INDIANA COUNTY SPORTS HALL OF FAME: Assistant coach is still on top of his game
• EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the sixth of an eight-part series profiling the individuals who will be inducted into the Indiana County Sports Hall of Fame. Tomorrow: Josh Wirt.
Assistant coaches rarely get elected to a hall of fame.
John Chakot is the exception.
Candidates for the Indiana County Sports Hall of Fame rarely receive six letters of recommendation in their nomination portfolio.
Again, Chakot is the exception.
Widely regarded by his colleagues and peers as an exceptional assistant football coach, Chakot will be inducted into the Indiana County Hall on Sunday following 40 years in the profession. Most notably, Chakot helped coach IUP’s dominant offensive lines during the Frank Cignetti era and then joined the staff at Indiana High School, where he has helped Mark
Zilinskas establish a respectable program in the WPIAL.
“He’s top of the line,” Zilinskas said. “He does a great job with the kids, and he’s a great teacher.”
“His loyalty, work ethic and fundamental coaching and teaching progressions were outstanding,” Cignetti said.
“His coaching contributed to our outstanding offensive lines and success at IUP.”
While IUP was dominant in the 1990s, Indiana was languishing in a less-than-mediocre mode for more than a decade. The Indians finished 0-10 in 2001, their losing streak reached 13 games, and they had lost 19 of their previous 20 games.
“I would go over there on Friday night and watch the game and see them run the clock rule,” Chakot said of the PIAA rule in which the clock does not stop in the second half after a team takes a 35-point lead.
Indiana frequently experienced the wrong side of the rule.
“I’d think, Why I am the only person ticked off when I leave here?” Chakot said. “My sons were coming up through the system and were going to go through that.”
When Zilinskas, an IUP alumnus, became a candidate to be Indiana’s head coach in 2002, he enlisted the help of some of his former teammates, and one of the first calls he made was to one of his former college coaches. He asked for Chakot’s support, and Chakot agreed to lend it however he could.
“He just basically asked if I’d help support him, and we talked about two or three hours,” Chakot said. “And I said, ‘Look, anything I can do to help, just let me know.’ After he got the job, he said, ‘Hey, there’s something you can do.’”
Since then, Chakot has been a mainstay on the staff, putting together solid offensive lines that have helped Indiana set records for rushing offense and total offense in recent seasons. More importantly, Indiana puts a competitive team on the field and is no longer viewed as a pushover by its opponents.
“I wasn’t aware he was done coaching at IUP when I called him, and it just kind of worked out perfectly,” Zilinskas said. “To get back together and coming from the same mindset — I guess you could call it the Coach Cignetti coaching tree — it was a unique situation. To get a guy of his caliber has been a great thing for IHS.”
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Cignetti’s IUP teams were tremendous, the best in the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference and among the top teams nationally. Chakot coached there for 22 seasons, from 1979 to 2001, as a part-time assistant under Owen Dougherty (1979-81), George Chaump (1982-85) and Cignetti (1986-2001). In that time IUP compiled a 190-68-2 record, made 12 appearances in the NCAA Division II playoffs and twice played in the national championship game. Chakot coached eight All-Americans, including Chris Villarrial and Leander Jordan, who were selected in the NFL draft, Villarrial in the fifth round by the Chicago Bears in 1996 and Jordan in the third round by the Carolina Panthers in 2000.
“He did a very good job,” Cignetti, who coached through 2005, said. “John is a guy that is very thorough in terms of fundamentals and techniques of offensive line play. The players liked him, and he did an excellent job for me. He’s certainly deserving of this honor. He was a good football player at Blairsville, a good football player at Edinboro, and he’s really done a nice job coaching with IUP and the high school.”
Indiana’s record since 2002 is modest compared to IUP’s run, but it is remarkable considering the depths from which the Indians had to escape. The Indians were 27-83 in the 12 years prior to Zilinskas’ arrival. They have compiled a modest 57-61 record in 13 seasons since and have made five appearances in the WPIAL playoffs, one time in the Quad-A ranks and four times in Triple-A. They have had six winning seasons in the last 13 compared to one in the previous 12.
“It did not take long for me to see that John was very knowledgeable, very hard-working and professional on and off the field,” Gene Bicego, who joined the IUP staff in 1986, wrote in one of those letters of recommendation. “We always felt no one would outwork John. He was very well-liked and had a great relationship with all the players.”
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There is a saying among coaches, particularly those in the high school ranks, that it “all starts up front,” a reference to success hinging on the offensive line.
“You can’t stress enough the importance of fundamentals,” Zilinskas said, “and we have that experience of guys that have been through the IUP program and know the background and philosophy and fundamental beliefs. John is a big fundamental guy, like we all are, and you can’t stress enough the importance of that. He lives and breathes it every day. I knew as a head coach, having him coach the offensive line, I wouldn’t have to worry about it. I’ve never had to give it two thoughts. It’s a great, great situation.”
One of Chakot’s twin sons, Marcus, remembers making the trip to the Kiski School in Saltsburg for the first week of Zilinskas’ first preseason camp. The sixth-grader and his two brothers tagged along to help out as managers.
“You could really see the way it was before by how the kids were reacting to the new intensity that came about,” he said. “In the past it might have been a little more lax. You could really tell there was a sense of purpose in everything that was being accomplished. The big thing you could see throughout everything the players had to go through was that sense of trust in one another and that sense of accomplishment that was missing before.”
Marcus and his twin Lucas and older brother Adam played at Indiana when their father was coaching. All three went on to play at Division III Grove City College.
“One thing is there was a never difference in how he treated other people compared to my brothers and me,” Marcus said. “It was kind of cool to see that, if anything, we had to do more to earn more in his eyes. In general, the big things I think of are the tenacity he had and how intense he was in the job every day and the attention to detail that he brought. Whether it was fundamentals or how to stretch or how to run sprints, they were all done one way and the right way.”
Dave Moore was a senior on Indiana’s 2002 team. He endured that 1-19 stretch.
“I can honestly say I learned more about football in that one year than I did my whole career,” he wrote in his letter of recommendation. “As a current volunteer assistant coach for Indiana, I can tell you that nothing has changed. He still brings that hardnosed, winning attitude day in and day out.”
All three of Chakot’s sons are assistant coaches: Marcus coaches junior high in the Eastern York School District in central Pennsylvania; Lucas works with the Pittsburgh Power of the Arena Football League and with Indiana’s junior high program; and Adam helps out with the Indiana program.
“I don’t know if it’s good or bad,” Chakot said of his sons following in his footsteps, “but they enjoy the game. Adam sees a lot of things I don’t see, and he’s pretty astute. Luke has been helping out the last couple years and coaches junior high. And Marcus, last year one of the guys he was working with wanted him to help volunteer with the junior high, but this year a paid position opened up, and he’s putting in some pretty long hours.”
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Chakot grew up in the tiny town of Black Lick and could have taken other routes in his formative years. A standout three-sport athlete at Blairsville, he could have chosen wrestling over football. He probably would have made a good coach in that sport, too, given the similarities in techniques that offensive linemen and wrestlers must master.
After high school, he was accepted at IUP, but following a late-spring trip to Edinboro in his senior year, he decided to head north. He chose Edinboro over IUP and became a two-time All-PSAC lineman and helped the Fighting Scots go undefeated in 1970 and ’71. The 1970 team won the PSAC championship, advanced to the NAIA semifinals and was awarded the Lambert Trophy as the top small-college team in the East.
Following graduation, Chakot moved on to West Virginia University to earn a master’s degree and spent 1973 as an assistant coach at Peters Township High School and ’74 and ’75 as an assistant at Southmoreland High School, where one of his students was future Pro Football Hall of Famer Russ Grimm.
Chakot earned a second master’s and served as a graduate assistant coach at Edinboro in ’76 before returning as the head coach at Southmoreland for two seasons.
The path Chakot was on could have led to various places. He was making friends and contacts in the coaching profession, and he could have sought to remain a high school coach or seek a job as a Division I assistant. The route he chose allowed him to stay close to his roots, where he was able to raise a family, serve 30 years as a guidance counselor in the Marion Center and Blairsville-Saltsburg school districts, help build a new Catholic church in his hometown and raise Christmas trees on the property adjacent to his childhood home.
“I had the advantage of having a pretty stable lifestyle, especially with the kids,” Chakot said. “And being able to be involved with the football program at IUP, where else could you be involved in better a program?”
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Chakot’s full-time job centered on the same thing as his part-time profession: helping students choose the right path. He began his career as a guidance counselor at Marion Center before moving on to Blairsville and then Saltsburg. He also served as president of the Indiana Counselors Association. He retired from education in 2008.
“It’s kind of the same thing with coaching,” Marcus said. “There’s a way you’re supposed to do things, and that goes for whether he was coaching us on the baseball field or the football field or the way you’re expected to live your life. If we ever needed anything, if any kid ever needed anything, it wasn’t a question of why or what it takes, but how it’s going to get done. There was an expectation of how everything was supposed to get done, and you knew he always had your back. He was always on your side.”
Moore, who played under Chakot that first season at Indiana, returned to the program as a volunteer assistant coach.
“John’s best quality isn’t his ability to coach X’s and O’s on the field but to teach players the values of the game and how they relate to life,” he said. “It is apparent to him that the most important thing to teach a young man isn’t how to succeed at football but how to succeed at life. I’m privileged to say that not only I did I learn those lessons, I’m still learning them today.”
Those letters of recommendation highlight more than Chakot’s accomplishments in athletics. The words reveal friendship, respect and admiration for a man whose life has revolved around faith, family, friends and football.
“His caring qualities, depth of knowledge, experience, expectation of excellence and encouragement go far beyond the football field,” Bicego wrote. “Those who know him will always remember the positive influence he has had on their lives.”
“As a teacher, coach and counselor,” Cignetti said, “John has influenced the lives of many students and athletes in a positive way. He represents all that is good about athletics at the collegiate and high school levels. John is an extremely hard worker, and I don’t mean just football. He’s very involved in his church and does a lot of work there as far as looking after the property. He has a great work ethic and just doesn’t slow down. He’s a good person and a great family man.”
“He’s just a dear friend,” Zilinskas said, “and I think an awful lot of him. It’s just been great. He’s one of those guys that a lot of people know, and he’s forged a lot of great relationships, and I’ve enjoyed every minute with him. If anything, he’s been like a big brother to me, and I appreciate everything he’s done.”
JOHN CHAKOT, at a glance ...
Family: Wife, Mary Jane; sons, Adam, Marcus and Lucas.
Occupation: Retired guidance counselor.
Education: Blairsville High School (1969), Edinboro University (1972).
Career highlights: He has spent 40 years coaching football, all but two as an offensive line coach. He coached at IUP during the highly successful Frank Cignetti era and now serves as an assistant at Indiana High School, where he has helped establish a respectable WPIAL program. He was a three-sport standout athlete at Blairsville and a two-time All-PSAC lineman at Edinboro, where he helped the 1970 and ’71 teams go undefeated in the regular season.