Longtime Kiski Area football coach Dick Dilts, remembered for lifelong impact, dies at 93

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Wednesday, May 29, 2024 | 5:23 PM


There was no greater compliment Tony Despotakis could pay Richard “Dick” Dilts than to compare him to Vince Lombardi. The former Kiski Area football coach shared many similarities to one the NFL’s greatest coaching minds.

“He was a big fan of Lombardi, and he studied Lombardi and his coaching style,” said Despotakis, a Kiski Area graduate who played for Dilts from 1975-77.

“There was the Kiski Area fight song, but before the band would go into the fight song, it would play the Green Bay fight song. Every week before our games on Friday, right after school, the first thing we did was watch ‘The Greatest Challenge,’ the story about the 1967 Green Bay Packers and their striving to win a third straight NFL championship.

“The similarities between Coach Lombardi and Coach Dilts was phenomenal. His dedication to coaching, the love of his players and fellow coaches, and just his attention to every detail were things which made (Dilts) one of the best coaches I’ve ever known.”

Richard James Dilts, the first head coach in Kiski Area football history with a tenure lasting three decades who also served as the school’s athletic director and head of the physical education department, died May 22.

He was 93.

Dilts is survived by his wife of 68 years, Sally, who is 90 years old.

“They were together for 71 years,” said son John Dilts. “He was the captain of the football team and she was the homecoming queen at Slippery Rock. It was a storybook life together.

“I am going to miss him like so many people will. He dedicated his life to God, his family and to things that he loved,” his son said.

“Football was such a big part of his life. But through a dedication to athletics at Kiski Area and to physical education, he pretty much touched the lives of every kid who went through that school.”

Despotakis later worked with Dilts as members of the Kiski Area Sports Hall of Fame committee.

“I am a better person for being around him, and I know countless others are also better for knowing him,” Despotakis said. “He never forgot me. My wife and I have been married for 39 years, and I can honestly tell you that for the majority of those years, the first Christmas card we received was from Coach and Mrs. Dilts.”

From 3rd choice to champion

Frank Morea, an assistant on Dilts’ early Kiski Area teams and a holdover from Vandergrift High School, was instrumental in getting Dilts to the home of the Cavaliers.

“Dilts was the third choice of Kiski Area when the school opened in 1962 with the merger of Vandergrift and Bell-Avon high schools,” said George Guido, a former Valley News Dispatch and TribLive correspondent and Alle-Kiski Valley sports historian.

“The school board settled on Ray Fiorini, the coach of Avella who had beaten Washington Township, later to be part of the Kiski Area system, in the 1961 WPIAL (Class A) title game. But Avella promoted Fiorini to school principal. Kiski then turned to Ron Corrigan of Tyrone, but Tyrone wouldn’t let Corrigan out of his contract and gave him a substantial pay raise.

“That left Kiski Area without a coach just three weeks before training camp opened. Morea suggested Dilts, whom Morea knew from their playing days at Slippery Rock University. Dilts, at Pine-Richland at the time, accepted the Kiski job.”

And with that, the tradition of Kiski Area football began.

His full coaching tenure started at Pine-Richland in 1959 and lasted with Kiski Area until 1993. He compiled a career record of 234-118-7. Of those 234 wins, 214 came at Kiski Area, along with 14 conference titles.

His win total at Kiski Area is second among Alle-Kiski Valley coaches behind Chuck Wagner (270) at Oakmont and Springdale.

The Cavaliers finished undefeated at 10-0 in 1964 and outscored opponents 393-76. The team, however, didn’t have enough Gardner Points to reach the title game.

Kiski Area, from 1967-72, posted a 67-6 record and was always in contention for conference and WPIAL titles.

“When I was a young kid, I got to be one of the team managers,” John Dilts said. “Frank Morea and Tony Nicholas, they were two of his assistant coaches and best friends. They were like my uncles. I spent so much time at the school, going to football camps and attending the games. Meeting people, I could see how many lives my father impacted throughout the years.”

The Cavaliers played for a WPIAL title in 1968 and 1970 and won the Class 3A title in 1971 with a 12-0 record.

“Davis Field was packed every game,” Guido said. “People would stand in line for up to an hour on Thursday nights to buy advance tickets at Pugliese Flower Shop in downtown Vandergrift.”

Kiski Area also finished as the WPIAL Class AAA runner-up by one point, 14-13, to Mt. Pleasant in 1986.

Guido said he valued his reporter-coach relationship with Dilts.

“He was a little wary when a reporter first started covering the team,” Guido said. “But after he got to know you, he was very welcoming. I can remember times in the offseason, I would stop by his office, before the high-security days, unannounced, and he would bring me to his office and give me lots of inside info.”

Dilts, Guido recalled, always felt it was important to be cordial with other coaches.

“The Foothills Conference, which Kiski dominated, would have what amounted to a cookout before the season, and coaches from Hempfield, Latrobe, Norwin, Connellsville, Greensburg Salem, Derry Area, Wilkinsburg and Jeannette would be there,” Guido said.

“When Kiski was so successful in offseason training, other schools asked him and his coaches to come to their schools and set up weight and nutritional programs. Then those schools started to beat Kiski, and Dilts laughed and said they had to stop doing it.”

Despotakis remembered a game from his junior year in 1975 in which Dilts helped inspire the team from an early 8-7 loss at Valley High School to a Foothills Conference co-championship with Penn Hills.

“After the game (against Valley), in the locker room, he made every player make a commitment before God and our teammates that we would give 100% for the rest of the season and win the Foothills championship,” he said.

A big 18-13 victory at Penn Hills was key to winning the conference title.

“We won the rest of our games and finished tied with Penn Hills,” Despotakis said. “But we represented the conference in the WPIAL playoffs because we had beaten Penn Hills.”

Dilts was well-recognized at Kiski Area sporting events and other events in the school community well after his retirement from his school and coaching duties.

The Dilts athletic legacy at Kiski Area carried on to his grandchildren. Jack Dilts represents the family as a senior defensive lineman on the Duquesne football team.

Jack was a sophomore member of the Cavaliers football team the night his grandfather was honored with the christening of the new on-campus stadium that now bears his name.

Kiski Area made it a night to remember as it defeated Allderdice, 24-9.

Kiski Area Sports Hall of Fame

Two decades ago, Dilts, along with some other like-minded people who held a steadfast love for the history of Cavaliers athletics, felt it was time to recognize the many athletic greats in a school hall of fame.

The Kiski Area Sports Hall of Fame became a reality and continues to enshrine classes to this day.

“His love for athletics at Kiski Area was unmatched,” said Dianne Haney, a 1972 Kiski Area graduate, a co-founding member of the hall of fame, and herself a hall-of-fame inductee.

“He cared for and created an atmosphere of sports and of physical education. When I was in high school, Kiski Area was a demonstration school for the president’s physical fitness program, and it was all due to Dick Dilts.

“His vision for not only sports but for fitness among young people was just way ahead of its time. In the era of Title IX, he was a huge supporter of opportunities for girls in sports.”

Haney said that if committee members had questions about a potential inductee, they knew they could go to Dilts, who was an encyclopedia of Kiski Area athletic knowledge.

“He was such a guiding force in looking at those individuals who were a cut above,” Haney said.

Dilts was there last September for the 2023 enshrinement ceremony at the Greek Social Hall in Oakmont.

One of his former players, the late Andrew Vida, a 1976 graduate, received posthumous induction.

“The quarterback for my junior and senior year, Angelo Fasano, one of my best friends for 50 years, and I sat with Coach Dilts at the last two hall of fame banquets,” Despotakis said.

“My nickname in high school was ‘Greek’ and I remember him saying to me, ‘Hey, Greek, you know I recognize the faces but I don’t remember some of the names. One by one, former players and other former (Kiski Area) athletes would come to his table to pay homage to him and ask how he was doing. I would just tell him to smile and nod, and that is what he did.

“From 1962 to 1993, he coached hundreds of players and watched so many on other teams. That was a lot to remember. I was honored to be one of his friends. I was honored to be one of his boys. He would always say that his players were always ‘Dick Dilts’ boys.’”

Michael Love is a TribLive reporter covering sports in the Alle-Kiski Valley and the eastern suburbs of Pittsburgh. A Clearfield native and a graduate of Westminster (Pa.), he joined the Trib in 2002 after spending five years at the Clearfield Progress. He can be reached at mlove@triblive.com.

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