Hayes leaves a giant legacy at Bellwood

BELLWOOD — When you’re 71 and have been a head football coach for 38 straight years, with a resume of more than 300 victories, and as you’ve recovered from the emotions of another season and some down time over the holidays and the calendar flips to spring, you inevitably look for a sign that points to retirement.

John Hayes got that sign three weeks ago.

It was Saturday, April 21 at Bellwood-Antis High School, and Hayes — despite his tenure — was in the midst of taking an eight-hour certification test, now required by the state of Pennsylvania for all coaches of all sports.

“Sometimes you get a feel for when it’s the right time,” he said over lunch Friday afternoon, “and that was it.”

Hayes didn’t sleep that night as he huddled with his thoughts.

Friends and fans had been respectfully asking him for “probably five years” of his intentions, “but I always decided to come back.”

This time, though, “I didn’t have any second thoughts.”

He informed his coaches, the Bellwood-Antis administration and on Friday, April 27, the winningest coach in Blair County history gathered his players and told them the era was over.

“It was hard,” he said of the “emotional” meeting. “Extremely difficult to get the words out.”

Hayes leaves giant shoes to fill, both as Bellwood’s coach and, having presided over facilities growth and all-around program success, as athletic director.

Only 15 football coaches in state history have reached 300 victories. Hayes’ total of 323 ranks 10th all-time, second in District 6 history to the 366 amassed by Forest Hills’ Don Bailey, another legend.

He’s not “a big social media guy,” but his wife, Vicky, “has monitored” many of the nice thoughts and comments that have been expressed over the past week.

He’s appreciated the well-wishes while coming to grips with the fact that “this (fall) will be the first year (actually the second) since 1958 that I haven’t been involved in football.”

To that end, the decision has inevitably taken him back to his journey and his roots.

A Mount Pleasant native and Juniata College graduate following his transfer from Susquehanna, Hayes arrived in Blair County as an assistant at Tyrone in 1969.

His early mentors were Fred Prender (Juniata College), Tyrone’s John Schonewolf and Steve Magulick, Bellefonte’s Bill Luther, Huntingdon’s Andy Radi, Lock Haven’s Don Malinak and Central’s Harry Clarke.

“Every one of those guys were, I thought, in so much command of what they were doing,” Hayes, who played center in college, said. “Harry Clarke did things back then in the running game that people today are now calling the spread. He had all kind of wild formations and ran off-tackle all night.”

Hayes was a study in determination and perseverance as his first three pursuits of a head-coaching job — twice at Tyrone and once at Bellefonte — were unsuccessful.

The second time he sought the Tyrone job, in 1979 when Tom Miller was hired, Hayes stepped away for one year and was hired at B-A in July of 1980 after Jim Gardner resigned unexpectedly.

“I give our seniors that year so much credit for handling that transition because that was a shock to them,” Hayes, who went 7-3 in his first season, said.

Then, in his second year, as longtime local sports followers can remember, Hayes was victimized by the infamous stolen-playbook incident — when Tyrone coaches used a Bellwood transfer to not only get their hands on the Blue Devils’ playbook but actually made copies of it and mailed it out to opponents.

The massive distraction led to a 4-6 season — Hayes had just two sub-.500 records in 38 years — and the reckless act of sportsmanship created statewide headlines.

But it didn’t break Hayes’ love for the game or the Bellwood-Tyrone rivalry.

“When it happened, it added some bitterness, but I tried to downplay it,” he said. “I didn’t want it to be an obstacle, even though as a human, you take things with you. Time is a great healer.”

Hayes’ record against Tyrone was a very respectable 16-23, considering the Eagles have a larger enrollment, and included a 10-2 stretch from 1983-94 when Hayes was establishing his imprint.

Tyrone has been through a half-dozen coaches over the course of Hayes’ tenure, but he describes the rivalry as healthy, noting many former players have friends and family in both camps and that “the (DelGrosso) park is the great melting pot.

“John Franco and I had a great relationship and great respect,” Hayes said. “We had some bright moments, and certainly they had their bright moments as well.”

Along the way, Hayes had a couple chances to leave for “major” high school jobs in the area. One was Hollidaysburg, but he decided the grass was green enough in Bellwood.

“A lot of people say, well, it’s Bellwood, but the kids in Bellwood pretty much grow up the same way they do in Everett, Glendale. We’ve had good numbers and that contributes to success,” he said. “I felt a sense of loyalty that grew.”

He’s proud that though “we haven’t had a constant run of Division I talent” — in fact, he’s not coached a Division I player — that Bellwood has carved its success “with kids who have gone on to be great students.

“We’ve got doctors, lawyers,” he said. “We’ve been able to take new groups and make them highly competitive and for the most part successful, and I’m proud of the consistency.”

Hayes and his wife endured tragedy and felt the community’s love when their only child, adopted son Josh, died in 2007 at the age of 26.

“Tremendous support,” Hayes said quietly. “Unless you go through it, nobody knows what a dark day is like that. But the school, the community and friends were great.”

Josh Hayes was an excellent student, college graduate and worked as an engineer. The two celebrated Hayes’ 200th victory in 2007, a photo the coach cherishes.

“It’s kind of like the last picture I have of him,” Hayes, tears in his eyes, said.

Over the past 11 years, though the reminders are daily, coaching diverted some of the pain.

“Things never go away, but it helps to continue doing what you like,” he said.

As he was taking his certification test, Hayes’ mind began to wander.

His program is on solid ground. There is enough of a returning nucleus for the next coach to be successful. He got to savor the school’s first PIAA basketball championship this year.

And so he concluded: If not now, when?

He’ll remain in touch with the game and the state coaches association, will attend today’s East-West Game at Mansion Park, and, if it comes, accept the PSFCA Hall of Fame recognition after declining it previously.

“It always stuck in my mind it should be a post-career honor,” he said.

He mentioned traveling and a possible fall vacation, maybe to New England, with Vicky.

“I’ve never been able to do that,” he said.

Once he gets on the road, as the leaves turn, he’ll be able to peek in his rearview mirror and look back on 38 years, 323 victories, scores of players, a lifetime of memories and a Bellwood-Antis community that in 1980 made one heck of a coaching decision.

Rudel can be reached at 946-7527 or nrudel@altoonamirror.com.

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