The last time someone other than Don Bailey coached a varsity football game for Forest Hills High School, Richard Nixon was president of the United States, the Cold War showed no signs of slowing down and the country was in the midst of an oil crisis.
Of course this isn’t an American history lesson.
Local football history? Maybe.
Bailey retired as the Rangers coach following a 9-3 season in 2018 – and 375 victories over 45 seasons at Forest Hills. His teams advanced to the district title game 17 times in the 34 years since the playoffs were introduced in 1985.
The Rangers won 10 district crowns. They reached the PIAA Class AA championship game in 1994, finishing as runner-up to Mount Carmel after a double-overtime contest at Mansion Park.
Now, it’s Justin Myers’ turn to walk the sidelines at the newly renovated G.H. Miller Field in Sidman.
Myers played quarterback on the 1994 state runner-up squad and had a successful career at Geneva College. He was part of Bailey’s coaching staff for 12 years and had a brief stint as a head coach at Cambria Heights High School, from 2007 to 2010.
“There’s a lot of pressure because you’re trying to live up to the legacy Coach Bailey built year in and year out over 45 years of coaching,” Myers said during the Laurel Highlands Conference media day at Greater Johnstown High School. “My job is to come in here and do the best job I can do as myself – Justin Myers, not Don Bailey.
“I think being with him for so many years has really prepared me for this point in my life,” added Myers, who also has 18 years of experience as an assistant coach at Forest Hills in both boys basketball and baseball.
Myers is one of five new head coaches of area football programs.
Bruce Jordan took the head coaching position at Greater Johnstown High School after serving as an assistant coach to Tony Penna Jr., who stepped down after an 0-10 season last year and later took the job at Conemaugh Township after Sam Zambanini retired as head coach.
Like both Myers and Jordan, new Penn Cambria coach Nick Felus returned to his Alma mater. Felus, who coached at Altoona High School, replaced former Penn Cambria coach John Franco, who returned to the Tyrone High program he led to prominence and a state title in 1999.
Conemaugh Valley tabbed former assistant coach Matt Kent as the head coach to replace Dan Markiewicz, who led the Blue Jays last season.
“It’s actually been a very smooth transition so far,” the Rangers’ Myers said.
“We’re not changing much offensively or defensively, just a little terminology here and there. The kids still have the same Forest Hills attitude, the same mentality.
“They know that our entire staff are all Forest Hills graduates and we’ve been part of it for so many years. It’s not like a new coach coming in and changing everything.
“We’re trying to go along with what Coach Bailey did over the years and we’re trying to build on that now.”
A former Trojans quarterback in 1989 and a U.S. Army major, Jordan follows another established coach in Penna, whom he assisted for eight seasons.
“It’s been amazing,” Jordan said. “The community has rallied behind me. It’s been outstanding. The team has just come together.
“I was a little worried after Coach Penna, who had been here for 10 years, stepped away. But the team just rallied behind us and believed in the Trojan way and the Trojan program. I think it also helped that I was already a part of the program.”
Jordan and his players will have plenty of work to bounce back from an 0-10 season – Greater Johnstown’s first winless record since 1976.
“One of the larger adjustments was just trying to make sure the team bought into the same philosophy,” Jordan said.
“Coach Penna was a larger-than-life figure, really rooted here in this program. I just had to make sure all of that stayed consistent once he left.
“He’s just a really big personality and a really good coach. Just to step into that, those are big shoes to fill.”
Penna led Greater Johnstown to four straight playoff appearances and six trips to the District 6 postseason in nine years while winning 59 games with three district/sub-regional crowns.
He replaced Zambanini, who spent 35 seasons on the sidelines, 22 as the Indians’ head coach. His Conemaugh Township squads went 119-108 with two District 5-A titles.
Zambanini remained on the staff to assist Penna.
“Coach Zambanini, I had a lot of respect for him before I came here,” Penna said. “I’ve known him my whole life, but I even have more respect now.
“He’s welcomed me with open arms and treated me with first class. The superintendent and school board, I’ve never been treated better.
“It’s been a natural transition,” Penna said. “I had a great history with Johnstown, nothing but good memories, but it’s been a good change. It’ll be a new system. But you can’t beat relying on knowing those traditions, knowing the kids. I said when I came in here, Township has an absolutely great program, very successful.”
‘Energy and attitude’
Kent has been a Blue Jays assistant coach for eight years. He also played for Conemaugh Valley under hall-of-fame coach John Jacoby when the Jays won the District 6 Class A crown and made a state playoff run in 1992.
“It’s been pretty good moving in from last year. I’ve been on the staff. Nothing’s really changed,” Kent said. “I’ve kept the same coaching staff as last year. Taking over was easier and it was easier to coach the kids because I knew a lot of stuff that was going on last year. A couple new twists.
“We have a young team, low numbers. As long as we don’t get some injuries plaguing us we should be able to compete and be all right in the WestPAC this year.”
Kent said Conemaugh Valley had only 20 players on the roster during the WestPAC/Heritage Media Day on Aug. 3 at United High School.
“We want to be competitive, go out there each game, one at a time, and do the best we can,” Kent said. “I just want to get them back to being competitive like back when I played there. When I played we were competitive every year. Teams didn’t want to play us. I want to kind of get that back to Conemaugh Valley football.”
Felus, 41, who played quarterback and wide receiver at Lock Haven University, also hopes to reconnect the current Panthers to Penn Cambria’s rich tradition.
“All of these guys don’t remember the ‘90s, the 1989 team that was undefeated,” Felus said. “A lot of times in the 1990s, (Penn Cambria) was one of the best teams in the league. They don’t remember that. They weren’t even born. We want to try to get our players to understand that you play for the person who wore the jersey before you.
“Moving forward, we know it’s 2019 and football has changed a lot,” Felus added. “Still the same goal remains. We want to go 1-0 each week. You want to win your conference. Our kids have done an outstanding job of bringing the energy and attitude each day.”