Gorman: Welcome to the WPIAL, coach Melnyk
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Mt. Lebanon players sat in the darkness, staring at a digital sign whose countdown was only 10 minutes from kickoff.
When the lights came on, Mike Melnyk walked out of his office holding a blue book with gold lettering, held it high and started his first pregame speech as coach of the Blue Devils.
“This is the bible of Mt. Lebanon football tradition,” Melnyk said. “You see what it says: A Tradition of Excellence. ... You guys have lived it, breathed it, dreamed it, of putting on these horns since you were little. Now it's time to continue the tradition.
“I can't wait to see it in person.”
Melnyk moved across the state for this moment, leaving Manheim Township in Lancaster to take over one of Western Pennsylvania's traditional powers.
Safe to say, Melnyk won't be sending a thank you note to the WPIAL offices on Iron City Drive in Green Tree after the Blue Devils were scheduled to open against two-time defending WPIAL Class AAAA champion North Allegheny.
Not only is North Allegheny the state's No. 2 team, but the Tigers are coached by Art Walker, son of the man who turned Mt. Lebanon into the WPIAL's premier program by winning four titles in the 1980s.
“I don't know if the WPIAL did it on purpose or not — we'll show this guy what it's all about — but North Allegheny is kind of the flagship in Quad A,” Melnyk said.
“I told our guys, ‘They're not handing out any trophies on Friday. It's certainly a bellweather game for us. We'll get a good barometer of where we started and where we finish.”
It wouldn't have been any easier had Melnyk remained at Manheim Township. The Blue Streaks opened against Central Dauphin, the state's top-ranked team.
Melnyk had turned moribund Manheim Township into a perennial contender in the Lancaster-Lebanon League, but there was something about coaching in the WPIAL that he wanted to tackle.
The Blue Devils won six WPIAL titles from 1966-84, five of them under Walker.
They were 111-71 in 17 seasons under Chris Haering, who left to become Pitt's linebackers coach but won only one WPIAL title (2000) in that span.
Melnyk was hired from a pool of 70 applicants, 38 of whom were interviewed, to restore Mt. Lebanon back to a position of prominence. Like Haering and Walker before him, Melnyk will divide his duties between coaching football and teaching history in a school district where academics are as important as athletics.
“He's really come in and fit into the culture of the community and the district,” Mt. Lebanon athletic director John Grogan said, “and continued to reaffirm that the decision we made was a good one.”
Melnyk plans to use a balanced offensive approach that is turning one tradition on its head. The Blue Devils, long known as a run-first team, came out throwing.
“I do think Western Pennsylvania football has tradition and respect across the state and nation,” Melnyk said. “As a coach, it's great to be part of it. That was the allure of football for me.”
Melnyk, who turns 50 on Sept. 11, left behind his wife, Kathleen, a teacher at West Lawn Wilson, where their son, Colby, is a senior swimmer who plays water polo. An older son, Colin, enlisted in the Marines and is in boot camp. Daughter Brittany is a recent graduate of Kutztown University.
Meanwhile, Melnyk is living in the basement of Matt and Jen Shufran's home in South Fayette, friends he was vacationing with when he received word of his hiring.
Melnyk spent this week trying to soak up the atmosphere. He watched the Blue Devils marching band Wednesday night, knowing he would be missing its halftime performances. He enjoyed Thursday's Horn Night, the ritual in which the Blue Devils receive their gold horn helmet stickers.
“He's really motivated us as a team,” senior quarterback-cornerback Tyler Roth said. “He's transitioning to WPIAL style of football. He always talks about the tradition of Mt. Lebanon, how we need to represent all of those teams that came before us.”
If Roth has one complaint about his new coach, it's this: Melnyk is a Michigan Man who was a kicker for Bo Schembechler. The quarterback is a “huge” Ohio State fan.
“That's all he talks about,” Roth said.
“I absolutely hate when he talks about it, and he never, ever stops. Every speech has a Bo Schembechler reference.”
Except for the one before this game against North Allegheny. Melnyk met a Mt. Lebanon resident who was walking laps at the track one night this summer and started chatting about the football program. The next night, the man brought Melnyk that blue book, 100 Years of Mt. Lebanon Football, in which the elder Art Walker is prominently portrayed.
“I'm a big tradition guy,” Melnyk said. “The people like Mt Lebanon football, too, and love the tradition. This is their program, and I'm the new guy on the block.”
Melnyk met Art Walker on the field before the game, then told his players about their exchange.
“If there's one guy on their sideline who's apprehensive this week, it's him,” Melnyk said, “because he knows the tradition of Mt. Lebanon football.”
North Allegheny proved that the tradition isn't going to return overnight, as it turned a 17-14 halftime lead into a 39-14 victory.
If there's one Mt. Lebanon tradition Melnyk has already learned, it's that excellence is expected.
And you've got to earn your horns.
Kevin Gorman is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-320-7812.
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