John Swogger

The Swogger file

Timeline: 1935-2012

Local record: 242-79 in 12 seasons of coaching the Altoona Area High School boys basketball team (1968-80) with nine District 6 championships. He previously coached at Wampum and Mercer High Schools.

Career record: 398-111

Claim to fame: Brought an exciting, fast-breaking style to Altoona that packed the Jaffa Mosque and Altoona Fieldhouse. Developed former San Antonio Spurs guard Johnny Moore, the first of four players from Altoona to make the NBA (1979-97). He also coached former Major League baseball player Richie Allen while at Wampum.

Enshrined: Swogger was inducted into the Blair County Sports Hall of Fame in 2006, and prior, into the Mercer County Hall of Fame in 1989. (He led Mercer to a pair of PIAA championships).

Family: Wife, Sally. Six children and 19 grandchildren.

The story might be part of the legend but only a small part. Swogger got his point across loud and clear that day, using examples like that to forge Altoona into a state power while taking on an almost iconic status himself.

"He was a disciplinarian. He was very adamant about doing things the right way," said former Swogger point guard Johnny Moore.

Swogger, who compiled a 242-79 record and won nine District 6 championships in 12 years coaching the Mountain Lions, died on Tuesday at his Riggles Gap area home. He was 77.

Although he never returned to the bench after he surprisingly stepped down at Altoona in 1980 at the end of a 27-3 campaign, Swogger continued to coach the game and work with young players at various area recreation facilities even up until the day before his death.

News of his passing shocked former players.

"I have a lot of thoughts going through my head right now," said Allen, who played for Swogger during the 1968 through '70 seasons. "Father figure. Tough love. Great man. Intense. Wanting the best, not only on the court but off the court. Just a loving family man, always wanting to take care of those that he loves. It's just a tough loss here. I was looking forward to seeing him again this summer."

A member of the Blair County and Mercer County Sports Halls of Fame as well as the Western Pennsylvania Basketball Hall, Swogger was remembered more for his qualities and character than his sparkling record.

"The thing I really liked about Swogger was he made you realize that, if you were going to be successful, you had to pretty much be self-motivated. You had to get out and do the things that you were supposed to do," said Johnny Moore, who went on to star at Texas and then with the NBA's San Antonio Spurs. "I remember when Charlie Johnson came to town. He came out of Philly, never played much basketball before but was very athletic. Because of Coach Swogger, Charlie went on to become an All-American at a little community college near Beaver Falls. He instilled in him how important the work ethic was."

Moore's older brother, Billy, called Swogger his "second father."

"He had a vision and was just hard-working. Those were the attributes he passed on to his athletes that if you work hard, you are dedicated, you can achieve," Billy Moore said. "In those years, I believed we overachieved for the teams that we had. We played a lot of Pittsburgh teams and won. He brought a lot of character to the players and molded it, and he was the role model."

Swogger didn't shirk responsibilities, going around to his players' homes in person to enforce curfew.

"He had high expectations for himself and his team," Johnny Moore said.

Swogger also had the endorsement of the parents - Johnny Moore remembered quitting the team as a sophomore along with Johnson and Sam Pierce only to be told by his father to turn right around.

One-time assistant coach Tony Labriola already was familiar with Swogger when he arrived in Altoona, having coached against him at Bishop Guilfoyle when the latter was at Mercer, where he won a pair of state titles. Swogger coached both the varsity and junior varsity teams to undefeated seasons in the same year.

"He was meeting the staff for lunch, and then we were going to meet the team at 1," Labriola said. "A couple of the guys were late. We were halfway done with lunch, and it was getting close to a quarter of one, and John announced, 'We're done here. We're leaving.' We left the lunches half-eaten, because he did not want to be late to meet the team. It was important to him to be on time, because he wanted to set a tone.

"John didn't coach basketball. He taught basketball."

Swogger's impact on the sport in Altoona is undeniable.

"He revolutionized basketball in that community," Billy Moore said. "Altoona, up until then, was predominantly a football town. When he came with his fastbreak style of basketball, he brought a lot of excitement. If you go back, you can talk to people about how the Jaffa Mosque used to be filled every game, people just hanging from the rafters. He brought a lot of happiness and excitement to the people in Altoona, even though we never won a state championship."

Although Swogger was a star in the storied program at small Wampum High School in the early 1950s playing for Butler Hennon, his best sport actually was baseball: Swogger hit .537 with seven home runs as a senior at Geneva College and signed with the Cleveland Indians before returning to Wampum as both Hennon's assistant and the school's baseball coach, on which future Major League slugger Richie (Dick) Allen played.

In 1960, Swogger took over as head basketball coach at Mercer, winning 23 games or more in five of his seven years along with a pair of PIAA championships.

Then he arrived at Altoona. Swogger's point of emphasis was fundamentals, and his tool of choice was an up-tempo attack.

"I made first-team all-state shooting a layup," Billy Moore said with amusement.

The younger Moore became the ultimate testament to Swogger's teachings.

"When I came up, I was the littlest one on the team. But he came up with all these sayings - 'When the going gets tough, the tough get going,' 'It's not the size of the dog in the fight, it's the size of the fight in the dog.' I used to think it was so corny, but each of those was appropriate, and it helped me down the line," Johnny Moore, who recently took a head coaching position with the Corpus Christi Clutch of the American Basketball League.

Foes held Swogger in esteem, as well.

"I had an awful lot of respect for John. His teams were always well-prepared. You had to be prepared or you were in for a tough night," Johnstown's Paul Litwalk said. "We got closer after we retired. Some of the Altoona sports guys would get together for breakfast, and he invited me and [Williamsport's] Pete White over. I'm sad to hear of his passing."

Although he had said he might leave when his second-oldest son, Johnny, graduated from high school, Swogger caught many off-guard when he announced his decision to step down at Altoona during the 1979-80 season at the age of 45. He went out two career wins shy of 400.

"Maybe I should have stayed longer," Swogger said prior to his induction into the Blair County Hall of Fame in 2006. "If someone on the board or administration had suggested that I gut it out for a couple of more years, I might have."

Since then, Swogger continued to remain involved, heading up the basketball programs at the Summit Tennis & Athletic Club and with Freedom Basketball AAU, giving young players private instruction and attending games throughout the area. Two of his granddaughters continue to make the Swogger name prominent on the court this season as standout junior players at Bellwood-Antis (Bailey) and Tyrone (Jordyn).

He also continued to remain in touch with his former Mountain Lion players.

"The last couple of years, I reconnected with Coach Swogger," Johnny Moore said. "It was a good thing, getting to thank him for everything he deposited in my life."

Allen had dinner with Swogger and his family last year. He said they didn't talk much basketball, although he did shoot around with Swogger's grandkids and brought up the story of the scrimmage confrontation again.

"We had a great time," Allen said. "Now, I really treasure that."

A full obituary will be published in Friday's Mirror.



 

He Was a Good One!

 

The first day that John Swogger came to Altoona to meet his new staff and team was during the summer of 1968.  I was part of a group that met him for lunch at the Penn Sill Hotel.  We were to eat at noon and meet with the team at Roosevelt Junior High School at 1:00 p.m.  John was being driven around Altoona by a delegation from the High School and they were a few minutes late in arriving for lunch.  It was around 12:40 p.m., the lunches had just been served, when John stood up and said, “We’re leaving.”

 

While I had coached against him when I was the Varsity Assistant at Bishop Guilfoyle, this was my first introduction to his coaching style.  Nothing was more important than being on time to meet the team.  The expectation was that the coaches would set the bar and John wanted the bar set high.  The lunches were left behind and we headed for the gym.  Being late was not an option.

 

Through the years, I have heard many views and myths about the man.  All I can tell you is what I observed.  In the year that I served as an assistant, while I saw a very persistent coach, I never heard John swear and I never observed him touch a player.  I know that there are those who have thought that he was a terror in the locker room.  The truth be told, he inflicted more damage to scoring tables than he ever did to any locker room.  The locker room chats were punctuated more by long periods of silence than they ever were by verbose diatribes.

 

John was more of a teacher than he was a coach.  The gym was his classroom.  And, the methodology was drill and practice mixed with holistic learning.  There is a saying among coaches that “…practice doesn’t make perfect, perfect practice makes perfect.”  That sums up working with John.  We would work for an hour getting the ball to Billy Moore, placing it in the hand that Billy was extending.  If the ball arrived at the exact location, Billy already had a half step toward the hoop.  If it didn’t, and the defense collapsed, the ball went inside out for the jump shot.  Everybody knew what was coming, but it was like trying to stop the Vince Lombardi Packer sweep.  If executed properly, you couldn’t stop it.  And, the Swogger fastbreak worked the same way.  Everybody knew that there would be an outlet pass, the ball would go to the point guard, and the outside wings would be breaking toward the basket.  It was simplistic in its design, but unless you knew the drills used to teach it, and the subtleties, you couldn’t duplicate it.  And, stopping it was just as difficult.

 

As John grew older, the mystique about him began to change.  Even his role changed.  When he retired as a coach in 1980, John slowly made the official move from coach to teacher.  He began to work more with individual students and less with teams.  And, as he did, his students were making a transition with him.  They were less driven to clear the high bar that was established and more driven to learn and grow.  In fact, John took on an almost rock star persona.  When he entered a gym to watch a high school game, young players would flock to him, calling out to him, “Coach Swogger, Coach Swogger.”  They wanted to high five with him and hoped to hear one of his compliments.

 

And, it was in paying attention to those compliments that one would begin to understand the nature of John Swogger.  He didn’t deal in superlatives.  Rather he said things simply.  He often would say something like, “Billy Moore, he was a good one.”  Only after having spent enough time with him in a gym would you come to understand that, “…he was a good one…” meant that John was giving the highest compliment.  “He was a good one,” meant, he was in the 99th percentile.  “He could play,” put that person in the next highest ranking.  So, when John called one of his chargers over and introduced him or her to you and said, “Coach, he, or she, is going to be a good one,” you knew to begin watching for that player’s name.  They came from all over.  They were from “…up the mountain,” to “…out in the Cove,” to “…down the valley.”  But, John knew them all, and they all knew him.

 

During the last couple of decades, John became the Dean of the area’s coaches.  It was an unofficial honor that was bestowed on him by those of us who knew him.  Other than being with his family, John was happiest when he was in the presence of those he coached, those he coached with, and those he competed against.  All were welcome to the Thursday morning breakfasts and to his annual Christmas Party.  And, during those times, the “Swogger” stories flowed and the “Swogger” legend grew.

 

I’m sure that the Thursday morning breakfasts will continue.  And, I’m also sure that the stories about John Swogger will continue to flow.  And, if you ever happen to be around that table, if you ever hear those in attendance talk, and you hear one of them say, “Coach Swogger, he was a good one,” well, I think you’ll understand what they mean.

 

                                                                                    Tony Labriola