Former THS coach to be inducted into state hall of fame

John Wiley (back, center) poses with his first-year coaching staff prior to his first season as head coach of the Titusville Rockets football team in 1995. Also pictured in no particular order are James Come, Tom Hancock, Greg Houck, Mike Hlad, T. McGregor, G. Pilewski, and J. Roberts.

For many years since he put away his clipboard and whistle, former Titusville head football coach John Wiley has been waiting for the call to the hall.

On June 16, the well-renowned coach throughout Pennsylvania will finally get the honor that many feel he has long deserved when he will be inducted to the Pennsylvania Scholastic Football Coaches Hall of Fame, in a 1 p.m. ceremony at the Best Western Premier Central Hotel and Conference Center, in Harrisburg.

Wiley, who spent 10 seasons of his prolific coaching career in Titusville, will be one of five new members inducted as the 32nd class of the hall of fame. The induction ceremony — which will also feature inductees Dick Bagnall, John Barr, Kevin Keating, and Brad Livingston — will be a precursor to the 61st PSFCA Big 33 Football Classic at Central Dauphin Middle School’s Landis Field, at 7 p.m.

“I’m honored to death, and unbelievably humbled,” Wiley said. “Friends of mine, people that I’ve coached with and people that I coached against have been in the hall for years. I just figured it wasn’t going to happen. When I got the call saying that I’ve been inducted, I said to man calling ‘Who are you and who put you up to this?’ He started laughing saying that he gets that response more often than I could imagine.”

Originally from the Pittsburgh area, Wiley grew up planning to become a professional baseball player since his father played triple-A baseball for the New York Giants. That was until Wiley’s P.E. teacher, during his sophomore year at North Hills High School, gave him an unusual ultimatum for passing his class.

“We were playing dodgeball one day, and I’m drilling guys during class,” Wiley recalled. “My P.E. teacher, who was the defensive coach, asked me why I didn’t play football. I told him that I was a baseball player. He responded by saying, ‘I think you’re a football player, and if you’re not out for football practice, tonight, you fail physical education.’ It was Tuesday, Sept. 20, 1966.”

Wiley finished out his high school career on the gridiron and knew he would eventually become a coach during the last day at North Hills.

“We were told to take our names off of our playbooks and turn them in,” Wiley recalled. “I walked up to my coach, Gus Nauman, and go to hand in my playbook and he handed it right back. He said to keep it because I was going to be a coach some day. I ultimately coached with him when I student taught.”

After knees injuries at Slippery Rock University ended his playing career in 1970, Nauman’s premonition became true as Wiley turned to coaching. In the fall of 1972, Wiley was thrown into the fire during a five-week teachers strike, in which he and a friend ran the North Hills football program.

“Every week we would have to go and scout to prepare for the next opponent,” Wiley said. “If the strike was going to end, we were going to be ready to play.”

The strike did end, and Wiley put his focus back into his education at Slippery Rock University, in the spring of 1973, Wiley faced a dilemma six days from graduation.

After learning that he was not getting a coaching position at his alma mater North Hills, Wiley was forced to explore a different career path. Wiley joined the Marine Corp and qualified for flight training.

Throughout that time frame, Wiley still put his name out for teaching and coaching positions throughout Pennsylvania. Five days before leaving for duty, Wiley had a job interview at Ridgway High School, and he was hired on the spot as the defensive coordinator. The Elkers went 48-6 during Wiley’s six seasons in the program, and Wiley was able to coach under future hall of famers Norm Zwald and Mike Dominic. It was during his time at Ridgway, where Wiley met his wife, Kathy.

Following a two-year period as the co-defensive coordinator at North Hills, Wiley got his first head coaching position at Clearfield.

After a 25-17-2 mark in four years at the helm from 1981-84, which included the best two-year mark in the program’s history, the football program experienced significant budget cuts, which coincided with a rising cost of helmets, and Wiley felt that he had to take a stand for quality.

“The school district was doing some substantial budget cuts,” Wiley recalled. “[Before the 1984 season, I was told this was going to be a bad year, but that the next year will be better. I lost four coaches. The district gave me the same budget during the year that Rydell had its big liability lawsuit, which made prices go up from $89 to $139 per unit. I went to the superintendent, and we sat and spoke for an hour and a half. He couldn’t grasp that 12 helmets — which is what were purchased every year — were going to cost me $600 more. I made up mind that if you can’t stand for quality for your kids then what can you stand for. I wrote a letter to the school board saying two promises were made. ‘I was going to give you a quality program and you were going to give me support. To this date, only one of those promises have been kept.’ I gave them five things they needed to address, which not one penny was going into my pocket, and if they were not willing to discuss any of these things then consider it my letter of resignation. I never heard from them again.”

With support lacking from the school district, Wiley resigned and then became the head coach at Danville in 1986. Wiley went 51-54-1 in nine seasons, and coached what he called “the most successful and frustrating team” — the 1991 District 4 Class 2A champions.

“Even though we were district champs, they didn’t even scratch the surface of how good they could have been,” Wiley said. “We went 5-5-1 in regular season, but we should have been 11-0. We got into the district playoffs on a lark, and then suddenly became the team I knew we should have been.”

Despite building another successful program, Wiley was “blindsided” when he was fired from his head coaching position after the 1994 season. Danville’s final game that season was against the eventual state champions from Southern Columbia. Danville fell 20-14 in that contest to a team that beat Western Beaver in the Class 1A Championship Game, 49-6.

“I was completely blindsided, and I thought I was going into the principal’s office [that Thursday morning] to have morning coffee,” Wiley said. “The kick in the can was that my son, T.J., was my ninth grade quarterback. I looked at the principal and told him ‘You’re going to tell me that I’ve coached 600 other people’s kids and when I get to coach my own kid, you’re doing this to me?’ He just sat there and smiled at me. It happened at 8 a.m., and I didn’t tell a soul the entire day. I ran the weight room after school. I went home and sat down for dinner and told my family that I got fired from football.”

During that conversation, Wiley laid out three options to his son, in order to decide the next move for the family. He told him he could stay at Danville and play, transfer to other perennial championship programs in the area, or, lastly, if he wanted his dad to be his coach, they could go elsewhere.

“Without hesitation, T.J. said that we needed to go,” Wiley said. “That was 24 years ago, and I still tear up when I think about it.”

While still teaching P.E. at Danville, Wiley put his resume anywhere and everywhere. A friend of his, Jack Fisher, who was a former head coach at Lock Haven University, tipped off Wiley an opening at Titusville High School. Wiley applied in Titusville, and all around the state.

Following two interviews at Titusville, Wiley initially believed that he didn’t get the job.

“When I was hired at Clearfield and Danville, the superintendent called me to offer me the job,” Wiley said. “After my second interview at Titusville, I had a message in my school mailbox from Buck Crabb who was the Titusville athletic director at the time. I guessed that I didn’t get the job. I called Buck up, and, to my surprise, was offered the job.”

From 1995-2004, Wiley was the Titusville Rockets head football coach and a Physical Education teacher at Titusville High School. He lead the Rockets to a 56-41 record over the course of his tenure, and has the highest winning percentage in THS history for coaches that have headed the Rockets for more than one season. In eight of his 10 seasons, Wiley led the Rockets to a winning record, including his final five straight at the helm. Titusville won the Northwest Football Conference Championship Championship in 2002, beating undefeated Warren, 34-22, in the regular season finale, for the title.

Wiley described his entire journey at Titusville as “God-driven,” and said his family’s move to the area was “best thing that ever happened to my family.”

“I got here, and was able to coach my son for three years,” Wiley said. “It was a real blessing. He graduated and went to Thiel and I went to every single game but one. He then student taught and coached for me here in Titusville before he and his wife moved to Pittsburgh. My son fell in love with Titusville. My daughter met her husband here.”

Wiley retired from head coaching before the 2005 season. Although he ended his head coaching career, Wiley has still found a way to have an impact on the gridiron since his final season in 2004. After being an assistant coach at Maplewood for his son-in-law, Matt Crocker, Wiley rejoined his son, T.J., who was the head coach at Penn Trafford. John and T.J. currently are coaching at North Gate.

Throughout the ups and downs of his coaching career, Wiley has always had the best interests of his players at the forefront of his coaching. While it’s impossible to summarize over 50 years of coaching down to a few words, Wiley didn’t put winning games at the very top of his list of priorities. Rather, he was focused on “the moment.”

“Winning to me was never the bottom line,” Wiley said. “Coaching is more about the moment. The moment when the kid lights up. The moment when you see it in his eyes that he knows that he able to do, not only what you ask him to do, but do it better than you expected him to do it. That’s what I always felt was one of the strengths of my coaching. I always felt I could get kids to perform at their highest levels.

“If I were to some up my life in three words, I would say blessed beyond belief,” Wiley said. “I married a woman who allowed me to make the moves I had to make to stay in coaching. One of the greatest moments of my life was when I got to walk my son off the field after his final game his senior year. Because of him and because of the love of my wife, we were able to move and I was able to be his coach. I don’t think the two of them understand how much that meant to me. Also, my daughter kept me in coaching. I always had the idea that I would quit coaching when I was 40. I was going to be 40 her junior year, and she said ‘You’re going to quit coaching while I’m still in high school?’ So now I’m coaching at 66, and I’ll soon be coaching when her kids are in high school. It’s been a great run.”

Borland can be reached, by email, at sports@titusvilleherald.com.

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