When blindsided by the news of Coach John Swogger's death on Christmas Day, a torrent of thoughts and emotions swept over me. One of the great heartaches of life is losing the people of your youth.
Though 1969 seems a lifetime ago, memories of this titan who transformed Altoona High basketball into another orbit remain clear and untainted by time.
Reflecting back to my sophomore year, I recall the first moment encountering him. He had no other teaching tasks besides basketball, for which he poured his heart and soul into daily.
During school hours, he mostly monitored packed auditoriums of study hall students.
Coach Swogger cut an imposing figure - a tall, handsome man who commanded instant respect. He'd sit on that stage behind a desk overseeing the crowd, sporting that stern, no-nonsense look while imposing order and discipline, powered simply by his presence.
Idle chatter and acting out was typically met with an icy glare, sufficient enough to set an offender straight. Study hall meant studying, by golly, and Lord help anyone who pushed the limits of decorum.
It happened only once when a student ignored his non-verbal warnings. Coach went off on him like a roman candle, smoke billowing from his ears. It was like watching him jump down a referee's throat, his face beet-red and the neck veins pulsating. He didn't play on or off the court and that kid, nearly reduced to tears, never messed up again under his watch.
I had revisited him over three decades later in 2002, retired though still teaching youth basketball at the Summit Tennis & Athletic Center in Altoona.
Softened by age, he had mellowed, the gruffness gone and the dark hair gray and in full recession, but he still possessed a teacher's greatest gift, the ability to convey passion and love for his subject - basketball - and for his pupils, for whom he cared deeply.
We reminisced over yesteryear, his amazing cache of players and electrifying teams that dazzled, artfully outsmarting opponents and racking up win after win - the Schenley triumph, the body blow of Beaver Falls in 1970 and the wrenching Farrell loss in '71. So close more than once to a state championship in Altoona, he could sniff it.
His shimmering achievements have been rightfully documented, fitting tributes to a life well-lived and a legacy secured, justice finally served with his Blair County Sports Hall of Fame induction.
Great teachers like John Swogger are hard to find, hard to lose and impossible to forget.
Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
(Editor's note: The writer graduated from Altoona High School in 1971 and is a former writer for the Mirror.)
'In a class by himself'
In sharing memories of Coach John Swogger, I immediately recall a story that occurred in an Altoona-Johnstown game played at the Altoona Fieldhouse in the late 1970s.
It was a basketball rivalry matching the coaching strategies between a veteran Swogger and a younger Paul Litwalk.
I was working the game with a clergyman from Revloc for the first time and seemingly we had quite different styles of officiating.
I had worked for many coaches over the years - the Applemans, Lane, Frederick, Nevins, Labriola, Ernie Vesnesky, Hurd, Moschella, Shives, Madey, Sparr and many other coaches in District 6. But this was my first dealing with Swogger and Litwalk.
It was an extremely competitive matchup. The gym was filled with a slew of raucous fans.
Altoona won the game, but it was a very demanding game for me and my partner. As I traveled "up the mountain and over the Buckhorn," home to Patton, I could still hear the fans expressing their vocal displeasures.
Both of these men were not only good coaches but also outstanding individuals. As time passed, we became friends and respected each other.
Coach Swogger was in a class by himself, and besides having an impact on his players, he had a friendly impact on many people throughout the district and all over the Pennsylvania basketball world. He was an icon.
May I express my sincere condolences to the Swogger family. We have lost an outstanding man.
Thomas M. Link
Family was his greatest triumph
When I moved back to Altoona in 2005, I had heard of Coach John Swogger but didn't know about his accolades, what players he groomed or what his won/loss record was.
As our paths crossed over the past few years with regard to helping develop fundamentally-sound young basketball players, I still never knew anything about his achievements on the court.
The only topic he would occasionally brag about was his greatest accomplishment - his family.
Coach's "ticket" into the ultimate championship game (heaven) is the fact that he helped thousands of young people develop discipline, focus and self-respect so that they could realize their full potential, as well as his unconditional love for his family, and his lifelong commitment to his creator.
This is his greatest victory.
Lisa Lightner Georgiana
Lessons spanned three generations
Growing up in a basketball family, I was very familiar with hearing all the stories my father would tell about Coach John Swogger.
At times when I was young I thought that there couldn't be a better coach in our community. As I grew older, I never had the chance to play for Coach, but I was fortunate to attend his summer basketball camps.
I remember his intensity and how he taught the game, starting with the fundamentals and stressing the importance to master those functions of the game before anything else.
These lessons have stayed with me throughout my life and were passed on to my 13-year-old son. So as the news spread on Christmas afternoon of Coach's passing, I sat with my son and realized at that moment how much this man affected our family.
He had taught us the game of basketball for three generations of the Labriola family - my father as an assistant coach, myself at many camps, and finally my son at teaching clinics as recently as this fall.
I'm sure there are many other families that he touched in a similar way, and his teachings will continue on for many generations to come. Thanks, Coach.