Tuesday, December 19, 2006
Community mourning sudden death of popular former coach, referee.
By William Kibler, email@example.com
Dave Heim slipped into the present tense Sunday afternoon, and being comfortable there, he stayed.
Even though he knew better.
He was talking about Ron Rickens, his friend through 45 years, who died Sunday at age 70, apparently of a blood clot after a knee operation.
Rickens was a big-time college athlete, an Altoona Area High School football coach and driver’s education teacher, a PIAA referee, a referees’ evaluator and for decades a well-known community presence.
Reminded gently that he was talking of Rickens as though he would be seeing him that night for a basketball game, long-time officiating partner Heim said, “It’s going to be hard for me.”
Rickens, a Cresson native, played guard at Michigan State under Barnesboro’s Duffy Daugherty and was a starter on the team that went to the Rose Bowl in 1958.
That gave him a lot of credibility when he became offensive line coach for Altoona’s legendary 1960s teams under Earl Strohm.
“He was a blue-collar type — short, stocky, well-built,” said Dean Rossi, Hollidaysburg Area High School athletic director and fellow staffer under Strohm. “The kids related to him.”
One of those kids was Vince Nedimyer, now Altoona’s athletic director. Nedimyer got a lesson in intensity in the locker room before the Mountain Lions played national power Massillon, Ohio, in 1966.
“I hear this sniffling,” said Nedimyer, a guard.
He found Rickens hiding in the shower, bawling, so “wired” from the intense preparation for the game his emotions had sprung a leak.
Rickens turned and realized Nedimyer was watching.
“We just hugged,” Nedimyer said.
Then Altoona went out and beat Massillon 20-14.
In school, Rickens was a father figure. In the days before the current system for rescuing at-risk students, high school principal Walter “Herk” Betar pegged Rickens for the student-teacher buddy system then in place.
He was a “shirtsleeve” educator and kids liked him, because he was friendly, pleasant, never angry and he cared about them, said Betar, who got Rickens his first job at the high school.
He knew “the buttons to push,” said Nedimyer, who as a sophomore got a lecture about all-out effort.
“An interesting five seconds,” recalled Nedimyer, who considers Rickens his biggest career influence aside from his own father. “It seemed like an eternity.”
But it worked, and Nedimyer went on to play football at Wake Forest.
As a referee, Rickens was a “diplomat,” Heim said.
If he made a questionable call, he would go to the coach who felt wronged and explain. Those conversations usually ended with the coach himself saying sorry, Heim said.
But as an evaluator of referees, Rickens didn’t hold back.
“[He] left you know exactly where you stood,” in his critique of positioning, signaling and responsiveness, said Heim, the founder of the evaluation program which has spread statewide.
People at first didn’t want to hear the criticism, Heim said.
“But he never backed off,” he said.
Yet it was always constructive, and referees learned that heeding it was the way to bigger and better assignments.
Rickens wasn’t the beneficiary of diplomacy, Heim said, when the Altoona school board ended his tenure as head football coach in 1978, after five years, with a record of 28-21-1 since succeeding Strohm.
Part of the board’s rationale for the firing was a transgression by Rickens that Heim regards as an act of charity.
After the district upgraded the team’s helmets, Rickens gave the old ones to the Altoona Parochial League, instead of destroying them, as required.
They were probably twice as good as the helmets the Catholic league was using, Heim said.
While his firing as Altoona coach was probably Rickens’ career low-point, working a state championship basketball game with Heim was probably the officiating high, Heim said.
Until that game between Schenley and Abington Heights in 1975, the PIAA had drawn one ref from the east and one from the west. But reflecting a policy change, the game featured not only a pair from the west, but from the same Altoona chapter — and most special, from the same regular-season two-man partnership.
Rickens went on to work a half-dozen PIAA finals.
It was a running joke among referees that Rickens’ house on West Chestnut Avenue in Altoona was “on the way” for anyone working with him that night, no matter which direction they were coming from or going to.
“Come pick me up, it’s on the way,” Rickens would say, said nephew Chris Rickens, also a referee.
Part of that was simple hunger for companionship, he agreed.
“We put in an awful lot of car time,” Heim said.
Over the years, he almost became community property. He enjoyed doing football analysis on the radio and serving as an Altoona Curve security guard.
“It would take an extremely long time to get out of places,” said Chris Rickens. “He’d take two steps and he’d meet someone else.”
Mirror Staff Writer William Kibler is at 949-7038.
Jan. 31, 1936 - Dec. 17, 2006