INDIANA COUNTY SPORTS HALL OF FAME: Dettorre more than a coach
• EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the final of an eight-part series profiling the individuals who will be inducted into the Indiana County Sports Hall of Fame.
A few months ago, not long after the end of the high school football season, Ab Dettorre walked into the weight room at Blairsville High School, where a group of his players were working out.
The longtime football coach told his players to turn off the music. “I need a minute,” he said, letting them know he had something important to say.
An unsettling feeling filled the room. Looks of uncertainty crossed the players’ faces.
This was it. This was the day. They knew it would come, and now the time had arrived. He was going to tell them that he was done, that after 26 years as the head coach and more than 30 as a coach and teacher at his alma mater, the day had come when he was finally going to retire.
“He starts going on,” Neil Stone, an assistant coach who was in the room that day, said, “and all the kids are looking at me with this look of panic on their faces. Then he said, ‘I want you to know, because of you guys, I’m getting into the Hall of Fame this year.’”
The uneasiness poured out of the room. The concern on those faces turned to smiles.
“You could see the look of relief on their faces, and they were all smiling,” Stone said. “It was funny to see how badly they want him to still be there.”
Dettorre delivered the message in that room, and it echoed through the halls of his alma mater and carried down into the town where he grew up, raised a family and has spent his whole life. It was a message for this past year’s team and next year’s team, and all the teams in whose footsteps they’ll follow.
Ab Dettorre, their coach, their teacher, their mentor, their fan and friend, wasn’t going to leave them. Dettorre being there, for his players, for his students, for the entire student body, that is something that has not changed in more than 30 years at Blairsville High School.
He will be inducted into the Indiana County Sports Hall of Fame on Sunday in recognition of his dedication and success as a high school football coach. There is so much more to it though than his longevity and 147-99-4 record and six conference championships.
“I feel like he’s so much more than a teacher and coach,” Dettorre’s daughter, Jacki, said. “Over the years I’ve seen him help kids on and off the field, in class and outside class, not only on academics or how to become a good football player, but shaping lives and helping them make good choices and become a good person.”
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Albert Joseph Dettorre Jr., the son of Albert Sr. and Eleanor, was born and raised in Blairsville. A 1972 graduate, he never left Indiana County, going only as far as IUP to go to college. He graduated from IUP in 1976 and he returned to Blairsville, where he began teaching physical education and then coaching football under one of his mentors and his high school coach, Ernie Widmar. He long ago became a fixture at the school and part of the fabric of the community, a man who is referred to mostly by his first name, Ab, or more likely, Abby. Say that name, and everyone knows who you’re talking about.
“He gets those jokes after church, that we can finally leave when he’s done talking to every single person there,” his son, Nick, said.
Dettorre married his wife, Lujean, almost 37 years ago, and both became teachers at Blairsville. They raised two children, both of whom followed in their footsteps and joined the teaching profession.
In 1987, Dettorre became the head football coach, succeeding Widmar, who retired after 21 seasons. His teams won two Appalachian Conference championships and four straight Heritage Conference crowns in 2002 through ’05. He also coached track and field and baseball, and he has been a PIAA basketball referee for 33 years. He also is a mainstay at any event going on at the school, whether it is an athletic competition or a musical.
Add up his combined years of coaching in all sports and it easily surpasses 50. Add up the number of football players he has coached and it comes up to approximately 475. Add up the number of students he has taught and the numbers stretch into the thousands.
Try to put a figure on the number of lives he has affected, well, no one knows for sure, but it is prolific.
“Just last Friday we went out to see the new Spike Bar at Chestnut Ridge,” his wife said. “A kid that graduated about 12 years ago and maybe played football a short time said, ‘I’m married now and have a child and I think about those things you used to say to me.’ He said, ‘I realized that back then you were just looking out for me, and the things you told me I’m saying to my kid.’ Abby was very moved that night because that was a kid he thought would never come around, but he did.
“I think more and more kids need someone to believe in, someone to lean on, someone to give them advice when no one else does. Every year there’s somebody to be worried about, and he’s out there trying to guide them. Then years later they come back and say now they understand what he said, that back then they thought he was just on their case, but they realize he was really just trying to help them out. That just keeps him going. He just has that passion and loves those kids and thinks they’re part of his big extended family, and luckily our children have embraced that too.”
Sometimes former students seek out their former teacher and coach and show up on his doorstep.
“I’ve seen a number of people come to our house over the years thanking him for what he’s done, some of them people that weren’t standout students that he took under his wing,” his son said. “And there are the life-skills kids that he involved with the program as managers, and there are some great stories there. To see the joy on their faces that they’re part of the team, it was pretty inspirational.
“And he did get a letter from some people at a nursing home saying that they listen to the games, and it’s the highlight of their week. It’s more than just a football program to a lot of people. It’s something special I don’t think I’ll ever be a part of again. I try to get that into my kids’ heads now. I think he always did get it, and he tries to give it 110 percent.”
Each year Dettorre recruits a group of life-skills students to serve as managers for the football team. Teaching a lineman to block or a linebacker to shoot a gap, that gives a coach satisfaction. Seeing one of the special-needs students beaming and decked out in Bobcat gear, becoming a part of something they would never have had the opportunity to participate in, that brings sheer joy.
“He takes them home after practice almost every day, makes sure they get to games, makes sure they have food to eat,” Stone said. “He takes all the kids down to a Pitt game at the end of the year, and he makes sure all those kids go, and he’s always buying them some sort of hat or shirt every year we’re down there. He puts everybody before himself. He has a soft spot, especially for some of the kids that he knows aren’t in good financial situations or are having some sort of issue at home. He really has that soft side for kids.”
“People have no clue about the things he’s done donation-wise or things he’s done for people,” his son said. “He’s probably driven across the country and back with rides home for kids.”
In Dettorre’s eyes, everyone is equal.
“He’s one of the fairest coaches I’ve ever been around,” Dan Shirley, another assistant and former Blairsville player, said. “I’ve been around a lot of sports teams, and he’s just great for the kids. Everything he does is for the kids. He doesn’t care if his name is in the paper for being a great coach, he wants the kids to do well and have success, and he tries to get them ready for life after football, too. There aren’t many people making a living around here playing football. He tries to teach them life lessons, too.”
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The opportunity to give back to the community extends well beyond Dettorre’s ability to field a respectable and often good football team every fall. He is a volunteer fireman, a certified advanced diver and a lector at his church, S.S. Simon and Jude.
“I tell the kids all the time,” Dettorre said, “if you have a sense of faith, if you believe in a higher power, that should be your first priority. Your family needs to be your second priority. Academics, or your job, should be your third priority. And your sport, if you choose to be an athlete, that should be your next priority. And after that it’s your social life. If you keep those things in balance, and don’t make a lot if mistakes, you’re going to make a lot of better choices. But that’s nothing I created.”
“He has lived a life for this town and this community,” his daughter said, “and a lot of the choices he has made have been for Blairsville and the team and the school. He’s proud of our town and our school, and he’s proud of his team, and that means a great deal to him. It’s not about him, it’s about the coaches and students and staff and players, and he truly believes that. I know he believes it’s not just about him, it’s a community effort, a team effort, a school effort, and he’s just so proud of that.”
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In an era when many coaches suffer from burnout or grow tired of grumbling parents and hassles with school boards and administrators, Dettorre has survived. Few make it past five or six years. Dettorre is starting on 27.
He has survived despite his outspoken and well-documented nature. If there is a controversial issue in the school district, Dettorre doesn’t hide his opinion, even if it’s not the popular choice. In 1990, when a teachers’ strike threatened to ruin the season, Dettorre decided he was going to coach. He wasn’t going to let his players lose a special time, their senior season.
“I have a lot of respect for Abby. I call him Coach, I always have,” Shirley, a 1990 graduate who was a member of Dettorre’s first team, said. “We did very well our first two years. The first year we were 8-1 and didn’t make the playoffs. The next year the Appalachian Conference went to a four-team playoff. We ended up losing to United in the regular season, and he told us after the game, ‘If we keep winning, we’re going to see this team again.’ And we played them at Point Stadium for the championship and beat them. Then my senior year the teachers went on strike, and there was a lot of controversy and turmoil. All the other sports quit, but Abby said he was still coaching.”
Football is a game, and games are supposed to be fun. To be good requires a lot of hard work from the players and coaches and support from the administration and community. The way Dettorre sees it, there’s no reason hard work and fun can’t mix.
“He’s tough, but he has a great sense of humor,” Rick Artley, Dettorre’s offensive coordinator, said. “He likes to joke around and have fun. That’s probably also part of his longevity. If it was 100 percent football all the time, if it was wins and losses and nothing else, he’d have probably gotten out a long time ago. You can have fun as well as be serious and get the job done.”
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Another key element is passion, and everyone agrees that’s one of Dettorre’s most recognizable intangibles.
“He has passion, not just for the game, but for the kids and the community, that community that he grew up in,” his son said. “I’ve seen over the years that he’s so proud of his small town. It all comes down to his passion for his kids and his hometown.”
“He just loves it,” Artley said. “You get those handful of coaches that it’s basically been a major part in their lives, and obviously you have to be able to switch now because you can’t coach the same way you did 30 years ago, and he’s made those adjustments. That’s probably the reason he’s still in it and loves it to this day.”
Blairsville has had only two coaches in the past 47 years. A lot of things have changed over the years, but Dettorre remains a student of the game.
“Here he is 30-some years into coaching,” his son said, “and he’s still going to clinics and camps and adapting because there’s always something better and things that were nonexistent when he started. He’s about to be 60 years old and he still loves what he’s doing. He still jokes around, and he still has the passion.”
That passion began when he was an undersized but quick 5-foot-8, 195-pound nose guard as a high school player, and it remains 40 years later.
It extends from the football field to his physical fitness. He is no longer the barrel-chested man that lifted heavy weights into his 40s. He switched from that regimen for the Insanity workouts and a nutritious diet following a heart procedure when he was 46. Today, he checks in at a lean 188 pounds. He sat through a recent 30-minute interview while pedaling one of the stationary bikes in the school’s fitness center.
“He’s into the Insanity DVDs now more than the kind of thing he did when he was younger,” his son said. “He doesn’t have to bench press 300 pounds anymore. But if he asks the kids to do something, he does it, too. He’s in there working out with the kids at 6 a.m.”
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Dettorre’s coaching staff is made up mainly of Blairsville graduates, some of whom volunteer their time, others who make little money. There is little turnover.
“He was with Jim Meighan and those guys for a long time,” his wife said, “and now he has a staff with Neil Stone and Rick Artley and those guys, and they do well together. He doesn’t have to worry every year about someone else coming in and training someone. They work well together and stay together. If he had to worry about a staff, it wouldn’t be as fun. And he loves it when his old players come back and want to volunteer. He really embraces that.”
Stone was one of those players. A 1996 graduate, he returned to Blairsville after graduating from Juniata College. He has been a member of the staff since 2000.
“Neil Stone started out as a volunteer,” Dettorre said. “We tease him all the time about how we ruined his life. He was all set to go to law school, and then he spent one semester with us and decided to get dragged into education and coaching, and he’s been a teacher ever since.
“We’ve had that luxury with guys like that, and we’ve been pretty consistent, too. … When you think about it, when you look at 47 years with two coaches and the staffs we’ve had, that only bodes well for a good experience.”
Coaches stick around because they like the head coach, and they stay because he lets them do their job.
“He’s willing to find spots for anyone that wants to coach,” Artley, a Northern Cambria graduate, said. “He’s not a control freak. These guys come in and some stay several years and they’re not even being paid, and we’ve had a ton of volunteers. And he allows them to be part of the every-day coaching. It’s not like they’re standing on the sidelines every Friday night and not doing anything all week. He was good to them when they played, and he’s good to them after, and he does whatever he can to help them in any way. He’d do anything for anyone in this community.”
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Dettorre met his wife while they were students at IUP. He’s still trying to figure out how he got a cheerleader and homecoming queen to become his wife.
“We lived in the same building,” he said, “but it was like a year after we met before we started going out. Fortunately for me, I had a hard time getting dates, and she ends up being the homecoming queen in 1974. People thought I paid her off then, but it worked out pretty well.”
The Dettorres spent their entire careers teaching at Blairsville. Lujean, who retired after the 2009-10 school year, spent 34 years teaching kindergarten and first grade, specializing in developmental reading.
Perhaps the greatest compliment parents can receive from their children comes when their offspring follow in their chosen profession. That’s what Nick and Jacki did.
Nick, a Slippery Rock University graduate, is a football and wrestling coach at Northeastern High School in York County, and Jacki, a Duquesne University graduate, is a kindergarten teacher in the Hempfield school district in Westmoreland County.
The son had no intention of following in his father’s footsteps. He started as a safety science major. Now, he’s closely tracing his father’s path as a physical education teacher and assistant coach.
“At first I was looking more for dollar signs,” he said. “I knew education would be rough, but I think all along I knew that’s what I wanted to do. … In my 27 years of existence, I never remember a single day that he was upset about going to work. I knew I’d never be super-wealthy, but I knew I’d be happy. And I’m extremely fortunate that I found a job as quickly as I did in a district that’s supportive of physical education and coaching, and I found a girl that I’m going to marry this summer. He’s had a huge influence on that, that’s for sure.”
“It had a lot do with what I decided to do,” Jacki said. “I spent my life growing up watching my dad help kids, whether it was on or off the field. That helped me decide I definitely wanted to work in a school and influence lives. I think my dad has done that for a lot of people.”
Dettorre has enjoyed success because of hard-working and dedicated players and a cohesive staff that comes back year after year. A supportive wife might be his greatest asset.
“There’s no way I could have done any of this without her support,” he said. “I’ve seen coaches come and go because they don’t have that kind of support. There’s no way whatsoever I would have lasted this long without her.”
His wife knew what she was getting into. The former Lujean Boring grew up in Derry, just down the road from Blairsville, and her grandfather, Bruno Conti, was the high school football coach.
“For many, many years I was used to having a coach around and not having a coach around,” she said.
“We’ve been married coming up on 37 years,” Dettorre said. “I was probably gone for about 33 of them … but I think we’ve always had a mutual respect for each other’s field of endeavors and the significance of that. I don’t think we ever put our children behind any of these things. Now that they’re gone, I wish we had younger kids. A lot of these students here have taken their place. They’re like my kids, whether they play football or not, and they’re a significant part of my life.”
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Dettorre can point to a lot of influential people in his life. The list begins with his parents and extends to his high school coaches, Widmar, Meighan and Ed Kozar, and his college coach, Bill Neal, and the staff at IUP.
“Coach Neal gave me the opportunity to be on the football team,” Dettorre said. “He gave me a lot of opportunities. I had a couple injuries, and he allowed me to coach my senior year, and I stayed around as a graduate assistant coach the following year. I learned a lot about organization from him and learned a lot about demeanor from him. And Rich Hornfeck and the late Dr. Chuck Godlasky and the late Larry Panaia and Bob Letso, they were great coaches and great guys, and they always left a mark. We had fun every day, but we worked hard, and it was fun football. You can’t help but take their desire, their want, their need to succeed with you.
“I’ve had it pretty good. I’ve had a lot of great mentors. Without a doubt my mom and dad stand right up there. … One of the greatest things I ever learned from my dad, and my mom, too, was that I never heard a derogatory comment about a coach. When I was 25, he said, ‘I don’t like that Power-I you’re running at Blairsville.’ He never told me that as a kid. He never allowed me to form a bad opinion about my coaches. You don’t see that much today.”
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The day will come. Dettorre will retire from teaching and coaching. It could be after next year or the year after that. It could be five years down the road.
“The kids keep telling me they think this is it. I don’t see it,” his wife said. “He’s says, ‘I should go now and give the new coach a good team like Ernie did for me.’ Then the next thing he’s saying, ‘We’ll still be good next year, too.’ He wants to do it unless something major happens before next football season. I’m still not allowed to plan any vacations for August, so that’s a giveaway.”
At a school assembly Friday, Dettorre was presented a plaque in recognition of his impending induction.
“He was very touched,” his wife said. “The kids stood and applauded. I saw that smile on his face, and I thought, I don’t think retirement is coming this year.”
Dettorre is leaving a door open should he decide to retire from teaching. He recently took over as associate director of athletics, a position he shares with Jim Buckles.
“If I should retire from teaching, that could give me an opportunity to maybe remain on as coach,” he said. “I’ve always thought the coach has to be around the players. You can’t just show up at 3 after nobody has seen you all day.”
Even after retirement, it’s a good bet Dettorre won’t just turn his back and walk away. He’ll always be there, in person or a phone call or short drive away, to lend an ear, offer a shoulder to lean on or provide a few words of advice or encouragement — or voice an opinion.
“The guy should run for mayor, he really should,” Stone said. “He’s involved in everything, from the fire department, the church, just everything. Even if he’s not on a committee, people ask for his input because he knows everybody and everybody knows him. He doesn’t always make decisions that please everybody, but he’s doing the right things for the kids and the community.”