After his extremely successful stint at Mercer High School, it didn't take John Swogger long to make a statement about how things were going to be when he took over the Altoona Area High School boys basketball program in 1968.
In one of Swogger's first preseason scrimmages with the Mountain Lions, Randy Allen was leading his trademark fastbreak. The only problem was that Allen passed to one teammate while Swogger wanted the ball in another's hands.
"Coach said, 'Allen, what are you doing? What's wrong with you?'" fellow standout Billy Moore recalled. "And Randy put his hands on his hips like, 'What's wrong with you, man?' You could see the veins pop out on Coach's neck. He ran right over, got within two inches of Randy's face and was barking at him.
Mirror file photo
John Swogger speaks at his induction into the Blair County Sports Hall of Fame in April 2006.
"He was very intense."
Allen still tells that story, bringing it to almost mythical proportions.
"It was impactful," Allen said with a laugh. "It set the tone for my great respect ever since."
The Swogger file
Local record: 242-79 in 12 seasons of coaching the Altoona Area High School boys basketball team (1968-80) with nine District 6 championships. He previously coached at Wampum and Mercer High Schools.
Career record: 398-111
Claim to fame: Brought an exciting, fast-breaking style to Altoona that packed the Jaffa Mosque and Altoona Fieldhouse. Developed former San Antonio Spurs guard Johnny Moore, the first of four players from Altoona to make the NBA (1979-97). He also coached former Major League baseball player Richie Allen while at Wampum.
Enshrined: Swogger was inducted into the Blair County Sports Hall of Fame in 2006, and prior, into the Mercer County Hall of Fame in 1989. (He led Mercer to a pair of PIAA championships).
Family: Wife, Sally. Six children and 19 grandchildren.
The story might be part of the legend but only a small part. Swogger got his point across loud and clear that day, using examples like that to forge Altoona into a state power while taking on an almost iconic status himself.
"He was a disciplinarian. He was very adamant about doing things the right way," said former Swogger point guard Johnny Moore.
Swogger, who compiled a 242-79 record and won nine District 6 championships in 12 years coaching the Mountain Lions, died on Tuesday at his Riggles Gap area home. He was 77.
Although he never returned to the bench after he surprisingly stepped down at Altoona in 1980 at the end of a 27-3 campaign, Swogger continued to coach the game and work with young players at various area recreation facilities even up until the day before his death.
News of his passing shocked former players.
"I have a lot of thoughts going through my head right now," said Allen, who played for Swogger during the 1968 through '70 seasons. "Father figure. Tough love. Great man. Intense. Wanting the best, not only on the court but off the court. Just a loving family man, always wanting to take care of those that he loves. It's just a tough loss here. I was looking forward to seeing him again this summer."
A member of the Blair County and Mercer County Sports Halls of Fame as well as the Western Pennsylvania Basketball Hall, Swogger was remembered more for his qualities and character than his sparkling record.
"The thing I really liked about Swogger was he made you realize that, if you were going to be successful, you had to pretty much be self-motivated. You had to get out and do the things that you were supposed to do," said Johnny Moore, who went on to star at Texas and then with the NBA's San Antonio Spurs. "I remember when Charlie Johnson came to town. He came out of Philly, never played much basketball before but was very athletic. Because of Coach Swogger, Charlie went on to become an All-American at a little community college near Beaver Falls. He instilled in him how important the work ethic was."
Moore's older brother, Billy, called Swogger his "second father."
"He had a vision and was just hard-working. Those were the attributes he passed on to his athletes that if you work hard, you are dedicated, you can achieve," Billy Moore said. "In those years, I believed we overachieved for the teams that we had. We played a lot of Pittsburgh teams and won. He brought a lot of character to the players and molded it, and he was the role model."
Swogger didn't shirk responsibilities, going around to his players' homes in person to enforce curfew.
"He had high expectations for himself and his team," Johnny Moore said.
Swogger also had the endorsement of the parents - Johnny Moore remembered quitting the team as a sophomore along with Johnson and Sam Pierce only to be told by his father to turn right around.
One-time assistant coach Tony Labriola already was familiar with Swogger when he arrived in Altoona, having coached against him at Bishop Guilfoyle when the latter was at Mercer, where he won a pair of state titles. Swogger coached both the varsity and junior varsity teams to undefeated seasons in the same year.
"He was meeting the staff for lunch, and then we were going to meet the team at 1," Labriola said. "A couple of the guys were late. We were halfway done with lunch, and it was getting close to a quarter of one, and John announced, 'We're done here. We're leaving.' We left the lunches half-eaten, because he did not want to be late to meet the team. It was important to him to be on time, because he wanted to set a tone.
"John didn't coach basketball. He taught basketball."
Swogger's impact on the sport in Altoona is undeniable.
"He revolutionized basketball in that community," Billy Moore said. "Altoona, up until then, was predominantly a football town. When he came with his fastbreak style of basketball, he brought a lot of excitement. If you go back, you can talk to people about how the Jaffa Mosque used to be filled every game, people just hanging from the rafters. He brought a lot of happiness and excitement to the people in Altoona, even though we never won a state championship."
Although Swogger was a star in the storied program at small Wampum High School in the early 1950s playing for Butler Hennon, his best sport actually was baseball: Swogger hit .537 with seven home runs as a senior at Geneva College and signed with the Cleveland Indians before returning to Wampum as both Hennon's assistant and the school's baseball coach, on which future Major League slugger Richie (Dick) Allen played.
In 1960, Swogger took over as head basketball coach at Mercer, winning 23 games or more in five of his seven years along with a pair of PIAA championships.
Then he arrived at Altoona. Swogger's point of emphasis was fundamentals, and his tool of choice was an up-tempo attack.
"I made first-team all-state shooting a layup," Billy Moore said with amusement.
The younger Moore became the ultimate testament to Swogger's teachings.
"When I came up, I was the littlest one on the team. But he came up with all these sayings - 'When the going gets tough, the tough get going,' 'It's not the size of the dog in the fight, it's the size of the fight in the dog.' I used to think it was so corny, but each of those was appropriate, and it helped me down the line," Johnny Moore, who recently took a head coaching position with the Corpus Christi Clutch of the American Basketball League.
Foes held Swogger in esteem, as well.
"I had an awful lot of respect for John. His teams were always well-prepared. You had to be prepared or you were in for a tough night," Johnstown's Paul Litwalk said. "We got closer after we retired. Some of the Altoona sports guys would get together for breakfast, and he invited me and [Williamsport's] Pete White over. I'm sad to hear of his passing."
Although he had said he might leave when his second-oldest son, Johnny, graduated from high school, Swogger caught many off-guard when he announced his decision to step down at Altoona during the 1979-80 season at the age of 45. He went out two career wins shy of 400.
"Maybe I should have stayed longer," Swogger said prior to his induction into the Blair County Hall of Fame in 2006. "If someone on the board or administration had suggested that I gut it out for a couple of more years, I might have."
Since then, Swogger continued to remain involved, heading up the basketball programs at the Summit Tennis & Athletic Club and with Freedom Basketball AAU, giving young players private instruction and attending games throughout the area. Two of his granddaughters continue to make the Swogger name prominent on the court this season as standout junior players at Bellwood-Antis (Bailey) and Tyrone (Jordyn).
He also continued to remain in touch with his former Mountain Lion players.
"The last couple of years, I reconnected with Coach Swogger," Johnny Moore said. "It was a good thing, getting to thank him for everything he deposited in my life."
Allen had dinner with Swogger and his family last year. He said they didn't talk much basketball, although he did shoot around with Swogger's grandkids and brought up the story of the scrimmage confrontation again.
"We had a great time," Allen said. "Now, I really treasure that."
A full obituary will be published in Friday's Mirror.