By Neil Rudel
There have been special occasions over the years that have merited use of the Mirror helicopter to help me get a better view of the area sports landscape.
Sometimes the trips have been to observe high-level coaching searches, mainly involving Altoona Area High School but Penn State, too, but it’s also fun just to take a spin on a nice day.
With the price of gas these days, excursions are limited, but they’re still necessary since: 1) They keep the propellers from getting rusty; 2) Altoona is searching for a new boys basketball coach. Again.
My co-pilots have changed and some are unfortunately no longer with us. Others were asked and told me to fly the coop.
Phil Riccio, Altoona’s athletic director, is always interested and thinks it’s a badge of honor, but would you want to be one-on-one with him in a helicopter? Even in exchange for information?
“Um, sorry Phil. You might try to grab the wheel. I’ll go it alone but will radio in.”
He’s disappointed but says he’s busy interviewing anyway.
Dan Slep and Tim Miller have the chopper pulled out of the Mirror garage and ready for an early-morning flight. It’s gorgeous just after the fog lifts. It takes a little while to get started, but the engine finally cranks over, and, hair blowing, Slep assures me it’s safe.
“You got nothing to worry about,” he says. “I checked your accidental-death policy.”
Perhaps unlike past years, the purpose of this flight isn’t necessarily to determine the candidate, several of whom were interviewed Friday.
I radio Riccio.
“Breaker I-9, breaker 1-9. Why do you only have a half-dozen candidates? Don’t people realize Altoona’s basketball tradition?”
No response before, through crackling garble, he says, “Maybe they’re afraid of heights.”
He then cuts out.
I don’t get it, I’m thinking while accelerating past Bedford, the turnpike already busy with traffic. Here’s a place that has had four NBA players and a WNBA player, like 20 professional athletes and they can’t field a good basketball team?
Some facts: Altoona’s last three coaches have left with losing records. The next choice will be the Lions’ fourth coach in eight seasons.
Paul Hasson resigned in 2016, after seven years with a record of 67-95. He was followed by former NBA player Doug West, a Mountain Lion alum, who stayed three years and went 26-41. West was followed by Jarrod Klausman, another local product, who went 28-49 — just 7-36 the past two years.
Nobody can question whether these coaches knew the game and could relate to the kids. They’re all likeable people who have lived the sport. Are there players who can help in the halls? A losing program breeds a culture where it’s not as cool to play.
I radio Riccio again. He answers quickly.
“Where are you?”
“I’m now in Mid-Penn country, on the other side of Chambersburg. I can see the state capitol in the distance. Seriously, Phil, what is this trip like on a Tuesday night in February — in a car?”
I decide to turn around and start a wide swing toward State College. Pretty neat as I buzz over Beaver Stadium. I can see James Franklin and the latest special teams coach practicing passes out of a field-goal formation.
The phone rings. It’s Riccio. I ask him about State College’s program since the Little Lions have had their basketball struggles, too, these last few years.
“They ran out of Fribergs, but they beat us last season for the District 6 title. (Micah) Shrewsberry has a kid on the team … Aren’t you out of gas yet?”
“Ask Dr. P if it’s OK to bill the district.”
I whoosh over Mount Nittany and cross into Tyrone. With Bellwood moving into the expanding Laurel Highlands Athletic Conference, the thought occurs: Altoona ought to join, too — if the LHAC is willing.
Fifty years ago, Altoona didn’t play Hollidaysburg in many, if any, sports. Hollidaysburg was in the Mountain League. Altoona might open with the Tigers in basketball and win by 40.
Gradually, though, times changed. The decline of the railroad contributed, denting Altoona’s blue-collar mentality. Enrollment shrunk from 1,000 graduates in the early 1970s to 500 or so today. People stopped having as many children. Some moved to Hollidaysburg-Duncansville, others to Bellwood.
Now, Altoona and Hollidaysburg are comparable in most sports.
What will the next 50 years bring?
Hollidaysburg is joining the LHAC, except for football, where it will have to scramble for a schedule but Homer DeLattre thus far has done that. Altoona would have to do the same.
Outside of football, in almost any sport, boys track an exception, Altoona might not dominate the LHAC. The basketball team lost to LHAC member Central — which it never played before — last year.
The league has served Bishop Guilfoyle nicely. Anchor programs like Richland, Bedford and the Cambrias — Penn and Central — do fine. Ditto Forest Hills. Johnstown — eleven Altoona’s No. 1 rival — is well served and doesn’t dominate.
More athletic mergers could happen down the road.
The league seems to have good leadership that can accommodate its biggest and smallest schools.
I wonder what Riccio thinks about all this.
“I think we’ll be fine in the Mid-Penn,” he says.
Maybe, but no matter who is Altoona’s next basketball coach — be it Kenny Macklin or Doug Pfeffer, both of whom have served in the Altoona system — or an outside choice, this has become one tough job.
The phone rings. It’s Riccio.
“I was in an interview. I just saw you fly over the school. You think you can bring that thing down safely?”
Rudel can be reached at 814-946-7527 or email@example.com.