McCormack leaves lasting memories on, off wrestling mat at Baldwin
Physically, George McCormack was a big man. His smile was bigger, and his heart was bigger still. But it's the legacy he leaves behind that is biggest of all, according to those who knew him best.
There was a time when current Baldwin senior Zack Bernarding was going to quit wrestling, but McCormack — his head coach who Bernarding described as “more of an uncle than a coach” — talked him out of it.
When Blake Toki transfered to Baldwin from out of state, he immediately was greeted by McCormack, who personally took Toki from classroom to classroom on his first day at his new school so he could meet his new teammates.
And when Baldwin wrestler Fomba Sheriff was paralyzed during a match in 2011, he spent months at the Children's Institute of Pittsburgh, fighting through rigorous rehabilitation in an effort to simply walk again.
McCormack, who for years had coached Sheriff on proper wrestling technique, again was at his side — only now he was offering calming guidance and support for a challenge much bigger than a wrestling match.
McCormack — who for more than two decades was the face of Baldwin wrestling — died on Saturday after a battle with cancer; he was 46.
“It is so hard to lose a member of your family. The Baldwin family is mourning the loss of our close friend and coach, George McCormack.” Vince Sortino, Baldwin's athletic director, said. “George was a great person who touched the lives of so many people in our school district.
“He will be missed by the Baldwin athletic family, and our continued prayers are with him and his family as they struggle through this very difficult time.”
Originally from York, Pa., McCormack graduated from Dallastown High School in 1985 where he was a multi-sport star. He initially attended Temple University, where he played football, before transferring to Pitt, where he was a heavyweight wrestler.
He earned bachelor's and master's degrees in physical education from Pitt, then began to pursue his dream of becoming a coach and teacher.
It was during his time as a student-teacher at Baldwin that he became involved in the wrestling program, serving as an assistant to then-head coach Dave Thorn during the 1992-93 season.
Thorn retired following that season, and McCormack, who had been hired by the district as a physical education teacher, was named the program's new head coach for the 1993-94 campaign. He went on to hold that job for 20 seasons.
McCormack was diagnosed with esophageal cancer just prior to last season and missed much of the year as he battled the disease, while still holding the head coaching position. He officially stepped down prior to this season after the cancer had spread to his stomach.
He is believed to have held the varsity head wrestling coach job longer than anyone in the district's history. During his tenure, he guided four wrestlers to the PIAA tournament, including two place-winners.
He also was an assistant football and track coach during his Baldwin career.
“George was compassionate, hardworking and loyal,” Sortino said. “You could see, in his daily commitment to our student-athletes, how much he enjoyed teaching and coaching them.”
As a coach, McCormack patiently offered insight, instruction and motivation.
“He wasn't a loud, in-your-face coach,” said Mike Bilbie, McCormack's longtime assistant who now is in charge of the Baldwin wrestling program. “George, he was this big guy who always had a smile on his face, but he was pretty even-keeled.
“He didn't get overly excited. He didn't get too up or too down. He was always this calming influence.”
Former wrestlers, fellow coaches and administrators alike spoke fondly not only of McCormack the coach, but McCormack the man.
Those who knew him best described him as a loyal family man, the loving husband of his wife, Kimberly, and father to their 13-year-old son, Brock.
Few people knew McCormack better than Bilbie, who was his teammate at Pitt.
“George was one of my best friends. I knew him for about 30 years, and he has always been a great friend to me and, sometimes he almost felt like a brother to me,” Bilbie said. “When I think of George, the thing that comes to mind is he was a great guy. He was a great father, a great husband, a great coach, a great teacher, and he was a great friend.”
An avid sports fan, McCormack loved following Pittsburgh teams as well as the University of Michigan (his father's alma mater).
While many recognized McCormack as a wrestling coach, those who trained under his caring eye said his concern for them extended beyond wrestling.
Toki, now an assistant coach in the Baldwin program, recounted how difficult it was to move from his high school in Fort Wayne, Ind., where he was a standout wrestler, to Baldwin with a month left in his junior year in 2000.
“One of the things that really stuck out on my first day at Baldwin was (that) George took the time to pull me out of my gym class, and he took me around to all the different wrestlers in their classrooms,” Toki said. “He introduced me to everybody; he made me feel at home literally from Day 1.”
Stories like Toki's — ones that illustrate McCormack's ability to connect with his grapplers on and off the mat — are common in Baldwin wrestling lore.
“I thought he was a great wrestling coach,” said Paul Hoffman, from the class of 2003. “We made the playoffs my sophomore year, and we had a lot of different characters, different personalities. But we came together as a team and were able to win enough matches to make the WPIAL playoffs, and I credit Coach McCormack for being able to unite us as a team.
“I learned a lot of wrestling from him, but also a lot outside of wrestling. Being a part of those teams taught me a lot of life lessons. It was more than just learning how to do wrestling moves.”
Jeff Iampietro, a 1995 Baldwin graduate, was on McCormack's first teams, and he said the presence his coach brought to the program immediately was noticeable.
“He created a culture of winning,” Iampietro said. “And in doing that, he allowed us to be ourselves and allowed us to have fun, while still working hard.”
Iampietro also mentioned how, at that time, he and his teammates obviously gave no thought to the idea their new coach would have a tenure that would be historic for both its longevity and success.
“It's awesome for us to look back and know we were there at the beginning, on the ground floor of something like that,” he said. “He was a tremendous man. He will be missed; he will never be forgotten.”
Adam Smith, another Baldwin wrestling alum from the class of 1995, remarked about the impression McCormack left on him — one that persists more than two decades later.
“In high school, he was the largest individual I had ever met. He was a mountain of a man, both as a person in his stature as well as how he carried himself,” Smith said. “He was a role model to young men. There aren't many individuals who carried themselves with more grace and dignity than George McCormack.”
Years later, Smith became an assistant wrestling coach at Thomas Jefferson, giving him the opportunity to develop a relationship with McCormack on a different level.
“Having coached against him, you always knew a team coached by George McCormack would be fundamentally sound,” Smith said. “His teams always gave you a run for your money; they gave you a battle.”
The members of the current wrestling team at Baldwin speak of McCormack with the same passion and respect as their predecessors from decades ago.
“He had a lot of spirit,” Bernarding said. “I don't even know how to describe Mr. McCormack. He's the man.”
While the grief among the squad still is strong, Bernarding said this year's team has an opportunity to do something truly special for their late coach.
“We're focused on dedicating this season to him,” he said. “We want to do as much as we possibly can, and go as far as we possibly can. That's what he would have wanted.”
And, as Bilbie added, McCormack may still play a hand in that.
“He will be looking down on us,” Bilbie said.