Former Mahoning Valley head coaches seldom stray far from the sidelines
By Steve Ruman
You can take the coach out of football, but you can’t take football out of the coach.
Don’t believe it?
Take it from Mickey Sikora, who stepped down in 2013 following a successful stint as the Campbell Memorial head coach. Sikora immediately returned to the coaching ranks as an assistant, a role he continues to hold today at Lakeview. He is one of three former head coaches (the others being Ron DeJulio Sr. and Greg Lazzari) who currently work under longtime Bulldogs coach Tom Pavlansky.
“Bill Parcells always used to say that coaching is a narcotic, that it’s addictive,” Sikora said. “There is a lot of truth to that statement.
“For most of us at the high school ranks, it’s especially hard to walk completely away. We just love the kids, love the atmosphere and love the game.”
Still not convinced?
One look at the coaching rosters of area teams should provide enough proof for even the biggest of skeptics.
In fact, the Lakeview situation is far from unique. All throughout the Mahoning Valley, coaching staffs are dotted with former head coaches who have stepped down from their role, but not out of the game. More than two dozen former area head coaches currently serve as assistants throughout the Valley.
“When I got out in 2013, I just felt like the time was right, that it was time to move on,” Sikora said. “But even in the moment I knew I would be back. It was just a question of where and when.
“Working at Lakeview under Pav is a great experience. He empowers his assistants and he surrounds himself with great people. I’m having a blast. It’s everything high school football should be.”
Paul Hulea was a head coach for 15 years, including nine at Poland. In 1999, he led the Bulldogs to Ohio’s first 15-0 record, which included a Division III state title. Mark Brungard succeeded Hulea, and coached 11 years. His teams went 88-37, highlighted by nine consecutive trips to the playoffs and four league titles.
Today, both Hulea (Struthers) and Brungard (Springfield) are assistants.
After stepping down at the helm in Poland, Hulea actually coached under Brungard for seven years.
Hulea resigned as his son Gannon was making his way through the ranks. Gannon eventually became a two-way standout with the Bulldogs, while his father served as an assistant.
“For me, it came down to family,” Hulea said. “I was ready to be a dad more than a coach. Being an assistant provided me with the time and the opportunity to do both.”
“It was actually a great setup because I coached the offensive line, so I was there with Gannon but never had to coach him. I was able to play the the role of good cop when Mark had to be the disciplinarian. I developed some great relationships with a lot of Gannon’s friends, so it was a very rewarding time.”
Like Hulea, Brungard stepped down at a time when his son Brannon was emerging at the high school level. Brannon is a sophomore quarterback at Springfield and now is being coached by his dad.
“The transition has been a great experience, mainly because the Springfield community and [Tigers coach] Sean Guerriero welcomed me with open arms,” Brungard said. “Right now, I really feel as though I have the best of both worlds.
“It’s great to still be involved, to be around my son. At the same time, I don’t have to put in as much time as I did as a head coach. People don’t realize, being in charge of a high school football program in northeast Ohio is like having a second full-time job. It’s a year-round commitment.”
Such a workload is often what prompts head coaches to opt for a lesser role, according to Niles defensive coordinator Bud McSuley.
McSuley began his coaching career in 1980. He was a longtime Girard assistant, then took over the Indians program for 13 years beginning in 1997. He led the Indians to four postseason appearances and two league titles. In his final year as a head coach (2009) Girard went 10-0 in the regular season and advanced to the second round of the playoffs.
The success wasn’t enough to keep McSuley from stepping aside. At the same time, he certainly wasn’t ready to distance himself completely from the game. Since his “retirement,” McSuley spent three years coaching the Girard junior high program and a year at Mathews before moving over to Niles.
“At the time I stepped down at Girard, I just needed a break, it was honestly as simple as that,” McSuley said. “People sometimes don’t realize that one season ends in November, and the next season begins a month later in the weight room. You’re in the weight room all winter and conditioning starts in June.
“The work with the players is just a part of the deal. You have all the administrative stuff that goes along with being a head coach. The paperwork, the meetings, everything from dealing with the booster clubs to ordering uniforms. It is extremely time consuming.”
McSuley is one of two former head coaches on the Niles staff. While he works with the defense, Jim Bell (Hickory) works on the offensive side of the ball.
McSuley noted ex-head coaches “rarely get over the high of Friday nights,” which in part explains why so many return to the game in some capacity.
“The Friday lights, the Saturday meetings with the coaching staff and especially the interaction with the kids, that never gets old,” McSuley said. “Don’t get me wrong. I loved being a head coach. But it does take complete dedication all year long.”
The Canfield staff currently includes three former head coaches — Marc Bjelac, Matt Altomare and Dan DiGiacomo.
Bjelac was the top guy at Newton Falls for 17 years. His contract wasn’t renewed at the end of the 2007 season, but he hasn’t missed a year on the sidelines. He was an assistant at Warren G. Harding for four years, he spent a year at Akron Hoban, and has been with the Cardinals since 2013.
“One thing about moving over to the role of an assistant, I was always extremely particular about who I was working for. I think every former head coach will tell you the same thing,” Bjelac said. “I have worked under three coaches who are all first-class men, just great coaches and even better human beings”
Bjelac said that in the time since he last served as a head coach, he lost his parents and he became a grandfather.
“I look back now, and there is no way I would have been able to take care of my parents those last few years while being a head coach,” Bjelac said. “Being a head coach is an awesome experience. It’s what most coaches strive for. But it does take away from family and personal life.”
Bjelac noted that current-day economics also may play a role in why some former head coaches don’t seek out other opportunities like they did in years past.
“It was a lot easier for teachers to move from district to disctrict 20 years ago,” Bjelac said. “Districts used to create a [teaching] opening for a coach. It’s not that simple any longer. Unless you’re young, it’s not easy to move from district to district. Often, it’s just not a sound financial decision.”
The Mineral Ridge coaching staff includes four former head coaches — Dave Pappada, Jim Pappada, Steve Wyllie and Jon Culp.
Dave Pappada was a head coach for 13 years. In between stints at Riverdale, Niles and Warren JFK, Pappada has served as an assistant for 36 years. While at Kennedy, he was part of a staff which at one time included six former head coaches.
“Just like when I was at Kennedy, there are no clashes of egos or anything like that [at Mineral Ridge],” Pappada said. “Just a bunch of guys who love the game and want to work together toward the same goal.
“I’m perfectly content in my role. I love coaching the X’s and O’s of the game and it’s nice to be able to do that without worrying about all of the administrative stuff that goes along with being a head coach.”
Jeff Bayuk’s staff at Kennedy includes two former head coaches (Rod Greenamyer and Brian Bosheff). Bayuk said that having assistants with head coaching experience provides “an invaluable safety net” which saves him plenty of time and headaches.
“Those guys, sometimes they will do things that need to be done before I even think about it,” Bayuk said. “It could be something as simple as getting getting headphones ready for a game, or making a checklist. All sorts of things that, unless you’ve been in these shoes, you wouldn’t think of doing. Honestly, their help is immeasurable.”
Bayuk also can fully appreciate the desire of former head coaches to remain in the game in a lesser role. In between stints at Hubbard, Campbell and JFK, Bayuk served as an assistant at Howland and Warren G. Harding.
“Working with Steve [Arnold] and Dick [Angle], I had an absolute blast,” Bayuk said. “As an assistant I was able to fully dedicate myself to coaching a specific group, a specific position. I was able to just concentrate on the football stuff.
“In many ways, it took me back to where it all started. I think that’s the attraction for a lot of guys.”
So, does being an assistant provide enough of an attraction to prevent current assisstants from jumping back into the spotlight?
Brungard stressed that he is “completely happy” with his role at Springfield, and noted that his youngest son is still in middle school. “But down the road? I would never say never,” Brungard said.
Hulea has never actively looked for another head coaching job, “but that’s not to say I wouldn’t.”
McSuley says “maybe some day, though right now I’m enjoying what I do at Niles” while Sikora admits that while he’s content with his current role at Lakeview, he “takes things one day at a time, because you never know.”
Indeed, taking football completely out of any former head coach appears to be impossible.