Mon-Yough area blessed with coaching icons
If high school football is a form of religion in Pennsylvania, consider the Mon-Yough Valley the state's Vatican.
Training camp began Monday, and many coaching icons — located only miles apart — began going to work again.
Thomas Jefferson's Bill Cherpak, Clairton's Tom Nola, Woodland Hills' George Novak, McKeesport's George Smith and South Allegheny's Pat Monroe have combined to win 20 WPIAL titles and 11 PIAA championships.
And they've been coaching within a few miles of one another for years.
“When you think about it,” Cherpak said, “it really is a pretty unique thing that we have around here. There are great coaches everywhere.”
Cherpak, who has coached the Jaguars to four WPIAL and three PIAA titles during his first 17 seasons at Thomas Jefferson, was busy orchestrating his team's first training camp workout. Nola was doing the same thing just three miles away.
Clairton has won a nation-best 63 straight games, including four consecutive PIAA titles and five consecutive WPIAL titles. The veteran coach hasn't lost since Week 1 in 2009, but despite all of his answers on the football field, he isn't sure how to explain how so many iconic coaches could be located in close proximity.
“I really do think it's an amazing thing,” Nola said. “I guess it all goes back to having a Pittsburgh attitude, and I think we all have it. Football coaches around Pittsburgh — especially in Pittsburgh South, or whatever you want to call us — are hard-working people. We all grew up with a blue-collar work ethic for football.”
The coaches are in different stages with their respective programs.
Nola is looking to prolong the nation's longest winning streak. Novak and Cherpak — teacher and student — came close to winning another WPIAL title last season. He would love to collect more memories at Heinz Field. Smith is back at McKeesport for his second stint, and if it goes like his first tenure with the Tigers, championships could follow.
Monroe, the architect of championship teams at Duquesne, turned long-irrelevant South Allegheny into a playoff team last season.
“And we plan on doing it again and again,” Monroe said. “This is where I want to be.”
Cherpak has enjoyed almost unprecedented success at TJ and takes great pride in his Munhall roots. He learned his profession while coaching under Novak at Steel Valley.
Trips to Hershey still bring a smile to his face.
“Every time we'd be in Hershey for the state title game,” Cherpak said, “either Clairton or Woodland Hills or McKeesport would be there, too, it seemed like. There were always two or three of us from just a few miles apart. Think about that. That's three teams out of eight in the entire state making it to the title game, and we all came from five miles apart.”
Other area coaches are preparing their teams for battle this season. Norwin's Art Tragesser and West Mifflin's Ray Braszo are playoff regulars. Both have led teams to the WPIAL title game.
Elizabeth Forward's Mike LeDonne is considered one of the WPIAL's finest defensive minds and has won WPIAL championships as an assistant coach.
Cherpak doesn't know why so many great coaches come from this area, but he doesn't believe it is a coincidence.
“It's about fundamentals and learning how to coach them properly,” he said. “It's that simple. It's what I learned from Coach Novak. We've been lucky to have so many great coaches to learn from. People around here teach the game the right way.”
The game has changed over the years, Cherpak said. But great coaches coming from Western Pennsylvania remains a constant, nowhere more than in this small region.
“We don't kill ourselves in camp like we once did,” Cherpak said while watching his Jaguars practice. “I went to a Bill Walsh camp one time. He said that the important thing is to have your teams ready for Friday night. It makes a lot of sense. I don't care if my guys are ready to play on Tuesday afternoon. I'm all about Friday nights.”