Ruane, Humbert build Penn-Trafford, Belle Vernon into consistent contenders

Thursday, November 25, 2021 | 11:01 AM

The local coaches who will try to lead their teams to WPIAL football championships on Saturday at Heinz Field have more in common than a desire to break through.

John Ruane of Penn-Trafford and Matt Humbert of Belle Vernon have taken competitive programs to the next level, following similar trajectory in their time leading the Warriors and Leopards, both of whom wear green and gold.

Consider: Ruane and Humbert were quarterbacks in high school and college, both are now teachers, and both are meticulous in their preparation. They are humble, team-first leaders who are respected in coaching circles.

Now, can they share something else by winning the big one?

Penn-Trafford is seeking a long-awaited first title.

“I want Penn-Trafford to win a championship,” Ruane said. “For the kids and for the district. There are a lot of people who put a lot of faith in us, and it would be meaningful for us to do it for the community. It’s not about me. It’s about them.”

Penn-Trafford (10-2) will take on Moon (12-0) at 6 p.m. Saturday in the Class 5A title game on the North Shore, right after Belle Vernon (10-0) faces Aliquippa (10-1) in the 4A final at 3.

Penn-Trafford played at Belle Vernon in Week 2 with the Leopards winning, 27-7.

Humbert, who became the Leopards’ coach in 2014, also is the athletic director and teaches three classes at Belle Vernon, which has one WPIAL title (1995).

“Hopefully I impact the kids,” Humbert said. “That’s the only thing I really care about. My goal is, can I help a kid get a job 10 years from now based off of something we instilled in them?

“I want to be known as an annoying pusher. Pushing and prodding. You can’t get anything easy in life. I want to prepare the kids for uncomfortable situations.”

Path to P-T

Ruane teaches at Gateway but lives in the Penn-Trafford school district, where he put down roots shortly before he became coach in 2010.

He wasn’t hired initially but took advantage of a fresh set of downs when the position opened a year later. It’s been nothing but stability since.

Penn-Trafford is chasing an elusive first title after three previous trips to the finals, two under Ruane (2015, ‘17).

Ruane always saw Penn-Trafford as the right fit. But he is only the ringleader of an army.

“We’ve had a lot of success,” Ruane said. “But there are a lot of good people running this place that have given us everything we need to be successful. It’s a community atmosphere here. A lot of good people at the top who have given us every resource we’ve ever needed.”

First intrigued by coaching when was in college at IUP, Ruane was hired by Tom Organ as an assistant at Gateway, his alma mater.

“Back then I didn’t realize what you needed to be to be good,” Ruane said. “I was maybe eight years in. … I never wanted to just go anywhere to be a head coach. I moved to Penn-Trafford. This was the only job I ever applied for and the only job I would apply for. It was a good fit when the time came up. I didn’t get hired the first time, but that worked out too.”

Ruane, 43, who focuses on the offense and quarterbacks, has built a program that is a model of consistency with constant attention to detail.

“He is the most organized, detail-oriented person I have ever been around in my life,” said Warriors assistant Dave Ruby, who followed Ruane to Penn-Trafford from Gateway. “He thought this place was special. He turned out to be correct. He is confident. There is never a doubt.”

Most of Ruane’s staff has been with him for all 12 years.

“I hired as high quality of defensive assistants as you can get,” Ruane said. “I trust everything they do. There really isn’t a reason for me to get involved.

“A lot of good guys on our staff have sacrificed a ton for us to be successful.”

Trip to ‘The Beach’

Humbert, 36, blended into athletics coming out of Cal (Pa.).

“It was one of those things in athletics, just naturally how you envision yourself in the future,” Humbert said.

One of his assistants is Scott Knee, who was his high school head coach at Laurel Highlands, where Humbert starred as a quarterback before playing at Cal (Pa.).

“He mentioned something off the cuff about me getting into coaching,” Humbert said. “I never thought about it at all. One thing led to another.

“I learned real quick I wasn’t going to play at the next level after college. Me not being thrust into that (starting quarterback) role (as a junior and senior) had me view things from a different angle and maybe coaching would be my route. It was osmosis. It just kind of worked.”

Standards of success

Trademarks often get attached to coaches who look to leave their mark on a program.

Ruane loathes the limelight but loves the behind-the-scenes work that comes with constructing a winner.

“He is hands down the best coach I have ever had,” Warriors senior running back Cade Yacamelli said. “When I first came here, I was trying to play as a sophomore. … He didn’t make it easy. He was really hard on me — I hated it at the time — but it turns out that was the best thing for me. He pushed me to be the player I am today. I wouldn’t want to win with any other coach.”

Ruane is 106-30 in 12 seasons and has only missed the playoffs once, in 2016 when the Warriors finished 7-3.

Seven times he has reached at least the semifinals.

“He has established toughness and heart,” Yacamelli said. “It’s his staff that he picked, too. A big part of our success is that heart factor, and we showed that last Friday (in the semifinals). As cliche as it sounds, it works.”

Humbert, who spent four years as head coach at Ringgold before joining Belle Vernon, has never missed the playoffs with the Leopards, who became instant winners when he took over.

He is 67-16 and reached the finals in 2019. The Leopards have reached the semifinals five straight seasons.

Coaching philosophy

Humbert has added some decorations to the program — catchphrases, monikers and some flash. It’s a new wave approach to marketing Bell Vernon sports.

He designed a BVA logo that the school now uses and incorporated the battle chant “HML” (Hail Mighty Leopards).

“Belle Vernon had that tradition,” Humbert said. “I helped add tangible things to that tradition. ‘The Beach’ is something that we blow out. We added those tradition-based, legacy-based things from a Thursday practice to the helmet decals and what they mean. We’re trying to be a poor man’s version of a college program. They are salesmen. I have to sell them on the intangibles it takes to win. We’re selling adjectives.”

Belle Vernon assistant Brett Berish said Humbert is tireless in his efforts to push the program farther.

“Matt always draws up a way to beat you,” Berish said. “He does a great job of holding the kids and coaches accountable. He lets the coaches coach and the coaches coach hard for him.”

“He’s up at 4 a.m. and he’s here until 7 at night. He puts in the time.”

Ruane isn’t about pizzazz or flair. He just wants to win and contribute to his players’ future.

“We all have that responsibility as coaches,” Ruane said. “To teach these kids, way more than football, how to be an adult. That life isn’t easy and there’s adversity. All these guys are going to be parents and husbands one day. There are some similarities with football (and life).”

Ruane sounds like some of the WPIAL greats — Bill Cherpak, Bob Palko among them — when he talks about the team concept.

“There is no ‘me’ guy on this team,” he said. “It’s legitimately a roster full of team players and they show it daily. Deep down, we don’t care what the expectations are on the outside. The expectation inside never changes.”

Like Ruane, Humbert does not micromanage his staff.

“All good coaches are insecure,” Berish said. “Because they all have a fear of failure. They may not show it, and Matt won’t, but they are. When it’s all said and done, Matt is going to be one of the great ones.”

Bill Beckner Jr. is a Tribune-Review Staff Writer. You can contact Bill by email at or via Twitter .

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