Revered Woodland Hills football coach Novak retires
When Dick Dilts retired as Kiski Area football coach in 1993 with 234 career victories, his Cavaliers happened to be playing Woodland Hills that weekend.
After the game, Woodland Hills coach George Novak said he hoped someday to be viewed in the same light as the departing veteran coach.
Novak was able to accomplish that — and then some — over a 40-year high school coaching career that garnered 306 victories, third most in WPIAL history, and six WPIAL championships.
On Wednesday, Novak announced his retirement as Wolverines coach. The school board was expected to ratify the move Wednesday night. He will remain as the school district's athletic director until June 30.
“I was told a couple of years ago by veteran coaches that ‘you'll know when to retire,' ” Novak said. “And it was time. Right now, I think it's the best thing for the school district to start looking for a new head football coach as soon as possible so he can hit the ground running.”
Novak was the only coach Woodland Hills has had since it came on the scene in 1987. His record at Woodland Hills was 239-107. Before that, he coached at Steel Valley, where he compiled a 67-32-3 record in 10 seasons.
“I've been blessed with a lot of great kids and assistant coaches; my greatest thrill is the relationships with all the players that came through the program,” said Novak, a graduate of the former Munhall High School (now part of Steel Valley) and Georgia Tech.
Novak actually retired four years ago, but was asked by the school district to come back. He agreed to do it one year at a time as an “independent contractor.”
Novak had some great teams at Steel Valley, including a WPIAL Class AAA title winner in 1982. The Ironmen blanked Aliquippa, 10-0, in the championship game.
But a huge challenge loomed when he came to Woodland Hills after the district was formed by a federal court order. With plenty of consternation and doubt among those from Churchill, Swissvale and Turtle Creek about the merger into one high school, Novak and others went to work.
They got unique school colors of turquoise and black, adopted the nickname Wolverines, put a coat of paint on aging Turtle Creek Stadium and dubbed it “The Wolvarena.”
Woodland Hills made its debut Sept. 5, 1987, with a stunning, 17-6 victory at North Allegheny. The Wolverines made the WPIAL playoffs that year and never looked back, capturing district titles in 1996, ‘99, 2001, ‘02 and ‘09.
“The big part of the school district that first year was that the community rallied around our team,” Novak recalled. “We had a large band and a large group of cheerleaders.”
Novak credits going up against successful coaches early on like Dilts and Gateway coach Pete Antimarino as a reason behind his great accomplishments.
“You have Jack McCurry, Jim Render and guys like George Smith of McKeesport, you learn by playing against those guys,” Novak said. “I'd run as much as I could from the older coaches.”
It was clear Novak could have stayed at Woodland Hills as long as he wanted. He made an impact on thousands of players and guided hundreds toward college careers and dozens into professional football.
“Our saying around Woodland Hills is always ‘It's a great day to be a Wolverine.' Today has been one of the most emotional days I have ever had as a Wolverine,” said high school principal Kevin Murray, who played for Novak and is one of nine Wolverines on the coaching staff. “George has been here since the merger and has been one of the few constants in our ever-changing world of education and extra-curricular activities. He has impacted the lives of thousands of student-athletes of all walks of life. He has impacted mine.”
Novak doesn't know if he'll be part of the process of choosing his successor.
Whoever takes over the program will inherit a streak of 21 consecutive WPIAL playoff appearances.
George Guido is a freelance writer.