Gorman: Nola deserves credit for Clairton's run
Tom Nola has never wanted it to be about him, so the Clairton coach goes to great lengths to shun the spotlight.
His deference is the difference, as Nola used a low-key approach to lead the Bears to a record-setting run the past four seasons.
Not only has Clairton won five consecutive WPIAL Class A championships and four straight PIAA titles, but the Bears are riding a state-record 63-game winning streak that is best in the nation.
They were the high school story of the year, certainly in Western Pennsylvania, if not the state. One that drew national attention to the tiny steel town in the Mon Valley.
“I really am humbled by it because there's tons of good coaches that haven't had the opportunity I've had here,” Nola said. “It's quite amazing to me, actually, that we've done what we've done. I always say ‘we' because it's not just me. We're good coaches, but we've got really good players.”
That seems to be a theme accepted by everybody, which shortchanges the accomplishments of Nola and his staff. He wasn't even named Class A coach of the year by the Pennsylvania Sports Writers Association, an honor that went instead to Dunmore's Jack Henzes.
Never mind that Nola's Bears beat Henzes' Bucks, 20-0, in the PIAA final — only the 13th shutout in state championship game history. Or that Clairton did it by playing Dunmore's brand of grind-it-out football. Nola doesn't mind that he didn't win the award.
“He's a really good coach who's been around a long time,” Nola said of Henzes, whose 371 career victories rank second in state history. “I only met him then, but he seemed like a really good guy who cared about his players. I guess we were expected to win. I'm being very serious and honest about it. It didn't bother me.”
It's easy to write Nola off as a coach who was lucky enough to inherit Clairton's athletes, especially given his 10-27 record in four seasons at Serra Catholic. The Bears have a strong tradition and a history of turning out talent, and the past five years have produced about a dozen Division I players.
“Clairton has always, every year — no matter the record, good or bad — had athletes,” Nola said. “Life here is not always the greatest, but they're blessed with athletic ability, and you can work with that.”
Consider, however, that before Nola's arrival in 2002, Clairton hadn't won a WPIAL title since 1989. The Bears have won six since '06, while compiling a 103-5 record.
Of course, Clairton folks swear that the '07 team, which didn't qualify for the playoffs, was the most talented. For years, they blamed Nola for its shortcomings.
They didn't realize his quiet strengths. A 59-year-old retired history teacher, he understands how to talk with his players in a way that is non-confrontational. He's a players' coach, yet one who knows when and where to draw the line.
“I think that's what helped him, because he could relate to the kids,” said defensive coordinator Wayne Wade, a 1990 Clairton alum. “He's able to keep the same demeanor. There's no cussing. The kids know that, and they respect coach Nola for who he is, what he provides. He gives them an opportunity to say, ‘This is our team.' ”
The Bears say Nola has overcome his big-game nerves and now has a knack for calling the perfect play to regain momentum.
“Everybody respects him because he shows us respect,” Bears star running back Tyler Boyd said. “He tries to tell us to do it the right way.”
Mostly, Nola's coaching style works for Clairton. When the Bears were without 13 players for their opener because of academic ineligibility and injury, he convinced seniors to make sacrifices by playing other positions.
What's most impressive is that Clairton hasn't had a hiccup since losing to Laurel in the 2009 opener.
North Allegheny has won two of the past three Quad-A state titles but lost twice the past three years. Aliquippa is the state's most talented team in Class AA but still lost in the state semifinals last year and the state final this year.
That the Bears continue to win puts a crimp in Nola's retirement plans. He vowed not to walk away amid the streak and now says he's “strongly leaning one way.”
Clairton should hope that it's towards returning, knowing now that Nola's coaching style is as underrated as it is understated.
Kevin Gorman is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-320-7812.