New Mt. Pleasant athletic director saw something special in district

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Sunday, April 14, 2024 | 3:47 PM


Coaching college football the last decade has taken James “J.J.” Eckels up and down the recruiting trail. Over rivers and through woods just to get that nibble on the line from a potential commit.

For some reason, his stops at Mt. Pleasant struck him as different. The school seemed to go beyond the cookie-cutter framework and facade of many district schools.

It was a place that earned his respect.

“I have visited nearly a thousand high schools, recruiting 10 different states,” Eckels said. “The school and the facilities for a (Class) triple-A, small-school program are awesome.”

His warmth toward the school grew into an opportunity, and Eckels went for it.

Starting July 1, he will be the new full-time athletic director at Mt. Pleasant.

He was hired April 3.

“It’s exciting to join a community which seems to have a sense of pride for their athletic teams, not to mention the recent success at the PIAA championship level in multiple sports,” Eckels said.

“I played with and coached around a half-dozen athletes from Mt. Pleasant, and the kids have been some of my favorite in coaching.”

A McKeesport and Clarion graduate who earned his master’s in organizational leadership from Mercyhurst, Eckels will replace a two-man operation that includes Allan Bilinsky and Bob Gumbita, who shared AD duties since 2022.

Those are two of many men who have played a part in Eckels’ ascent to an administrative position.

“Bob and Allan are great guys and have been teaching me how things have been done within the district,” Eckels said. “I look forward to working with them and the rest of the staff at Mt. Pleasant.

“I would be (remiss) if I didn’t mention and thank a few other people that have helped me prepare for this position. I learned so much in a short period of time from John Petermen, Don Holl, Ed Dalton, Ty-Meer Brown, Terry Totten, John Bainbridge, George Novak and George Smith.”

Eckels, 34, never has been involved in the departmental side of athletics, but he believes his coaching experience can endure.

He has an assistant at Frostburg State (2013-14), Mercyhurst (June 2014-21) and Saint Vincent (2022-23), working mainly with special teams and serving as a recruiting coordinator.

“Being a small-school college football coach is anything but just coaching football,” he said. “Many people don’t realize all the time and effort that goes into running a collegiate program with 4-6 full-time coaches.

“I have gained experience in working security, being a gameday manager, budgeting, fundraising, scheduling and assisting in the hiring process at different schools. The network of athletic directors and coaches is extraordinary.”

At McKeesport, Eckels was a standout quarterback who guided the Tigers to the 2005 PIAA Class 4A championship game.

He played safety at Clarion, where he was a four-year starter. He graduated from Clarion with a dual major in corporate finance and monetary economics.

Eckels lives in Hempfield with his wife, Chelsea; their three children, Killian (4), Islay (3) and Koughan (1); and their dog, Hula.

“I would like to enhance the student-athlete experience (at Mt. Pleasant),” he said, “and help our district’s coaches any way I can within reason.

“I look forward to meeting many new faces.”

Bill Beckner Jr. is a TribLive reporter covering local sports in Westmoreland County. He can be reached at bbeckner@triblive.com.

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