4 of a kind: 1st-year head coaches face challenge in replacing 'legends'
They aren't just four football lifers who became high school head coaches for the first time at the same time. For Pat Carey, Eric Kasperowicz, Donnie Militzer and Darren Schoppe, there was an additional motivation of following in the footsteps of a legend at the school where their careers started.
Carey and Kasperowicz played on Jack McCurry's greatest teams at North Hills. Carey was a starting safety on the 1987 USA Today national champions, Kasperowicz the star quarterback on the Indians' 1993 WPIAL and PIAA Class AAA champions. They were assistants on his coaching staff, the two frontrunners to serve as McCurry's successor.
Militzer and Schoppe started their coaching careers under Bob Jacoby at Bishop Canevin, where Schoppe was also a star linebacker on the Crusaders' 1990 WPIAL Class AA champions and PIAA runners-up. They were two of the finalists when Jacoby retired this past January after 40 seasons on the sidelines.
Now, all four are first-year head coaches, replacing coaches who have led their schools to WPIAL championships. Carey takes over at North Hills for McCurry, who retired after winning 281 games and four WPIAL Quad-A titles in 35 seasons. Kasperowicz follows Clair Altemus, who retired after building Pine-Richland into a Class AAA power that won the 2003 WPIAL crown. Militzer replaces Terry Smith, who led Gateway to a WPIAL title as a player and four finals appearances in 11 seasons as the Gators' coach before leaving to become an assistant at Temple. And Schoppe succeeds Jacoby, who retired after winning 238 games in four decades.
So, they share another thing in common. All four are in charge of teams with perennial playoff expectations and have to figure out how to put their personal imprint on the programs without trampling on tradition.
“I'm sure all four of us are in the same boat: You learn as you go. You're thrown into it. You've got to keep your head up, keep smiling,” Militzer said. “Whether you're replacing a legend or not, people are always going to question you and what you're doing. The most important thing is that you treat the kids right and focus on football. You listen to all the suggestions you get, but in the end you do what's best for the program.”
Carey, 43, spent nearly two decades as an assistant on McCurry's staff at North Hills, including the past 12 years calling the defense for one of the stingiest and toughest teams in Quad A. Despite interviewing for openings at Hampton and Mt. Lebanon, Carey chose to bide his time until he could replace McCurry.
“It's tough to see him go,” Carey said. “He is a legendary coach who brought me along all this time. It's exciting for me, but it's also sad to see coach hang it up.”
McCurry had a reputation for precision in preparation and as a master motivator, traits Carey hopes to continue.
“He was second to none as far as getting teams ready to play,” Carey said. “And he had the ability to get kids to play above their talent level.”
Carey already has made his mark by changing the color scheme of the Indians' helmets, switching from white with a red logo to matte red with a white logo and adding gray as a background color to the uniforms.
“It's one of those things where it's exciting for the kids,” Carey said. “For me, it was a bit of a struggle. I like the tradition, but I get it. We're still red and white.”
There was a time when Kasperowicz also wanted the North Hills job. Unlike Carey, he wasn't willing to wait for McCurry to retire. So Kasperowicz left his alma mater, where he's a teacher, to become offensive coordinator at Quad North rival Pine-Richland, which just happens to be McCurry's alma mater.
“We both knew we wanted to be a head coach,” said Kasperowicz, 37. “My goal was to hopefully get the job at North Hills, but I'm going to create a new legacy at a new school. I closed that chapter of the book and moved on. I think I made the best decision for me personally, and it all worked out in the end.”
Altemus was 106-65 in 16 years coaching the Rams, who are 18-30 since moving up to Quad A in 2008 but boast some of the best facilities in the WPIAL, if not the state. That puts Kasperowicz in an enviable position in taking over the football program at what he calls a “unique” school district.
“It's exciting in one aspect because you have a program in place,” said Kasperowicz, who has added black, gray and neon lime green to the Rams' green-and-white uniforms. “This is a chance to put my stamp on the program. I have two legends to pull from. They were two different coaches. Jack was old school, and Clair was more new school, a players' coach. There's a fine line between them, and I can take the best from each of them and add my own mix.”
Militzer isn't as worried about making material changes at Gateway, where he jokes that the Gators have “a million different uniform combinations” and promises they will “continue to look good and play good.”
Gateway won 101 games and made the playoffs every season in Smith's 11 years before the school board pushed him out by cutting his athletic director job to half-time pay and passing a rule that administrators couldn't coach. For Militzer, the challenge is to unite a team and a community divided by issues surrounding Smith's departure.
“There doesn't have to be a change in appearance,” said Militzer, 32, a Keystone Oaks graduate who had no previous ties to Gateway. “It's internally, what you do in the locker room and how you talk with the kids.”
One message is clear: While Smith led the Gators to Heinz Field four times only to finish runner-up, anything short of a WPIAL title is considered unacceptable at Gateway.
“When you take the job there, you know the expectation isn't just to make the playoffs. The expectation is to win championships,” said Militzer, who has coached at Bishop Canevin, Carlynton and Peters Township as well as Carnegie Mellon and Washington & Jefferson. “Luckily, I've been at a few successful places, but I've also been at places where the kids didn't know how to win. These kids expect to win.”
Schoppe is the only one among the four who had no burning desire to become a head coach. He owns an in-ground pool construction company and was “perfectly content” as defensive coordinator at South Fayette.
That changed when Jacoby retired and his two sons expressed no interest in succeeding him at Bishop Canevin.
“I felt if I ever was to do it,” Schoppe said, “that would be the right place for me.”
Jacoby ushered Canevin's entry into the WPIAL in 1975, led the Crusaders to the WPIAL final in '83 and also served as the school's athletic director and softball coach. So, Schoppe didn't want to see his legacy end.
“It's bittersweet. I thought he was always going to be there. When he stepped down, I wanted to make sure 40 years of tradition and history that had been established would not be lost in one year to see someone use the school as a stepping stone,” said Schoppe, 40. “He was more than a coach. It wasn't necessarily what he taught you about football but about life that was most important. I'm hoping to carry that forward. A lot of stuff that I do I learned from him, playing and coaching under him, so you'll see a lot of the same. There's a bigger picture here, with the Catholic education, but I don't know that you'll ever replace him.”
A sentiment Schoppe shares with three other WPIAL coaches who are replacing legends and hoping to leave their own legacy.