Belle Vernon Area coaching 'legend' Don Asmonga, 85, dies
“It's a shame this whole thing didn't get to come together before this happened.”
Those words by Randy Giannini underscore the hurt the Belle Vernon Area community is feeling after the passing of Don Asmonga Monday night.
Asmonga, 85, died Monday In Jefferson Regional Hospital from complications of various illnesses, including pneumonia.
Asmonga was the first baseball and basketball coach in BVA history and guided the Leps to their only WPIAL basketball title in 1978.
He passed away before being able to attend a planned “Don Asmonga Night” on Jan. 28 at the high school gymnasium.
Word of Asmonga's passing cut deeply into many of those who knew the feisty, competitive coach.
“I knew he was sick and it still really hurts,” said Giannini, who was the point-guard on the WPIAL championship team. “He was hard-nosed as a coach, tough as nails. It was his way or else. He was definitely a Vince Lombardi type. When he told you what he wanted, you had to do it.
“But looking back, I wouldn't change a thing. I told his son the other day that the three years I played for him were the best three years of my life. And that's no lie.”
Asmonga coached 23 years at BVA and won 297 games in basketball. Under his tutelage, the Leps were steady contenders in both basketball and baseball.
And as the BVA School District grew its own identity in sports, the two programs had Asmonga's imprint all over them.
“Nobody has developed more outstanding players who went to college on scholarship, a result of his work and dedication in honing the skills of young kids sharing a love for the game,” wrote former BVA Superintendent Steve Russell in a bio as part of the planned tribute for Asmonga.
A native of the Homestead area, Asmonga played basketball at Homestead and helped lead the high school team to a 28-0 record and a state championship in 1946.
He garnered all-state honors and also received WPIAL honors in football and baseball as well.
After an outstanding career at Alliance College where he starred in basketball, he had a brief career in professional baseball. He also played professional basketball and had a brief stint with the former Baltimore Bullets of the NBA.
He came to BVA when the district was begun at the age of 39 as a teacher and was quickly hired to coach basketball and baseball.
His crowning achievement as a coach came in 1978 when he won a basketball WPIAL championship with outstanding players including Giannini, Tom Parks, Johnny Russell, Bill Contz, and Gregg Grimm.
He also led BVA teams in to the playoffs in 1974, 1976, and 1981. He also captured a baseball section title in 1967.
Asmonga retired from his coaching in 1988 and retired from teaching in 1993.
Parks, one of the greatest basketball players in BVA history, spoke glowingly about his former mentor, saying Asmonga “took a 15-year-old sophomore and helped turn me into the man I am today.”
Parks, who lives in Florida, said of Asmonga, “He was a father figure, not only at home but as a coach. He was a great man who meant a lot to all of us.”
Looking back on his playing days, Parks said, “The one thing I know is that we were a blue collar team all fighting for the same thing. I don't care when we played summer or winter, where we played, indoor or outdoor, who we played. It was a team effort and a ‘let's go win this' mentality.”
In a note to be read at Asmonga's planned testimonial, Parks wrote: “The things that you taught, preached, drilled into our heads still stick with me today. When I step on to a playground, walk into a gym, or watch the (Miami) Heat play, all those little things turned into instincts that were developed at Belle Vernon High School. Every time I'm around the game I think of you and my mates on the 1978 championship team. I cherish even now, as a grown man, the memories of that basketball season ... I am honored to have played for you. Thanks for the memories.”
Ringgold basketball coach Phil Pergola said he felt bad that Asmonga didn't get to enjoy his big night before his passing.
“I feel really bad about that because it was something long overdue for him,” Pergola said.
“I remember coaching against him at Charleroi and Ringgold when I was a young coach and he had been around. It was always special to play against his teams and even more special the few times we were able to beat him.”
Fran LaMendola, who coached at Ringgold in the 1970s and early 80s remembered the battles his teams had going up against BVA.
“It was always tough. We sure had some battles, for sure, and that's exactly what we always expected from his teams,” LaMendola said. “No matter what, I always respected him for what he did there.
“I just feel so bad he died before his big night. I was going to be there for that. I wasn't going to miss it.”
Joe Grata, who chaired the committee that was planning to honor Asmonga said his passing is a tough pill to swallow and added, “While we are all saddened by the loss of Coach Asmonga, and while the planned Jan. 7 tribute to him and former players failed to take place because of a series of unfortunate circumstances, we are nevertheless pleased that his anticipation of the event brought comfort and happiness during his final days.
“He was looking forward to ‘Don Asmonga Night' with such enthusiasm that he had the family ‘dust off' his 1978 WPIAL AAA Basketball Champions jacket to wear for his return to the BVA gym that was his home for 23 years,” Grata said. “So, I know that he at least got some pleasure out of what we were trying to do for him.”
Jeff Oliver is a sports editor for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-684-2666 or firstname.lastname@example.org.