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“Mr. High School Sports” – Editorial: What is a Hall-of-Famer?

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LaVar Arrington

Former Washington Redskins/New York Giants linebacker LaVar Arrington will be inducted into the WPIAL Hall of Fame this summer. The former North Hills star graduated as one of the most celebrated football players in WPIAL history. (File photo: A. Messerschmidt/Getty Images)

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By Matt Popchock

Earlier this week the fifth annual WPIAL Hall of Fame class was announced.  Inductees are separated into five categories–athlete, coach, official, team, and contributor–and this year two new awards have been added.  The WPIAL Courage Award will be a posthumous honor in memory of the late John Challis of Freedom High School, and the WPIAL Heritage Award will honor someone who participated in District 7 sports prior to 1950.

Beyond that, though, what constitutes a WPIAL Hall-of-Famer?  What types of individuals and teams should be considered for induction?

In my mind, dominance over one’s sport, especially if that dominance is evident throughout all four years of high school, should put someone at the front of the line.  This makes former North Hills football superstar LaVar Arrington the perfect inductee, and he will indeed be enshrined as part of this year’s class.  The same can be said for fellow 2011 inductees Troy Letters, who won four WPIAL wrestling championships at Shaler, and Clinton Davis, who graduated from Steel Valley as the most accomplished sprinter in WPIAL history.

By the way, at the risk of stating the obvious, anyone who, like Arrington, used his or her success in the WPIAL to propel him- or herself to continued success in college and/or professional sports, should also be made a top priority moving forward.

Anyway, by this token, I would consider such athletes as Latrobe graduate Natalie Bower a prime candidate for future induction.  Bower, currently at Penn State on scholarship, left high school as the only WPIAL cross-country runner in recorded history, male or female, to win four individual championships, and also helped Latrobe win multiple team championships.

Those ones are easy enough to agree upon.  When in doubt, however, I find it helps to look more closely at the phrase “Hall of Fame” itself.

The operative word is “fame.”  Those who shall be honored at the Radisson Hotel in Green Tree June 24 shall be there because they are famous for something.  This is where the various professional sports halls of fame sometimes miss the point.

If your scholastic sports career was defined by a dubious distinction, as long as it’s a positive one, you should be considered for the WPIAL Hall of Fame.  If you hold a record that has stood for many years, even if it didn’t lead to a reputation as the greatest athlete or team in your sport, of your era, you should be considered for the WPIAL Hall of Fame.  If you did something, even just one thing, so rare and so remarkable that none of us are sure we will see it again, you should be considered for the WPIAL Hall of Fame.

In other words, here’s hoping the WPIAL will keep more of an open mind toward who it lets into its Hall of Fame than the good folks of, say, Cooperstown.

Having said all that, I sincerely hope the 2010 Central Valley football team is someday inducted under that “dubious distinction” label, just to give an example.  It wasn’t the best team in Class AAA.  It wasn’t even the best team in its section.  But it won a WPIAL title in its first year of existence, became the lowest-seeded team to ever win district gold in football, and along the way became the first WPIAL team in several years to beat Thomas Jefferson, which had simply owned its classification for some time.  What are the chances we’ll see another story like that anytime soon?

One stipulation of induction is availability to attend the induction ceremony.  This seems to be the only thing keeping the likes of Dan Marino, Tony Dorsett, and other eventual NFL greats from enshrinement into the WPIAL Hall of Fame.

I’m fine with that, because it reflects consistency with the policies of other halls of fame.  If the WPIAL is interested in maintaining such consistency, I would add one more caveat: the honoree, if it is someone directly involved with an athletic program (athlete, coach, manager, etc.) must be a graduate or not otherwise involved with scholastic sports.  To my knowledge, no professional sports hall-of-fame player or coach has ever been active at his or her time of induction.  This brings us to an interesting case in this year’s class, Hopewell baseball manager Joe Colella.

Colella has racked up over 650 wins as the Vikings’ skipper in 47-plus seasons with the program.  Meanwhile, he is nearing the 1,000-win plateau as Hopewell’s American Legion head coach, a job he has held for the same amount of time.  His teams have won three WPIAL championships, including last year’s, and one PIAA crown.  Hopewell’s home field is named after him.

I am not saying Colella is not worthy of induction.  Few figures in WPIAL baseball history are more deserving than he, and I am glad June 24 will be his day.  But he’s still active, and again, if the WPIAL is interested in consistency of approach here, then it should induct Colella the minute he ceases to be that program’s manager.  If we are formally judging someone’s entire athletic legacy, I think it stands to reason we should reserve judgment until that legacy is complete.  This isn’t the first opportunity he has had for induction, and it most certainly would not be the last.

Finally, let’s address the “contributor” category.  I interpret that word to mean simply, someone who did not necessarily play or coach a sport, but did contribute to the general welfare of a program or to the general welfare of the WPIAL as a whole.

You know Mike White (who broke the story linked to this post) as the scholastic sports editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, and as the co-host of “The Post-Gazette High School Football Show,” which debuted last fall on 93.7 The Fan.  I would be amenable to inducting Mike into the WPIAL Hall of Fame someday as a “contributor.”

I’m not trying to inflate his ego, and I’m certainly not trying to blatantly kowtow to our business partners.  But let’s face it, Mike has been a well-known member of the WPIAL community for many years, having made a good-faith effort to cover high school sports in this area on a daily basis.  Without Mike–and others of his kind–a number of present and past WPIAL Hall of Fame inductees might never have received the local recognition they deserved.  Some might not even be there at all.

Mike’s co-host on “The Post-Gazette High School Football Show,” MSA Sports Network operations manager Don Rebel, is cut from the same cloth.  Don, like Mike, has dedicated his life to bringing positive attention to WPIAL athletes in mainstream and out-of-mainstream sports through traditional and non-traditional media.

In fact, I’m all for creating a media wing for the WPIAL Hall of Fame, making it the sixth induction category.  Professional sports halls of fame have wings set aside exclusively for broadcasters, reporters, and what-have-you.  So, again, if one of the goals is to emulate those halls of fame, why not?

The more I read about the WPIAL Hall of Fame and its class of 2011, the more I liked what I saw.  I look forward to attending the induction ceremony this summer, and I look forward to seeing how this particular hall of fame grows.

(Follow me on Twitter: twitter.com/mpopchock)

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