, and he took it upon himself to take it in that direction.”
Chris Harlan is a Tribune-Review Staff Writer. You can contact Chris by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .