Even though it’s the first month of the high school football off-season, plenty has happened in January in the professional ranks to keep things interesting from a Pennsylvania high school football perspective. In the past ten days, four NFL franchises hired coaches who played their scholastic football in the Keystone State: Mike McCarthy (Dallas, from the now-closed Bishop Boyle HS in Homestead), Matt Ruhle (Carolina, State College), Joe Judge (Giants, Lansdale Catholic) and Kevin Stefanski (Cleveland, St. Joe’s Prep).
When adding these four new hires to the five existing Pennsylvania high school grads holding head coaching positions (Sean McDermott, Matt Nagy, Frank Reich, Bruce Arians and Vic Fangio), just over 28 percent of the NFL is led by guys from our state. I wanted to take a look to see how the size of the upcoming 2020 crop stacked up against past years in terms of Pennsylvanians holding NFL head coaching positions. As I had expected, no previous year can match the nine head coaches that will roam professional sidelines next fall. However, that doesn’t mean some years didn’t come close or that I didn’t find plenty of interesting names, stories, and numbers along the way.
To do this research, I started where everyone must when exploring the history of professional football: pro-football-reference.com. Knowing that PFR had a listing of every NFL coach throughout the history of the league, I went through the biographical information of each of the 500 coaches listed to sift out the ones who attended high school in our state. In the end, I found 64 NFL head coaches (counting the recent hires) who played scholastic football here, or nearly 13 percent of all head coaches in the league’s history. Additionally, PFR lists five more coaches who were born in Pennsylvania but went to high school in another state; the information throughout the rest of this post excludes these five coaches. Apologies to Mike Holovak, Dick Nolan, Jim Trimble, Joe Stydahar and Hank Bullough, but I wanted this post to focus on those coaches who attended high school here.
To begin, let’s take a look at the cumulative statistics of the 64 coaches in question:
Barring a rash of firings during next season, our nine alums will bring the total number of games coached by Pennsylvania high school grads past 4,000 all-time. Surpassing the 2,000 win barrier could happen in the 2021 season, and with any luck the current group will help get the state’s overall winning percentage over the .500 mark.
A few notes on some of the coaches on the list:
- Individually, Marty Schottenheimer’s 200 wins lead all Pennsylvania natives (and rank 8th in NFL history). Six others have at least 100 wins. Chuck Knox leads in both games coached (334) and losses (147); his 186 wins are second only to Schottenheimer.
- Bill Cowher, McCarthy and Mike Ditka have won the state’s three Super Bowls.
- I haven’t had the chance to run the numbers to be sure of this, but I would guess that Fort Cherry High School is one of (if not the) only high school in America with two graduates holding at least 100 career NFL wins (Schottenheimer and Marvin Lewis).
- Aldo Donelli, a Bridgeville High grad who coached both the Steelers and the then-Cleveland Rams for a year apiece, made his name in a different kind of football altogether. He played soccer for the US Men’s National Team in the 1934 World Cup and is enshrined in the National Soccer Hall of Fame.
- Yeadon’s John Rauch graduated from the University of Georgia in 1948 as the NCAA’s all-time leader in career passing yards. He later coached the Oakland Raiders but resigned due to frustration over Al Davis’ meddling in the team. Rauch went on to coach the Bills for two years; Davis replaced him with John Madden.
- The other Rauch on the list, Dick, was the head coach of the 1925 Pottsville Maroons, a team that claimed the NFL championship but later had it nullified because of an archaic territorial rule after playing an exhibition game on another team’s geographic footprint.
- Hinkey Haines coached just one year in the NFL and earned more renown for his achievements as both a football and baseball player. Haines was a member of both a World Series champion (the 1923 Yankees) and an NFL champion (the 1927 Giants).
- Three different coaches finished their careers with exactly zero wins, but two of them (Hal Hunter and Dick Modzelewski) only coached one game. The other? Monaca’s John Karcis, who, as a 5’9, 223 pound fullback, was appropriately nicknamed “Bull.” Karcis had a solid nine-year playing career and was named second-team All-Pro in 1937. His coaching career was less successful but remarkable in at least one way: he made the jump directly from coaching high school to being an NFL head coach the following year. In 1940 and 1941, Karcis led Pitcairn High School (located outside of Pittsburgh) to records of 0-6-2 and 4-3-2, respectively. In 1942, Detroit Lions coach Bill Edwards was fired after an 0-3 start. Looking for a change in direction, the Lions hired Karcis from Pitcairn to salvage the season. It didn’t work. Detroit lost its remaining eight games (getting outscored 208-31) and finished 0-11. Karcis, now with a career record of 0-8, would never lead an NFL team again. To be fair, 1942 was the first season where the NFL began to see players enlist in the World War II effort, leaving many teams shorthanded and forced to play on with whatever ramshackle group they could throw together. In a few ways, Karcis’ career was doomed from the start. He was pulled directly from coaching teenagers to hard-fought wins over Plum and Trafford and thrown into a schedule featuring opponents like Sammy Baugh, Sid Luckman, Don Hutson and others. Karcis’ own roster was less star-studded than his opponents’, you could say. In 1942, the Lions failed to have a player surpass 300 yards rushing or 300 yards passing for the entire season. The team’s quarterback rating was – get ready – 8.2. Not 82. Eight-point-two over 11 games. I guess that’s what happens when you throw one touchdown and 33 interceptions over the course of a season. Anyway, I’d argue that Karcis’ coaching ability should not be looked down upon based on his fraction of a season with a subpar roster, especially considering the huge jump he made when going from high school to professional football.
- Another Pennsylvania native whose career shouldn’t be measured by his struggles as a head coach is Bert Bell. A member of the inaugural class of the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1963, Bell served 14 years as NFL commissioner, was a co-founder of the Philadelphia Eagles and was the driving force behind the creation of the NFL Draft. However, Bell’s six years as a head coach were far from inspiring. From 1936-1940, his Eagles teams went just 10-44-2. In late 1940, Bell arranged a bizarre flip-flop with Steelers president Art Rooney to essentially trade the entire Steelers roster for the Eagles’. Bell finished his coaching career after just two games with Pittsburgh the following fall, losing both. Bell isn’t remembered for his coaching career, though. His legacy is the fact that he built the NFL through the 1950s as it emerged from college football’s shadow, planting the seeds for the monolith we see today.
To see the entire list of coaches who played for Pennsylvania high schools, click here.
Our group of nine coaches will represent the highest number of Pennsylvanians leading NFL franchises in a single year once the 2020 season rolls around. In fact, no other season has had more than seven such coaches. The record number coming this fall is perhaps more impressive when you consider that the 2007 season featured only two Pennsylvania high school graduates at head coach. Before that year, the last time the number fell that low was in 1981. And while the 1950s were an anomaly (zero Pennsylvanians were head coaches from 1952 to 1958), that period was the last time the NFL lacked representation from our state.
The 2020 season is set up to potentially be a year where Pennsylvania grads begin to build an even stronger foothold in the professional coaching world. However, as things stand right now, the unquestioned golden years for our state ran from the early-1980s to the mid-2000s. Our state’s nine winningest coaches were all active during this time period, two of the alum’s three Super Bowls were won, and in 1984, 1992, 1993 and 1997 there were seven Pennsylvanians serving as NFL head coaches.
Just over one-third of the schools that NFL coaches from Pennsylvania have called their alma mater are now closed. They include recent closures like Monaca and Peabody, historical powers like Harrisburg Tech and Harrisburg John Harris, and smaller, more obscure high schools like Girardville and Avalon. The defunct public schools on the list merged together to form many of the high school programs we would recognize today. With the exception of Monaca – which merged with Center in 2009 to form Central Valley – most of these mergers happened no later than the 1950s as the Commonwealth sought to decrease the number of districts statewide from more than 2,000 to about 500.
Five schools have had multiple graduates serve as NFL head coaches: Fort Cherry, Beaver Falls, Haverford School, Bellefonte Academy and St. Joseph’s Prep. From a geographic perspective, it shouldn’t be a surprise that most coaches came from areas concentrated around Philadelphia and, especially, Pittsburgh:
Because the public vs. private school debate remains a hot topic among high school football fans, I thought I’d check out those numbers, too. Nearly three-quarters of our NFL coach alums attended public schools and one-in-five were graduates of private schools. The remaining five percent attended schools that were publicly funded but would be called “non-boundary” schools today: Harrisburg Tech, Northeast Manual Training (Philadelphia) and perhaps the most extreme, controversial and famous example, the Carlisle Indian Industrial School.
Speaking of the Carlisle Indian School: I chose to include Jim Thorpe on this list, but not William “Lone Star” Dietz, another former NFL coach who attended the school. Thorpe, a native Oklahoman, first attended the famous Haskell Institute in Kansas but then made his way to Carlisle at the age of 16. After dropping out, he returned to the school at 19 to begin his college career, helping Carlisle and Pop Warner achieve national prominence in the early 1900s. Dietz, on the other hand, attended a school for Native Americans in Oklahoma and didn’t enroll at Carlisle until he was 25. For this reason, I chose to consider his time at Carlisle as consisting of collegiate years; the school educated Native Americans from a wide-range of ages, including those in their twenties. Additionally, Dietz likely wasn’t Native American at all – it is probable that he was a white man pretending to be one.
In the end, this exercise served as a clear reminder of the clout Pennsylvania holds in professional football. As the shift in football power at the high school and college levels continues to move southward, it is worth remembering how many legends of the game, both players and coaches, came from our state and impacted it in the professional ranks.
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