Veteran assistant coaches lend guidance to WPIAL finalists
With his white goatee, Mark Capuano doesn't look much different from his years walking Moon's sidelines.
But his approach has softened.
“I've got to admit it, I'm different,” said Capuano, 67, now an assistant coach at Sto-Rox. “If my old coaches watched me coach now, they'd say I mellowed. I don't know if I mellowed or just learned to be a different coach. Maybe I have mellowed since I'm not the head coach any more. I don't have to be the crazy guy.”
Capuano was Moon's head coach for 28 seasons and 143 victories, in two stints. His second run ended in 2008, but Capuano hasn't had an idle fall since. After one year at South Side Beaver, this was his fourth season as a Sto-Rox assistant.
And for the third consecutive season, Capuano will visit Heinz Field when the Vikings face North Catholic in the WPIAL Class A championship.
“The kids keep me young,” said Capuano, a Hall of Fame inductee by the Pennsylvania Scholastic Football Coaches Association.
His biggest coaching change hasn't been philosophical, but rather conversational.
“At Moon, I could yell at kids,” he said with a laugh. “Here, they don't respond to yelling. You're better off if you tell them what you want, show them and let it go. Otherwise, they turn you off. You can't get through. You can't communicate anymore.”
As a veteran coach, he adapted.
“He's a father figure not only to the players but also to me,” Sto-Rox coach Dan Bradley said. “I rely on him and bounce ideas off him. ... He's someone I look to for advice.”
All eight WPIAL teams visiting Heinz Field on Saturday have talented head coaches. West Allegheny's Bob Palko owns six WPIAL titles, and Woodland Hills' George Novak and Aliquippa's Mike Zmijanac have five. But all three credit a staff full of veteran assistants.
Novak has many assistants who've been with him for years, including Harvey Inglis, who followed him from Steel Valley. Larry Whiteherse, Jon Carter, Tim Bostard and Gene Donofrio also have assisted Woodland Hills for more than a decade.
“They know the program,” Novak said. “They know what I expect, and they know what to teach.”
Palko credits a former veteran assistant for the success the Indians experience today. Guy Rippole, who died in 2005, joined West Allegheny in 1996 for Palko's second season. Before then, Rippole coached at Sto-Rox, Montour and Duquesne University.
“It's really amazing to have a guy like that,” Palko said. “He taught us how to do it all. The reason we're good here is Guy Rippole. No doubt about it.”
Much of Palko's current staff was West Allegheny coaches when the Indians won their third consecutive WPIAL title in 2001, a list that includes Dan Marshall, Bryan Cornell, Mark Davis and Andy Barry.
“You can win with young assistants,” Palko said, “but that's harder.”
Bradley understands assistants' roles in building championship programs. He was one at Sto-Rox and later at South Fayette, which won the Class AA title in 2010.
“Dan has an excellent offensive mind,” Capuano said. “He really is good. I would hate to prepare defensively to go against him. What he does with (quarterback) Lenny (Williams) is amazing. I've learned a lot just watching him.”
Capuano, a holdover from Ron Butschle's staff, already was at Sto-Rox when Bradley was hired last season. The decision to keep Capuano as defensive coordinator was easy.
“It was a no-brainer,” Bradley said. “Sometimes new coaches don't surround themselves with people with experience. Sometimes they have confidence issues and want to be the smartest person in the room. That's not always the best way to go.”
Capuano won a WPIAL Class AAA title in 1998 and was voted the Parkway Conference's top coach four times. The Sto-Rox coaches meet at Capuano's house each Sunday night for dinner and film study, a tradition Capuano started while at Moon. He also shuttles some players home after practice.
“He's a guy who's been coaching and teaching for a long time,” Bradley said. “A lot of the circumstances or predicaments we'll be going through (for the first time), he's already been through three or four times.”
Capuano, who spends his winters in Florida, said his head coaching days are over. He's not sure how many more years he'll remain an assistant, but for now he's enjoying it.
“The nice thing about it is I can go home at night,” Capuano said. “I don't get the phone calls or deal with the politics or go to meetings or listen to parents. I can concentrate on game planning.”