Well Respected & Beloved Coach & Teacher

Not surprisingly, one of Tom LaBuff’s favorite poems is Marge Piercy’s “To Be of Use.”  In it she extols the virtues of those people who “jump into work head first” immersing themselves to the extent that they become natives of that world who enjoy what they do. She praises the people “who harness themselves” to heavy loads, pulling and straining “with massive patience… in the mud and muck (of life) to move things forward, (doing) what has to be done, again and again.”  And she lauds those who submerge themselves in the tasks at hand, working in harness and “in a common rhythm” with others to achieve a worthy goal.

Born in 1952 to missionary parents in Laos and the second of eight children, Tom was raised with Christian values which included the principle revisited in Piercy’s poem, “Whatsoever you do (in word or deed), do it heartily, as unto the Lord.” (Colossians 3:17, 23) Put in more secular terms, if something is worth doing, it’s worth doing well and with enthusiasm.  This rule of living is one that has marked Tom’s life as a teacher and coach at Gateway for the past 36 years and one that he has attempted to instill in his students and his athletes. 

With the onset of the Vietnam conflict in the early 1960’s, the LaBuff’s were evacuated from Laos and eventually landed in Monroeville, PA, where Tom attended Gateway Senior High School.  Although he graduated with high honors in 1969, he didn’t leave much of a mark as an athlete, but his experiences there were the first brushstrokes on the canvas of his career there as a teacher and coach. At Gateway he was fortunate enough to run Cross Country under the tutelage of Walt Donellan, one of the best PIAA distance coaches of his era; and he was a marginal runner on the 1967 team led to a Pennsylvania State Championship by Jack Anderson, one of the many great runners of Gateway’s rich distance tradition.  He also wrestled on teams led by Andy Bulazo, Gateway’s first wrestling coach who laid the foundation of success for the program built on so successfully by Dick Bane.  These men preached the doctrine that hard work, self-discipline, toughness, and esprit de corps could defeat lazy talent and individual effort, and their practices were legendary for weeding out the sludge and molding hard-nosed, over-achieving athletes who not only would not be beaten, but who also became leaders who inspired others to perform above their own capabilities.  These coaches also often reminded their charges that the lessons they learned in sport  — on the trails or on the mat — were training for life. These philosophies formed another part of the picture that would later influence Tom’s own teaching and coaching.

In the interim between Tom’s graduation from Gateway and his hiring in 1975 as an English teacher at his alma mater, he put himself through one year at Emmaus Bible School in Chicago, and four years of undergraduate work, first at the University of Miami and then at Indiana University of Pennsylvania.  He wrestled collegiately for two years at IUP under another benevolent dictator, former NCAA Champion Bill Blacksmith.  It was there that he first began to grasp the nuances that separated the good from the great on the wrestling mat.  He graduated from IUP in December of 1974, and spent one semester teaching and coaching wrestling at Southern Huntingdon Country High School in central Pennsylvania.  At that point he was set to go on to graduate school, having garnered a graduate assistantship at Indiana University in Bloomington. Then through an odd set of circumstances that he attributes to Divine Providence or Divine Intervention, he found himself instead with a permanent job on the English staff at Gateway High School.  Additionally, he was given the opportunity to apprentice as an assistant under two great coaches, Larry Young in Cross Country and in Track & Field, and Dick Bane in wrestling.  Each of these men brought great passion to his coaching every day, and both employed rigidly structured practices that not only conditioned the athletes, but also taught them skills in a manner that didn’t confuse them.   Larry, in particular, taught Tom the science of conditioning. That apprenticeship didn’t last long.  The doors to opportunities to mold young people continued to open up.  Larry Young left for Pitt-Johnstown the next year, and Tom became the Head Boys Cross Country Coach in 1976 and the Head Boys Track Coach in 1978.  Then Dick asked him to take over the fledgling junior high wrestling team at Monroeville Junior High in 1979.   The rest is, now simply a part of Gateway and Western Pennsylvania history.  He has been the Head Boys Cross Country Coach at Gateway for 35 years, and he has been the only Girls Cross Country Coach in Gateway’s history, having started the girls program there in 1979.  Additionally, he has been the Head Boys Track & Field Coach for 34 years, taking over as Head Coach of the girls program as well beginning in 1992.  Finally, he continued as coach of the junior high wrestling team for 26 years, finally resigning at the conclusion of the 2005 season.

Tom often told his students that despite the amount of time he spent with athletes, teaching English was his vocation, while coaching was his avocation, and that while his passion for coaching was great, he loved teaching, and aside from his commitments to God and family, they came first.  This dedication made him an effective instructor.  To illustrate, Tom’s career as an English teacher spanned almost four decades, the last fifteen or so years spent in part teaching Honors and AP students so well that his AP classes averaged between 4 and 5 (out of a possible 5) on the AP Exam. (The national average is less than 1.)  Tom’s career as a head coach is now in its 36th year, and the numbers there tell a similar story to those in his classroom, though, as he would be quick to point out things:

  1. The quality of a coach is not summed up in the numbers associated with championships or with wins and losses in competitions, but in the sum total of the impact he has made on society via his influence on the lives of the individuals he has touched. 
  2. Coaches don’t win or lose games or meets or matches.  Athletes do.  Coaches simply provide a framework for success or failure. 
  3. The success of a head coach is to a great degree dependent on the quality of the character, competence, and loyalty of the assistant coaches who work with him.  In a high school setting it is also impossible without the support and backing of administration, particularly the athletic director.

Here are the numbers:

1 PIAA Championship:  Boys Cross Country – 1982

5 WPIAL Championships: 2 in Boys Track & Field; 3 in Cross Country, (1 Boys; 2 Girls)

14 Top-5 finishes in the WPIAL in Cross Country (9 Boys; 5 Girls)

6 Times in the WPIAL Team Finals in Track & Field (all Boys)

47 Section or League Championships:  (Sections began in 1981 in Track; 1987 in CC)

14 in Cross Country (7 Boys; 7 Girls)

21 in Track & Field (12 Boys; 9 Girls)

12 in Junior High (7-8-9) Wrestling

23 Section Runners-up

                  8 in Cross Country (4 Boys; 4 Girls)

                  11 in Track & Field (7 Boys; 4 Girls)

1211 Individual Qualifiers for the WPIAL Championship Meets

                  372 in Cross Country (185 Boys; 187 Girls)

                  839 in Track & Field (543 Boys; 296 Girls)

424 WPIAL Medalists  (Top 20 in Cross Country; Top 8 in individual Track or Field event)

                  48 in Cross Country (28 boys; 20 girls)

                  376 in Track & Field (269 boys; 107 girls)

288 PIAA Qualifiers

                  100 in Cross Country (45 boys; 66 girls)

                  188 in Track & Field (141 boy; 47 girls)

59 PIAA Medalists (Top 25 in Cross Country; Top 8 in a Track or Field event)

                  16 in Cross Country (14 boys; 1 girls)

                  43 in Track & Fields (37 boys; 6 girls)

PIAA Championships :

                  1 Boys Team – Cross Country (1982)

                  4 Individuals:  Track & Field

                                    Bob Buczkowski – Shot Put

                                    Bob Buczkowski – Shot Put

                                    Curtis Bray           — Javelin

                                    Kim Thomas        — Triple Jump

According to Tom, these successes were achieved working in tandem with a number of exceptional assistant coaches men and women of character who played major roles in the development and success of the athletes and teams Tom coached.  Many of these individuals became great friends.  All of them were marked by the qualities praised in “To Be Of Use.”

As the Junior High Wrestling Coach, Tom had several great assistants, each of who brought his own special influence to the members of the team:Duane Churma, Rich Rocco, Jim Benson, Matt Lamoreaux.  Each of these men shared six qualities:

a love of wrestling, a championship background in the sport, a desire to share that love and their expertise with young men, a passion for competition, unquestionable integrity, and a great sense of humor.

In Cross Country, Harry Winslow was the perfect assistant for over a decade; then former runner Keith McEwen more than filled those shoes, providing support, and quiet competence, and leadership for many years. And then came the unforgettable Paul Jones, the world-class runner who brought his own special brand of optimism, wisdom and insight to the distance kids in both the Fall and the Spring. 

In Track & Field, there are so many who, according to Tom, are a part of the fabric of his successful program. First, Art Molitor and Dan Thompson built the foundation for the successes at the high school via their recruiting and championship record with the boys junior high teams.  Second is Dave Washburn, a coach deserving of Hall of Fame consideration himself for all of his contributions to several different aspects of the athletic programs at Gateway.  In Track & Field, Dave not only established the girls program at Monroeville Junior High to the same degree that Art and Dan did with the boys, but he then moved up and became an integral part of the high school staff for many years until his retirement.  What a privilege to work with a man of such boundless energy and enthusiasm!  And yet the program didn’t miss a beat, because his position was filled with a man of equal character and great expertise, Alan Marks.  Pierce Miller was Tom’s first assistant, a former All-American water polo player whose passion and competitiveness and toughness helped athletes such as Tres McLaughlin and Bob Buczkowski develop into WPIAL and PIAA Shot Put champions.  Then, Joe Ritter brought his All-American expertise as well as his enthusiasm and love for Track & Field into the picture, spending most of his time with the throwers.  Later, his position was filled by Steve Perry, a great friend and a model of integrity and loyalty for the athletes, a coach who remains a rock of the success of the throwers to this day as a coach at the middle school.  For over ten years, Tom was also privileged to work with the late Richard Siegel, his friend and first assistant head coach. The past decade, Tom has been honored to work with Maurice Washington, a man whose dedication and work ethic have led him to become one of the premier discus and shot put coaches in the state, helping to develop PIAA medalists Chuck Mohan and Chris Warning.  An then there is Paul Gogniat, who has been a part of the fabric of the success of Gateway Track & Field for almost 30 years, first as an athlete, then as a great jump and vault coach, then as a volunteer assistant to this day.  Gog’s expertise and special brand of coaching has been a cornerstone for the success of so many of the jumpers at Gateway, including WPIAL and PIAA champions and medalists such as Kim Thomas, Kevin Manley, Eric Jones, Katey Lauer, Jim Kundrat, and Brett Moss.

Through all of these years, Tom’s greatest help and greatest support has been his wife, Jacky, who he married in July of 1977. She has been his friend, his confidante, his partner and greatest supporter, and the ever-present, always-dependable, always-supportive mother of his two boys and two girls. To borrow John Donne’s metaphor, together they are a compass. He is the leg holding the pencil drawing the circles around their lives; but she is the leg keeping them anchored at the center of the circle of their family.  Along those same lines, Tom has said that one of the great joys of his coaching career was that he got to work with his own kids, to spend that time with them, to help them develop their talents and their character, and to share with them their triumphs and their disappointments.

Over the span of 36 years, Tom has many, many Gateway moments that are stitched into his memory.  Many involve his own kids successes or disappointments:  Jesse’s unbelievable performance at the Shaler Wrestling Tournament as an 8th grader;  but his senior year, his and Jeremy’s cross country team missing the state meet by two points.  Sara overcoming her nerves to run a 60 flat 400 in the 4 X 4 to beat N.A.; and later qualifying for states on that 4 X 4; Carly qualifying for the State Cross Country Championships three times; Carly setting a course record at Highlands; but  also, Carly falling short in the 4 X 800 as a senior; Jeremy kick to get 14th in the state in Cross Country as a sophomore and his great race to be 6th as a senior; Jeremy winning the WPIAL 800, Jeremy winning 4 events against NA in the team semifinals; Jeremy running a 1:53 split in the 4 X 800 in the state championships; but Jeremy crushed by the same 4 X 8’s 2nd place finish at WPIAL’s.  Some indelible memories, of course, are associated with the various championships or champions or records or performances: The ’82 Cross Country Championship performance, the 2003 WPIAL Track victory, Curtis Bray’s big throw at States, John Thomas crushing the state champion on his own course..  Others involve athletes overcoming overwhelming odds or injuries or personal loss in reaching a goal: Nick Kljucaric climbing out of traction to qualify for WPIAL’s and later States in the mile; Marnie Giunta leading her team to a WPIAL Championship with two stress fractures; Gavin  Chafin finishing 13th in the state despite a terrible hip problem.  Paul Gogniat  high jumping 6’ on his other leg after a terrible knee injury which ended his basketball season. Still others involve near-misses or crushing disappointments for various individuals or teams:  The ’88 girls cross country team losing the PIAA title in the last 400 yards due to an injury and a case of the flu; Bill McLaughlin giving the 4 X 800 the lead down the stretch in the PIAA trials, but pulling a muscle with 60 meters to go. This made it impossible for him to compete in the finals or in his other 3 events; several cross country teams missing qualifying for the state meet by less than 5 points; the girls track team that had NA on the ropes in the WPIAL team semi-finals and then let it get away.  And others simply are associated with little things that happened at practice or meets, some humorous, some not-so-funny, or with notes of appreciation from athletes: crawling through a window in the summer to get a boy to practice; tying runners to each other to teach them how to run in a pack; a practical joke; taking kids home from practice. According to Tom, it’s just about impossible to rank those memories; and, in then end, all of these experiences summed up are one experience.  “I feel very fortunate to have had the opportunity to teach and coach at Gateway.  Doors opened.  I went through them.  I feel honored to have been honored by the Hall of Fame; but I continue to pray that the impact I have made has been felt far beyond the practice or competition venues.”


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