Ford City coach says opening practices emphasize play-learning over physicality

Bill West
| Monday, Aug. 13, 2012, 11:56 p.m.

As Ford City football players headed to the locker room after finishing sprints at the end of their first training camp day Monday, assistant Joe Stivason studied the boys' physical conditions.

“They're not even huffing and puffing!” Stivason joked to coach John Bartolovic.

“Aw, we've gone soft,” Bartolovic answered.

The Sabers' longtime coach won't deny that the nature of his training camp has changed. In Bartolovic's 25 years as a head coach, including his last 17 at Ford City, season-opening practices have become more cerebral. He refuses to coddle players, so there's still hitting on day one. But the amount of time spent on punishing drills has dwindled, while playbook talk has increased.

“We're a lot more advanced, play-wise,” Bartolovic said. “When we first came here 17 years ago, we probably had five, six, seven plays in. And now, I couldn't even count. I think it's because we do a lot more in the summer. The kids have been with us, and they understand the system.”

The summer work included a stop at the Carnegie Mellon team camp and weekly participation in the Riverview passing league.

Bartolovic appreciates what the Sabers can accomplish at a summer showdown against other local schools. Receivers learn routes. Quarterbacks learn reads. Defensive backs and linebackers learn how to adjust to formations.

But he stops short of championing passing scrimmages as football sans pads.

“Some teams don't play it honestly,” he said. “They don't play it like they actually would on a Friday night. They have their linebackers spread out everywhere. … If we ever saw that, we'd just run the fullback trap.”

Training camp, which will continue through next week, gives Bartolovic a chance to enjoy the grittier side of football. His goal is to embrace that aspect but to still get all of his players through camp without anyone suffering an injury.

When Bartolovic and his staff first eased up on full-speed hitting drills became a subject of debate among his assistants, a couple of whom played under Bartolovic.

“It probably started after me,” said assistant J.J. Bartolovic, the coach's son and a 2004 Ford City graduate.

The other assistants claimed J.J. perhaps remembered a little too much glory from his playing days. But the elder Bartolovic agreed with his son's assessment.

Bartolovic plans to let his players hit each other with full force for a bit Wednesday. Assistant Ben Golab acknowledged he never had to wait that long for serious tackling when he played a decade ago.

“(J.J. and I) talk about that all the time, that our camp was a lot tougher, and we had to hit a lot more than they did,” Golab said. “But I think it works out for us that we do it this way. We have fewer injuries, and the kids are a little bit fresher.”

Bill West is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at or 724-543-1321.

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