Gorman: Troubling trend in WPIAL football
There was a sense of irony, given how their careers intertwined, that Terry Smith left Gateway to become receivers coach at Temple on the same day that Jack McCurry resigned at North Hills.
They were on opposite sides of some of the most memorable games in Western Pennsylvania prep football history, meeting in the playoffs three consecutive years, twice with the WPIAL Class AAAA championship on the line. Smith was a talented quarterback for Pete Antimarino's Gateway Gators, McCurry a rising star as North Hills' coach. After playing to a scoreless tie in 1985, Gateway won, 7-6, in '86, a WPIAL finals classic.
“They were tough, hard-nosed, physical battles,” Smith said. “That's who Jack McCurry is. He represents toughness. He's a great fundamental coach. He's a competitive guy. The best coaches always have a chip on their shoulder. That's what makes them great.”
That's a trait shared by McCurry and Smith, who went from adversaries to contemporaries in the past decade as they worked together through the Pennsylvania Scholastic Football Coaches Association.
Both coaches capitalized on their success by making power moves to prominent positions, only to endure challenges from school boards that tried to cut them off at the knees.
McCurry parlayed leading North Hills to the 1987 USA Today national championship into becoming the school's principal; Smith traded a quick turnaround at his alma mater into taking over as its athletic director.
Both carried enough clout to turn school board meetings into pep assemblies. Where NFL first-round pick LaVar Arrington showed up in an ill-fitting letterman jacket to voice his support for McCurry, Gateway's team displayed its unity when every player arrived wearing game jerseys.
“There's so much pressure to win immediately and all the time,” McCurry said. “It's a different dynamic now than it was 35 years ago for coaches at all levels. In today's society, it's what have you done for me lately? If you have a down year or a year where you have some angry parents, it comes down to the political arena. When it gets to the political arena, coaches can be dismissed.”
Where McCurry survived, Gateway cut Smith's athletic director salary in half and passed a rule that no administrator can coach. It gave him no choice but to leave.
Never mind that Smith had a 101-30 record in 11 seasons, with seven conference titles, four WPIAL finals appearances and produced 40 Division I recruits.
Compare that to McCurry, who was 281-108-9, with 14 conference titles, four WPIAL crowns (one shared), a PIAA title and the national championship in 35 years.
If McCurry was already a WPIAL coaching legend, Smith was on his way to becoming one. Now both will no longer stand on the sidelines. How can that possibly be considered good for Western Pennsylvania football?
McCurry rose through the ranks coaching against legends like Antimarino, Butler's Art Bernardi and New Castle's Lindy Lauro. Smith came up against greats such as McCurry, Upper St. Clair's Jim Render and Woodland Hills' George Novak.
If schools continue to run off successful coaches like Smith, we could see the WPIAL skip a generation of legends. First, it was Chris Haering leaving Mt. Lebanon for Pitt. Now, Smith is going to Temple. Who will be next to leave the WPIAL for the college ranks, North Allegheny's Art Walker or Thomas Jefferson's Bill Cherpak?
That would be disastrous.
“Coaching in today's times is difficult,” Smith said. “You have school boards and their politics. You have parents putting pressure on coaches because every parent wants their kid to get a scholarship and every parent thinks their kid is scholarship-worthy. Not every kid is scholarship worthy.
“Now, people think, ‘Should I endure all of these headaches for $10,000?' A lot of coaches are choosing not to get gray hairs, be stressed out and take time away from their families.”
If McCurry and Smith share another thing in common, it's the respect of players past and present. McCurry heard from alumni all over the country, while Smith said he received 1,000 text messages of support.
Nevertheless, every school should be concerned that coaches are looking for an exit instead of a long-term commitment.
“If not, they don't understand the value of what it takes (to run) an athletic program,” McCurry said. “It's so much more than what happens on Friday night. The character development goes beyond winning.”
The latest developments show neither character nor winning is valued enough for coaches to survive school boards who place their own priorities above the interests of the students they are supposed to serve.
Soon, football on Friday nights won't be the same in Western Pennsylvania.