• EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the final installment of a six-part series profiling the individuals who will be inducted into the Indiana County Sports Hall of Fame on Sunday.
Sometimes you just have to get up and walk away.
That has always been one of my key principles as a sports writer. When you’re stuck, and the words aren’t coming, you get up, give it a rest for a few minutes and walk away.
Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn’t.
When you’ve written probably thousands of stories comprised of maybe billions of words over the course of a lifetime, it happens sometimes. In this case, though, finding the words isn’t the problem. There are just so many, and I really don’t know what to leave in and what to leave out.
The best place to start, I suppose, is here and now.
I’m Tony Coccagna, the sports editor at The Indiana Gazette, a position I have held for 26 of my 35 years at this institution. I am 58 years old. I love my job, and I’ve had a lot of fun, seen a lot of great things, worked with a lot of talented writers and editors and met a lot of great people. I’ve written my share of great stories, won my share of awards and directed a staff that has consisted of a lot of talented, award-winning, dedicated professionals. I’ve also written some clunkers, and I’ve made my share of mistakes, too.
The most recent mistake might have been deciding to write this story myself.
• • •
Anyone who has ever worked with me knows that Hall of Fame time is my most stressful time of year. And it’s mostly because of these stories we write about the individuals who are going to be inducted.
I can produce a football tab practically with my eyes closed. I can do the most grueling high school football season and still have lots of juice left. I have to because basketball is next, and that’s like football season three times a week for five months. So by the time spring comes, and it looks like the end is in sight and you’re going to drag a school year and then some to the finish line, it’s time for the Hall of Fame.
And the stories.
The ones you hope turn out to be among the best you’ve ever written.
The ones you send to press hoping they’re good enough.
Because you’re not just writing about a game and throwing in quotes, you’re summing up a significant part of someone’s life, and in many cases, the life you’re writing about has touched so many others, and in some cases, significantly so.
To be honest, these days, with all the emotion associated with this event in my life, and at this point in my career, I don’t know that I’m in the state of mind to write about anyone else, which I would have had to do had I not written about myself.
I don’t think I could do them justice.
Regardless, as I sit here typing away, soon to be inducted into the Indiana County Sports Hall of Fame, I am deeply humbled, extremely honored and immensely proud, the pride stemming from the work my staff and I have performed at this institution over parts of four decades to remain a thread in this unique fabric that is Indiana County and IUP sports.
• • •
I grew up in Chambersburg, the youngest of the four sons of Frank and Helen, and a big brother to one sister. In order, we are Tom, Jim, Nick, Tony and Mary Beth. I still haven’t figured out how my mother raised five kids.
My father sold insurance for a number of years, and in 1963, he opened the first pizza shop in town, and we all eventually worked there. So a lot of people know our family.
My parents, my brothers, even my sister, fostered my love of sports, whether we were going to Baltimore to watch the Orioles, watching the Colts on TV, listening to Notre Dame on the radio or playing Wiffle ball in the side yard or 2-on-2 basketball in the driveway.
Only Nick and I moved away from our hometown. I followed him to IUP, and we’ve lived in western Pennsylvania ever since.
I met the girl who would become my wife, Suzanne, in 1980 on the front stairs of the old Sigma Chi house. We moved to middle ground, Derry, after we got married in 1990 because she was working in Greensburg and I was working in Indiana. We’re one of those couples whose children have four paws and wagging tails and are always thrilled to see us.
• • •
The majority of people in the Hall of Fame ranks have been inducted for things they did after they put in a day at the office, the classroom, the mill or the mine.
I was only doing my job, and thank God, I loved it.
I still run into people who think being a sports writer must be one of the coolest jobs in the world. After all, you get paid to write about games, and you do get in for free.
My oldest brother, Tom, started writing sports for my hometown paper, the Chambersburg Public Opinion, when he was 17. And, yes, I thought it was the coolest thing in the world. I was 10.
I was 15 when I began to follow his footsteps.
It was June 1976, and Tom asked me if I’d be interested in working the summer taking sandlot softball and Little League baseball results over the phone. It became my summer job all through high school, and I still carry my PO press pass in my wallet. I even dabbled in some byline stories. My first beat was my high school baseball team, and that season the Trojans made it all the way to the state championship game. It was 1979, my senior year, and my classmates gave up their senior trip to Florida to play in the state tournament, and I gave up mine to cover it.
I worked with a group of great guys at the PO — Tom, Ed Gotwals, Joe Kroepil, Pete Kowalski and Tom Byrnes — and they set tremendous examples for a kid who was just going off to college.
• • •
I majored in journalism at IUP. I floundered, considered changing my major to criminology, not sure what I wanted to do after school.
I was at a crossroads. Then I registered for sports journalism, taught by Randy Jesick. I had already learned a lot from Randy, and now he had put me in my element. One day, he said something like this to me, and I can see it like it was yesterday, standing there in the hallway, third floor, Sutton Hall, dreary October day: “About 10 percent of the students who come through the department have what it takes. You have what it takes.”
Well, talk about a boost in confidence. The next year Randy recommended me for an internship at the Gazette. My internship was for the fall semester, but I started working that summer. It was June 1984, 35 years ago in a couple weeks.
I see Randy at IUP basketball games, and occasionally I see him jogging past the Gazette in all kinds of weather, and he always stops to talk. Every two years he asks me to speak to his sports journalism class. He has been a mentor to so many, and I’m glad I count myself among them.
I had great teachers — Randy, Craig Swauger, Jim DeGeorge and David Truby, among others at IUP, and Walt Oliver in high school. When I was a senior in high school and editor-in-chief of the school paper, Mr. Oliver, who loved me partly because he loved my brother, gave me an open hall pass for last period to work on the paper. I did a lot of stuff last period, but none of it had to do with the paper.
In high school, Jim Charlton, who taught English and was also an assistant football coach, always graded my stories in the PO, and that reminded me that I had an audience. I’m pretty sure I never got an A. Had he seen my unedited work, I probably wouldn’t have received any B’s.
Mrs. Aungst, a sixth-grade substitute teacher, gave us an assignment one day to write about a dream we’d had. She loved mine, and that’s the first time I knew I could write.
• • •
I have been lucky to be surrounded by great writers and great people throughout my career.
I have always been thankful that the Donnelly family has kept this a family-owned newspaper and for making the Gazette such an institution.
Jed Weisberger was sports editor when I started, and I learned things from Jed.
Bob Fulton succeeded Jed, and Bob is simply one of the most talented writers out there. He’s now a part-time copy editor and has always been a tremendous help to the sports staff.
The late Bill Hastings, a newspaper lifer at the Gazette, hired me full time in 1986 when he was managing editor. Through Bill, Carl Kologie, Sam Bechtel, Will Kennedy and now Eric Ebeling, I worked under great editors and learned from all of them. For the most part, they gave me freedom and let me run. For the most part, I never gave them reason to worry.
I can still hear Sam: “Journalists have to be the protector of the English language.” I’ve tried to take that to heart, especially in a time when parts of the language have descended into LOL’s and thx’s and poorly written and poorly punctuated posts and tweets that would have Randy Jesick using up red pens at an unbelievable rate.
Jim Orr and then Al King showed me the ropes. Andy Hawk, Ben Pratt and Gus Gworek followed each other as part-timers when we were still youngsters, and we had a lot of good times together.
Anthony Bertolino, Bill Balint, Craig Clawson, Joe Deemer, Ben Evans, Anthony Fuccinari, Kurt Hellgren, David Hubbard, Ed Master, John Smathers, Kevin Taylor … they all wrote on a part-time basis, all good writers who chose other pursuits. Rick Weaver was a full-timer for 20 years, and John James was full time for a while.
We were at our best when this was my team: Matt Burglund, Mirza Zukic, Carly Krouse, Dustin Filloy, Eli Nellis, and then Justin Gerwick and Joe Baccamazzi, with Jim Nestor doing video and still photography.
I always tried to tell them at least once a year that I’d put them up against any sports staff anywhere. They not only delivered, they took it to another level with their pride, professionalism and dedication to any task.
Unfortunately, except for Joe and me, this isn’t their primary job anymore.
Fortunately, most of them help out whenever they can, and they do it because they’re good at it and they like it and the extra money is nice, but I know they do it out of the goodness of their hearts. I can’t call them all the time and ask them to do things, but I still count on them for major things, and if I didn’t have them, I’d be in big trouble.
They remain coworkers on a part-time basis and wonderful friends all the time.
• • •
I’ve been lucky — we’ve been lucky — to have a lot of winners around here.
Pick a high school we cover (or covered) — alphabetically, Apollo-Ridge through West Shamokin — and I’ll tell you about a memorable run and give you some highlights from the last 35 years.
For 20 or so years, one of my absolute favorite things was covering the state track meet at Shippensburg University, 11 miles down the road from my hometown, my old bed and my mother’s cooking. I wrote about more state champions and medalists than I can count.
IUP basketball is nearest and dearest to my heart. A long time ago, we made a commitment to cover IUP football and basketball like it was our Division I program, at least as best we could. We’ve done a pretty good job of that.
When I became sports editor, I decided to take on the IUP basketball beat on a full-time basis for the 1993-94 season. The Indians/Crimson Hawks in that time have compiled a 591-200 record. I’ve covered six Elite Eights with the men, including two national championship games, and three more with the women. The teams have combined for 15 conference championships.
Joe Lombardi, of course, has taken the program to unparalleled heights. When he took over for the 2006-07 season, I honestly did not know what to think about the guy. Could he coach? Could he recruit? And more importantly, what was he going to be like to work with?
I knew he could coach the first time I saw his team on the court. IUP played down at Alderson Broaddus in West Virginia, and I rode on the team bus, and maybe we didn’t take the most direct route into the hills, or maybe it just seemed like we were lost. Coach got a little frustrated, and I looked at him and thought, Wonder if he’s having second thoughts?
IUP won that night against an NCAA Tournament team. I told Coach, “You just raised the bar.” There were only five more wins that season, but it was apparent IUP was going to be really good. I just never dreamed it would be anything like this.
And working with Coach Lombardi, well, let me put it this way: I’m sure it’s a lot easier than working for Coach Lombardi.
I still ask, though, every time he has a job opening, if he wants my résumé. (He doesn’t).
IUP basketball also took me down a new avenue. I’ve done color commentary on radio broadcasts opposite Jack Benedict for the past eight years. It has truly been one of the highlights of my career. I get to sit next to a legend, and there aren’t many guys who can say that. And I get to talk about something I love, so it just enhances the whole experience.
Plus, all I have to do is sit down, put on the headset and talk. I should have gotten in on this gig years ago.
• • •
Awards are nice. Who doesn’t like to have their ego stroked once in a while?
Myself as well as members of my staff have won a boatload of awards for various ventures. I could not begin to tell you where the plaques and certificates are.
We do keep one plaque up one our side of the newsroom. It’s for the 2013 football tab cover that featured Homer-Center. We keep it up because so many people had a hand in the effort, and when we produced it, we weren’t thinking about taking first place in the state, we just wanted it to be really good. It’s a true testament to our teamwork.
That year the sports staff accounted for eight of the Gazette’s 12 awards. Only one other newspaper in the state won more than eight.
The best players, I think, are the ones who make their teammates better, and I’ve always had lots of those.
• • •
I tried the pros.
I was fortunate early in my career to have the opportunity to cover the Steelers as well as Pitt and Penn State. It was fun and great experience, but I can’t imagine the grind of covering a pro team on a daily basis. Plus, I don’t think John Stallworth ever cut out one of my stories and put it up in his locker. I’m sure there are some scrapbooks around Indiana County with my bylines in them.
Maybe I just never recovered from my first professional interview. Jim Orr and I headed down to Steelers camp. A former IUP offensive lineman had signed as a free agent, and I was doing a story about him. I talked to him and hoped to get a couple quotes from his position coach. The position coach wasn’t available, I was told, but “Coach Noll has a couple minutes.”
So a few minutes later there I was sitting across from Chuck Noll in his dorm room in Latrobe, me on a folding chair and him on his bunk.
I was thoroughly intimidated.
• • •
If I had it to do over again?
I can’t imagine not being a part of this unique experience in Indiana County.
It’s not easy covering 12 high schools (down from 15) and one of the top NCAA Division II athletic programs in the country, and the last five years have been a lot tougher than the first 30, but that’s just the nature of a business that relies heavily on the printed page in a digital age.
As the years went on, I figured I’d retire from here, probably on the day I keeled over and they dragged me out by my ankles. I certainly don’t want to keel over, and I don’t know how many 60- and 80-hour weeks I have left in me.
Long ago, during one semester at IUP, I took a class called Advanced Composition II. Our last assignment that semester was to write the first chapter of our autobiography.
I don’t know what the other 20- and 21-year-olds wrote about, but I had a unique perspective. When I was 19 I got a summer job as a guard at Franklin County Prison in Chambersburg. I spent four summers and semester breaks behind bars, and to this day, that experience sticks with me.
That was my first chapter: a day at the prison. I got an A, and the professor wrote in the margin of my paper: “So where do you go from here?” I still have the paper, along with the notes I kept while I was a young prison guard.
There’s a really good story there, and I’m working on it.
I just need to get up, give it a rest, take some time and walk away.