Flying above Altoona, football openings
Longtime followers of this column realize I’ve been fortunate to have access to the Mirror helicopter to assist in the most important of stories.
Like when Altoona Area High School is searching — OK, again searching — for a new head football coach.
Oh, there have been some other occasions. We helped then Penn State athletic director Dave Joyner on short notice after Bill O’Brien left, and the late, great Dean Rossi thought Hollidaysburg’s football search deserved equal air space.
Over the years, a number of stakeholders have experienced a ride in the sky. Among them: Several Altoona superintendents, mostly notably Dennis Murray, tenured board member Dick Lockard and the late Al Mignogna, who offered a launching pad and landing space next to the Belmar.
We even let Phil Riccio come along.
So here we are again as the last three Altoona coaches — Tom Palfey, John Franco and Nick Felus — have managed an average stay of just 3.3 seasons and just one winning season in that 10-year stretch.
I made a few inquiries about being accompanied and this time found no takers.
Retired Bellwood-Antis coach and AD John Hayes would have regional insights, but he claims he’s afraid of heights. I figured Doug West might be privy to Altoona’s process and could add some thoughts on the Mid-Penn, but he was concerned about leg room.
I considered the Mirror sports staff, but then I thought they/we all shouldn’t be together for this. Too much pressure on the pilot. Plus I didn’t want to compromise Scott Franco.
Thankfully, since our last search, I’ve secured my chopper license so we’re good to go, and there’s nothing quite like a peaceful ride over beautiful central Pennsylvania.
With so many jobs open — Altoona, Tyrone, probably Penn Cambria, Forest Hills, Huntingdon and Glendale — feel free to join me as I fly solo and play tour guide.
Dan Slep, our reigning Mirror employee of the year, has the helicopter out of its hangar, polished and fueled.
It’s early so I’m apologizing in advance to our Graystone neighbors (high subscriber rate) for the noise while the engine revs in the Mirror’s back parking lot.
Up, up and away. Slep and Ed Kruger wave.
It’s cold, but what a clear day as I’m first headed toward Tyrone. I’m not sure Jason Wilson got a real fair deal down there. He was an alumnus with a winning record, plus he had Hollidaysburg on the schedule, which probably hurt his playoff cause.
But the Eagles have had their eyes — funny, that’s the name of the Tyrone school paper, the “Eagle Eye” — on Franco since he left in 2012.
Based on his odyssey — a four-year stint at Altoona, whatever he was doing at St. Joseph’s in State College and two years at Penn Cambria — it’s safe to say Franco made a mistake in walking away from the black and orange. But now it looks like he’s coming back, possibly as soon as Tuesday’s board meeting, which will be good news in Tyrone.
Since we’re partway there, it’s on to Huntingdon, which also has an opening. The mere mention of Bearcat football stirs fond memories of Huntingdon’s drive to the western final in 1998, led by running back/freight train Chad Brindle.
What’s this we see? A maroon Mountain Lion van parked at Juniata College? Interesting. Maybe Drew Gallardy is being interviewed.
“Breaker 1-9, breaker 1-9, you’re flying too low,” the flight tower command echoes. “Go up another 100 feet.”
I hit the elevation lever and whoosh!
Somehow, I’m suddenly off course and headed toward State College, and as I get out my high-powered binoculars, which used to focus on JoePa, I find it curious that there’s a revolving door being installed on the Lasch Building.
No sign of Kevin Givens. Maybe he’s in Indy already for the combine.
“Get both hands on the wheel,” the tower instructs.
Flustered, I buzz over Clearfield County and wonder if Glendale will ever find the next John Lloyd, and now I can see Cambria County in the distance.
I make a hard right. Wow — that indoor facility at Forest Hills is impressive. Who in the state ever had a better deal than Don Bailey? Guy was the AD, principal and then the superintendent — all while coaching the football team.
My old writer buddy in Wilkes-Barre, the late Jerry Kellar, used to tell a story that when you dialed the Berwick School District, you were instructed to press one for football coach George Curry and two for the school superintendent. In Bailey’s case, those were the same extension.
It’s natural to think Bailey’s son, Brandon, could be a potential successor, but the younger Bailey has done a nice job at Richland, which may now be more fertile turf than Forest Hills, and is not returning to the Rangers.
“Hey, hey — you’re getting too far south for your fuel allotment,” the tower cautions in a tone way more hostile than the British woman on my GPS. “Start back — now.”
I do a gradual 180 and see the development along Route 22 in Ebensburg — the waitresses at Kosta’s wave — before closing in on Penn Cambria.
Ironically, with the way the dominos might fall, once Franco leaves Cresson, he could be succeeded by Felus, who unfairly endured public administrative indecision at Altoona and whose alma mater is Penn Cambria.
Speaking of which, none other than Bishop Guilfoyle’s Justin Wheeler is a teacher at Penn Cambria, but if he wanted the PC job, he presumably could have had it by now. Talk about a top candidate for any job.
I accelerate over Cresson, I-99 splitting the mountains and the ballpark in sight.
In the past, this trip was designed to spy on the interviews and help determine who would get the Altoona job. While that remains unclear, I can pass along who isn’t with reasonable certainty.
Though there was informal conversation/pursuit, Wheeler hasn’t applied, although BG, moles say, has a backup plan in case. Ditto Homer DeLattre. And ditto Riccio, who said from the outset that he wasn’t a candidate, even though he’s the last Altoona football coach to have a winning record (71-45 in 10 years, including a pair of trips to the Class 4A western final).
The other finalist from the last search, Steve Taneyhill, seems unlikely (his parents have now relocated to South Carolina) and a desired candidate when Palfey was hired, Craig Sponsky, is staying put in Florida, maybe until his cousin, Baylor coach Matt Rhule, makes another move.
Vince Nedimyer Jr., a respected assistant from the past, is a principal in the Altoona district, which discourages administrators from holding coaching jobs. That’s part of Riccio’s roadblock as AD. Highly successful track coach Mike Adams, who has a football background, also has not applied.
The tower crackles: “You may begin your descent.”
I pass over the old Blair Racquet, then ProCare, now Gorilla tennis facility and can spot one of George Cardone’s rackets on the roof.
As I start hovering over the Mirror, I realize Altoona football is not the same as it was a half-century ago — when fans had to buy their season tickets on the visitors’ side at Mansion Park because the home side was full — or even when Ed Dalton had success in the 1990s.
There are many contributing factors, but they’ve added up to a history that has dwarfed its present. It’s not an easy job and the AD — oh, that’s Riccio — is getting ready to hire his fourth coach in a decade.
Nonetheless, Altoona remains in the top 20 of the state’s largest school districts so expectations will, and should, be higher than recent results, whether the affiliation is the WPIAL or Mid-Penn.
There don’t seem to be many candidates and, even with the benefit of the Mirror helicopter, it’s a challenging search.
“Brace for landing,” the tower cautions, and our wheels touch down, laying some rubber.
I hope you’ve enjoyed your flight.
Rudel can be reached at 946-7527 or firstname.lastname@example.org.