The first day that John Swogger came to Altoona to meet his new staff and team was during the summer of 1968.
I was part of a group that met him for lunch at the Penn Sill Hotel. We were to eat at noon and meet with the team at Roosevelt Junior High School at 1 p.m. John was being driven around Altoona by a delegation from the high school, and they were a few minutes late in arriving for lunch.
It was around 12:40 p.m., the lunches had just been served, when John stood up and said, "We're leaving."
While I had coached against him when I was the varsity assistant at Bishop Guilfoyle, this was my first introduction to his coaching style. Nothing was more important than being on time to meet the team. The expectation was that the coaches would set the bar, and John wanted the bar set high. The lunches were left behind, and we headed for the gym. Being late was not an option.
Through the years, I have heard many views and myths about the man. All I can tell you is what I observed.
In the year that I served as an assistant, while I saw a very persistent coach, I never heard John swear, and I never observed him touch a player. I know that there are those who have thought that he was a terror in the locker room. The truth be told, he inflicted more damage to scoring tables than he ever did to any locker room. The locker room chats were punctuated more by long periods of silence than they ever were by verbose diatribes.
John was more of a teacher than he was a coach. The gym was his classroom. And the methodology was drill and practice mixed with holistic learning. There is a saying among coaches that "practice doesn't make perfect, perfect practice makes perfect."
That sums up working with John.
As John grew older, the mystique about him began to change. Even his role changed. When he retired as a coach in 1980, John slowly made the official move from coach to teacher. He began to work more with individual students and less with teams. And, as he did, his students were making a transition with him. They were less driven to clear the high bar that was established and more driven to learn and grow. In fact, John took on an almost rock-star persona. When he entered a gym to watch a high school game, young players would flock to him, calling out to him, "Coach Swogger, Coach Swogger."
They wanted to high five with him and hoped to hear one of his compliments.
And it was in paying attention to those compliments that one would begin to understand the nature of John Swogger. He didn't deal in superlatives. Rather he said things simply. He often would say something like, "Billy Moore, he was a good one." Only after having spent enough time with him in a gym would you come to understand that, "he was a good one" meant that John was giving the highest compliment.
"He was a good one," meant, he was in the 99th percentile. "He could play" put that person in the next highest ranking.
So when John called one of his chargers over and introduced him or her to you and said, "Coach, he [or she], is going to be a good one," you knew to begin watching for that player's name.
They came from all over. They were from "up the mountain," to "out in the Cove," to "down the valley." But John knew them all, and they all knew him.
During the last couple of decades, John became the Dean of the area's coaches. It was an unofficial honor that was bestowed on him by those of us who knew him. Other than being with his family, John was happiest when he was in the presence of those he coached, those he coached with and those he competed against. All were welcome to the Thursday morning breakfasts and to his annual Christmas party. And, during those times, the "Swogger" stories flowed and the "Swogger" legend grew.
I'm sure that the Thursday morning breakfasts will continue. And I'm also sure that the stories about John Swogger will continue to flow. And if you ever happen to be around that table, if you ever hear those in attendance talk, and you hear one of them say, "Coach Swogger, he was a good one," well, I think you'll understand what they mean.
A 'gentleman,' he touched many lives
I can't imagine many programs in the area, boys or girls, that didn't have a player or players that weren't touched by Coach John Swogger.
My story isn't unlike so many others. Coach worked with both of my daughters and helped them a great deal - not only on the basketball court but in the game of life. When our oldest earned a scholarship to play Division II basketball, we invited Coach out to breakfast with the rest of our family to celebrate.
I'm sure he had other things to do that day, but he was there to share in something he had a large part in. I've heard all the stories about the fiery coach, and I could still see it in his eyes when a drill wasn't done right or a player's attitude might not be what it should be during a workout.
But the man I knew was a true gentleman.
He could reach the kids and get them to push beyond what they thought they were capable of doing but always in an upbeat and positive manner. He did not only know all the names of the kids, he would be teaching but knew them as people, too.
I didn't see Coach as much over the past few years with both of my daughters graduated and done playing, but I was looking forward to seeing him soon because I knew he would be out to our holiday tournament to watch his girls play. He never left the gym until he got a chance to say hello and ask about the family.
As I got into coaching, there wasn't a practice that went by that I didn't think of something Coach said or taught. What's the most important shot in basketball? Anyone who was around Coach knows the answer.
Like everyone else, I could go on forever, but there is just one thing I'd like to say to Coach's family that I said to him many times. Thank you. Thank you so much for sharing such a wonderful person. He has touched countless lives in a manner that some of you will never know.
I've never been around a person with such a passion to be around our youth and teach them the game he loved so much. There is a huge void in our basketball community that cannot be filled by any one person but as those players he helped so much continue on, have families of their own, some get into coaching themselves, they will pass on those values and lessons that Coach taught them to the best of their abilities.
God bless you, Coach. You will be sadly missed.
Mike, Andrea Horton
Tara Stock and Kiely Horton
(Editor's note: The writer is an assistant coach for the Central High School girls basketball team.)
Moore made Swogger proud
I'm really sorry to learn of the passing of John Swogger.
He was quite the coach, teacher and gentleman in his days. Growing up and playing in Tyrone. I had the opportunity to play against his teams a couple of times while in high school. I always felt that Swogger and John Wiberg, who was my coach at Tyrone, were the two best coaches, teachers, educators and gentlemen that I was ever around.
Living in the Houston area, we were fortunate to see Johnny Moore play often with Texas as they were then in the old Southwest Conference.
I had been introduced to Johnny when he was in high school by Coach Swogger years earlier, and when we saw him play against the Houston Rockets, when the Spurs were in Houston, he was always the same gracious and well mannered Johnny Moore from Altoona.
He never changed - a credit to his family and his coach.
Blair County loses an icon
The Mifflin County basketball community is saddened to hear of the passing of John Swogger.
Coach Swogger was always quite supportive of our Lewistown girls basketball teams, and he never forgot to invite us to participate in the numerous leagues he organized at various venues in the Altoona area.
Having our girls play in leagues created by Coach Swogger paved the way for our program to reach new heights on the District 6 and PIAA levels. Even last year, our first year of Mifflin County High School, Coach Swogger called to wish me luck before the season, and we were delighted to participate in a fall league that he created.
Each season, Coach always made it a point to come to one of our games when we were in the Blair County area, and I will never forget his support and encouragement.
Blair County has certainly lost an icon. Our prayers are with his family and friends.
Girls Basketball Coach
Mifflin County High School
Legend will continue to grow
Revered and feared, cheered and jeered, steady and unwavering in the pursuit of perfection, men like Coach John Swogger set standards and have expectations of their players and fans that can only be fully appreciated in hindsight.
The loss that the Swogger family feels at this time is shared by tens of thousands of others who had the privilege of experiencing the Swogger method during the decades that he shared his knowledge and love of the game with anyone willing to pay attention.
His legend will continue to grow as the years go by as those he touched share their memories of how he had a positive effect on their lives, both on and off the court. Few people achieve greatness in life without a mentor - someone like Coach Swogger - to show them how to excel at the game of life.
Goodbye, Coach. Take those 20 little kids from Connecticut by the hand and show them how to play the game the Swogger way.