Ex-Altoona coach Betar dies of cancer

Friends, colleagues and former players are remembering Larry Betar for his playing ability, coaching success and his demeanor, on and off the court.

Betar, a former Altoona Area High School basketball player and coach, passed away Wednesday, following a bout with cancer. He was 59.

Betar was the point guard for the 1970-71 Mountain Lions, coached by John Swogger and often referred to as one of the greatest fastbreaking teams in Pennsylvania high school history. That team also included Billy Moore, Reese Piper, Terry Acker and Galen Bickel and went 23-2, losing to Beaver Falls in the PIAA western final at the Cambria County War Memorial Arena.

After an outstanding playing career at Edinboro University, Betar returned to Altoona as a coach and teacher. When Swogger retired, Betar, who guided the Altoona jayvees to a 24-0 record in 1980, was hired as head coach.

Betar was head coach for the next 14 years, posting 289 victories and winning eight District 6 championships between 1981 and 1990. The 1990-91 Mountain Lions, including Brian Rehm, Danny Fortson and Steve Taneyhill became the first Altoona team in 30 years to reach the PIAA state title game where they lost to Glen Mills.

Betar resigned in 1994 but returned as the Lions’ head coach in 2006 after being away from the bench 13 years. His second stint went through 2009, and the 2007 team won the district title with a 24-5 record. He retired in 2009 after 17 total years as Altoona coach with a record of 341 wins and 137 losses and nine District 6 championships.

Larry McAleer was two years younger than Betar and fondly remembers the ’70-71 Lions’ fastbreaking juggernaut.

“I was lucky enough to dress [varsity] as a sophomore with that great Altoona High team,” McAleer said. “With Billy Moore rebounding and outletting to Reesy Piper and then to Larry [Betar] and then Terry Acker … that could have been the greatest fastbreak of all time.

“Tommy Bickel and I [both sophomore subs] had the best seats in the house.”

Piper passed away a couple years ago, and McAleer has a picture of him hanging on a wall in his business.

“Now I’ll have to put one up of Larry,” McAleer said.

McAleer played at Penn State Behrend when Betar was playing at Edinboro and the Erie Times ran a photo of the two Altoonans prior to one of their games.

“I have it cherished,” McAleer said. “It’s a sad day for the basketball community, a sad day. How tough he was. So hard nosed.”

Doug West and Mike Iuzzolino were standouts on Betar’s 1984-85 Mountain Lions, considered one of the best in school history. The team won 27 straight games before falling to Brashear in the PIAA western final.

Before going on to an outstanding career at Villanova and then playing 12 NBA seasons, West was molded by Betar.

“I had a good three-year run with Coach Betar,” West said. “He was a great motivator and always had a good game plan. He always came to practice like he was ready to play, and he always had a smile.”

West said Betar helped him reach the next level because he played him facing the basket instead of in the low post.

“He let me expand my game,” West said. “I was fortunate to have him as a coach and teacher. He was an all-around great guy.

“This is a sad day for Altoona sports. He’s gone home and will be missed.”

Now director of basketball operations for the University of New Mexico men’s program, Iuzzolino played two seasons at Altoona after transferring from Bishop Guilfoyle.

“Two things always stand out with me about Larry,” Iuzzolino said. “First, he welcomed me into Altoona basketball when I made the difficult decision to transfer. I was a good player, but he already had Dougy, Craig [Curry] and Bobby [Bradfield]. He welcomed me and made the transition easy for me.

“Secondly, he went out of his way to showcase me and helped me reach my potential,” said Iuzzolino, who went on to an outstanding career at St. Francis University before playing two years in the NBA and several more overseas. “I never thought he got enough credit for how he developed players and for the type of coach and man he was.”

Iuzzolino noted that Betar was criticized for not winning a state championship.

“I never heard him say one bad word about anybody,” Iuzzolino said. “He just kept plugging away. He was real passionate about sportsmanship. Larry was a true gentleman and a very humble guy who loved the game.”

Cory Gehret played for Betar as a sophomore on the Altoona jayvees then played on the varsity when Betar succeeded Swogger.

“I feel really bad about what happened to him,” Gehret said. “He was much too young for something like this.”

Gehret said Betar emphasized the team concept.

“It definitely was different playing for Larry after Swogger,” said Gehret, whose mid-court buzzer-beater against Aliquippa at the War Memorial in the 1981 western semifinals is ranked as perhaps the greatest shot in Altoona history.

“[Betar] liked to rebound and fastbreak, like Swogger,” Gehret added. “He was a different character, though. Swogger always seemed to have a marquee player like Louie Schmitt or Ricky Tunstall. When Larry took over, we were more balanced and didn’t have a lot of designed plays.”

Gehret’s son Matt was on the Altoona varsity when Betar returned for his second coaching stint.

“I guess it wasn’t that unusual, but it was neat,” he said.

Walter “Herky” Betar, Larry’s uncle, was principal during Larry’s time at Altoona High.

“Larry was a great player in high school and in college,” Herky Betar said. “As a teacher and coach, he never bothered anybody or never complained. He just did his job.”

Herk Betar said Larry was a good game coach.

“He was at his best when his team was on the floor,” Herk said.

Larry was quiet, almost a loner, to some.

“Everything he said probably could have been put in one paragraph,” Herk Betar said. “He was just a nice guy. He didn’t like the limelight. He just wanted to coach and teach.

“It’s a great loss.”

Funeral arrangements were incomplete on Wednesday.