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Lou Schmitt Looking Back

SO LONG, COACH

It was the afternoon of Christmas day. My two daughters were both home from
Pittsburgh for the holiday. The gifts had been opened. There was joy and laughter.
We had just finished dinner, and I was getting ready to tuck into dessert when my
phone beeped out that a text had been received.

I picked up my phone and saw that the text was from Jay DeDea. Back in 1977, Jay
was a senior at Altoona High. I was a sophomore. We were basketball teammates.
I figured he was texting me to wish me a Merry Christmas. I was wrong. His
message consisted of only four words: “Coach Swogger passed away.”

I stared at that text for a few seconds. Then I read it again. And again. I knew
what it meant. I just didn’t WANT to know what it meant. I was immediately
transported back in time to the late 1970’s as memories flooded into my mind. I
put the phone down. My wife said, “What’s wrong?” I told her, “Coach Swogger
died.” More memories. She asked me if I was all right in the way she does when
she knows I’m not. I told her I was fine in the way I do when I know I’m anything
but. I had to leave the room.

John D. Swogger was my high school basketball coach from 1977-1980, stepping
down unexpectedly after my senior year. He was a larger-than-life figure long
before I came under his tutelage as a sophomore. He had already won five district
championships and two state championships at Mercer High School in the 1960’s,
including a perfect 28-0 campaign in 1965-1966. He came to Altoona in 1968, and
proceeded to win district championships in seven out of his nine years as coach
there prior to my arrival.

But Coach Swogger didn’t just win games at Altoona, he transformed sports in
the city. Before John Swogger, Altoona High was a football attraction in a railroad
town where football had always been king. By the 1970’s the storied high school
football program and the railroad were both bankrupt. The city had fallen on hard
economic times. Its sports fans yearned for a winner they could call their own.
That they could be proud of. That they could get excited about. In stepped the
Altoona High boys’ basketball team and its dynamic coach.

Coach Swogger was a true innovator. He brought to Altoona an electrifying style
of basketball, the likes of which no one there had ever seen. The focus was on
rebounding, hitting the outlet man, filling the lanes … and RUNNING! His teams
ran. And ran. And ran. It was a continuous, breathtaking, fast-break ballet that
never seemed to slow down. Opposing teams found themselves in a track meet
at which their poor coaches could only marvel. Altoona High became a scoring
juggernaut. Point totals and energy soared. My senior year we scored 80 or
more points fifteen times. We scored 90 or more points seven times, and over
100 points on four occasions, including a school record 140 points in one game.
And this before there was a three point shot. It was amazing – and amazingly
entertaining – to watch.

The word quickly spread. There was something going on here. And the sports fans
in the city began flocking to see what the excitement was all about. They came
in droves, first to the wonderful old Jaffa Mosque, and then to the wonderful
new Altoona Field House, opened in 1975 and capable of holding 2000+. This was
the new, modern game of basketball. No longer just what football players did in
the offseason; this was a real sport that stood all on its own, and with a unique
style. If you attended an Altoona High basketball game in the 1970’s you weren’t
just at a game – you were at an EVENT. Thousands in attendance. Standing room
only. An electric, almost circus-like atmosphere. And this wasn’t just a local event;
it was a regional one. To this day, I run into people from outlying counties who
tell me stories of traveling to Altoona in those days to see the teams play and to
see John Swogger coach. He turned sports into entertainment, and he played his
coach/intimidator role with gusto.

And what of the man behind all this? What of this Swogger?

Well, since his untimely death at the age of 77 on Christmas day, much has
been said and written about the old coach. He’s been called an icon; a legend.
The dean of coaches in the area. He was all that, I guess. But the younger man
I knew was also the most intensely competitive individual I ever met. He was
born to compete, and he loved nothing more than the contest. Whether it was
coaching basketball or breeding dogs, he wanted to be the best. And he wanted

to measure himself against the best. He asked for no quarter – and gave none.
He pushed his players mercifully, and himself even harder. He was an absolutely
terrible loser. He was old school before there even was an old school.

I had the incredible opportunity to know two great high school basketball
coaches: John Swogger and Morgan Wootten. On the surface they couldn’t
have been more different. Swogger a bundle of barely controlled energy,
exuding a vague sense of danger to anyone who dared cross him. Wootten a
cool, calm character, always in control of his emotions. However, they shared
those two qualities of truly great coaches: They were both intense competitors,
and they were both great teachers of not just basketball – but of life. Coach
Swogger wanted us to be tough because the world was tough. Because life was
a competition, and he wanted us to be successful not just in sport, but as men.
He wanted us to have our priorities straight, and those priorities according to
him were God, family, and basketball, in that order. He preached hard work and
dedication as the keys to success in any endeavor.

I’ll be honest. Early on, I was absolutely terrified of John Swogger. He had a
way of glaring at you that made your blood run cold. One of the first games
my sophomore year I made the mistake of talking in the huddle – Coach
Swogger’s huddle. He grabbed the front of my jersey, and addressing me only
as “sophomore,” reminded me in no uncertain terms that I was now an Altoona
Mountain Lion, and NOBODY talked in his huddle but him. When he vented, the
face turned red, the neck veins bulged, and I really feared he was going to commit
mayhem on somebody. I just hoped it wasn’t me.

And he was NEVER satisfied. Never, never, never. Not with himself, and certainly
not with his players. No matter how well I played, he would say, “Louis (he always
called me Louis, never Lou, and certainly never Louie), I was pleased with the way
you played. Not satisfied. But pleased.” After one game he told me I could have
done a better job rebounding. I gently reminded him I had gotten more rebounds
than the entire opposing team. Without missing a beat, he told me that was the
worst rebounding team he had ever seen.

His locker room harangues were the stuff of legend. I still find some of it hard to
believe – and I was there. At halftime of one game, he was absolutely incensed
that I had only gotten one rebound in the first half. He screamed at me that if
someone cut off his arms and legs he could lie on his back on the floor and get
two rebounds with his neck.

Another episode sticks in my mind, but not for the reasons you might think. It
came after a bitter, double overtime loss to South Hills High School in the state
playoffs my sophomore year. Coach Swogger was as angry as I had ever seen him.
He felt that the upperclassmen on the team had let him down. I sat in the locker
room and watched him unleash a truly frightening tirade on each of the other
players in turn, working his way eventually to me. Even though I had played my
heart out, scoring 31 points, I was terrified when he approached. As he looked
me in the eye, his face softened. He reached out, shook my hand, put his other
hand on my shoulder, and simply said, “Good game, Louis.” It was truly one of the
great moments of my life. He was not big on compliments. And we all lived for his
approval.

Coach Swogger also had a vastly underrated sense of humor. He could be wicked
funny, though few were privy to that. In the first half of a game at Williamsport
there had been some very questionable calls in favor of the home team. At
halftime he told us to expect more of the same in the second half due to the fact
that the referees were “Frank and Jesse James.” He once told a player that he
played defense like he was “tied to a tree.” At one practice a teammate of mine
was having difficulty understanding a new play. Now, this teammate was a noted
guitar player, so coach began to tap his foot and play air guitar while explaining
the play to him. To this day I find myself remembering and using his hilariously
descriptive terms, some dismissive, some respectful. I’ll still sometimes describe
someone as a “yum-yum”, or a “cupcake”. On the other hand, if someone is
impressively tough, I’ll refer to him as “one mean hombre”.

As is the case with most successful men, Coach Swogger had his detractors. To
some he was arrogant. To others he was aloof. To others he was just plain mean.
Some thought him a bully. He was criticized in the mid-1970’s for a black starting

lineup by people living in a town that was almost all white. And when a seven foot
kid named Ricky Tunstall from JFK High School in Cleveland turned up in Altoona
at the start of the 1977-78 season, there was outright hostility that threatened to
divide the team – and the city -- into opposing camps. The controversy over that
transfer lingered, casting an unfortunate shadow over the latter years of Coach
Swogger’s career.

He was sometimes accused of running the up the score. My senior year when we
scored 140 points? The other team had 40. That’s right. We BEAT them by 100,
certainly a school record. Coach Swogger DID run the score up, but not necessarily
to embarrass an opponent. He did it primarily because he believed that the
most dangerous time was when we had the lead. We might let up. We might get
lackadaisical. We might lose our edge. He wanted us to have “that killer instinct.”
He wanted us to put opponents away and never let up. He wanted us to “run
them off the floor.” And we did. Besides, he rightly believed that our fans wanted
an exciting, high scoring game, dominated by Altoona.

A few years back, I assisted honorary Coach Swogger at an Altoona/Bishop
Guilfoyle alumni basketball game. In the huddle just prior to tip-off a couple of
the players continued talking when Coach Swogger began to speak. I told them
that ONLY Coach Swogger talked in the huddle. I did it out of respect for my old
coach. He just looked at me and smiled.

In 2006, Coach Swogger was deservedly inducted into the Blair County Sports Hall
of Fame. I attended that night, and after the ceremony saw him sitting by himself
on the dais, almost as if he didn’t want the night to end. I approached and sat
down next to him. For a half hour or more the old coach and his now middle-aged
player reminisced. He was so proud that Altoona High took on all comers during
his coaching career, and he listed them: Westinghouse, Oliver, Peabody, Taylor-
Allderdice, Fifth Avenue, Brashear, Schenley, Harrisburg, Williamsport, Reading,
Sharon, Farrell, Overbrook, DeMatha. He spoke of the Overbrook game my senior
year at the Altoona Field House (a 60-59 loss) as the most exciting basketball
event he had ever been a part of.

During our conversation that night Coach Swogger admitted to me something I
had always known: He left high school coaching way too young. After all, he was
only 45 years old when he voluntarily stepped down at Altoona. He didn’t say why
during our talk, but I suspect he was burned out. I was glad that he mellowed,
glad that he turned his efforts to working individually with younger players, glad
that generations after me got to benefit from what few other coaches had to
offer. Toward the end of our conversation he looked at me wistfully and his voice
trailed off as he said, “Oh Louis, your talent …” Never has a player received higher
praise.

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