It All Started (for me) with USC Community Day

Article and photos by Jim O’Brien

My timing has somehow always been quite good. I moved to the right cities at the right times, especially for a sports writer. I went to Miami in 1969, to New York in 1970, and back home to Pittsburgh in 1979.

In 1979, my wife, Kathie, and I bought a home in the Trotwood Hills section of Upper St. Clair, living there for well over 35 years. I recall that upon our arrival, Rebecca, our youngest daughter, at age two, tilted backwards and fell on her behind when she got out of the car and tried to make her way up the steep driveway. There were no steep-hilled driveways in Long Island.

Life in Pittsburgh would be different.

Our daughter, Sarah, then nearly 6, made it up the driveway without incident. Sarah was a tough act to follow, but Rebecca righted herself and became equally successful at navigating life.

The year 1979 was a good year to move to Pittsburgh and, particularly, to Upper St. Clair. We had the best schools, the best teachers, and the best playgrounds. I remember that Tom Harshman, then principal at Fort Couch Middle School, promoted the idea of “catch a kid doing something right” that continues in similar fashion to this day.

The Pirates won the World Series that year, and I covered the Pittsburgh Steelers that season when they won their fourth Super Bowl in six years. How could it get any better?

Also in 1979, Jim Render came to Upper St. Clair and, as a result, we had a great football program for the next 40 years! Jim recently retired as head USC football coach after the completion of the 2018 season. I saw him twice this past February at funeral viewings in McMurray and Canonsburg. The most recent was for Pat Schipani, Sr., whose three sons played football for USC under Jim. Pat played basketball at Duquesne University, on a team whose star was All-America Willie Somerset. A team photo hung on the wall at the viewing at Beinhauer Funeral Home. Looking at it, I recognized most of the players, especially Jimmy Smith from Mt. Lebanon.

Young Pat Schipani played on Pitt’s football team during the time I served as the assistant athletic director for public relations in the mid-80s. To this day, he refers to me as Mr. O’Brien.

Pam Render, who also retired from the USC School District in 2018, reminded me that Pat Schipani, Sr. was 76, the same age as her husband, Jim, and me. Quietly, I’d already thought about that. It was a wake-up call, for sure. I was 36 when I first took up residence in Upper St. Clair, and five months later, I participated in USC’s first Community Day.

Soon after settling in, I received a phone call from Tom Harshman asking me if I would serve as emcee for the “Anything Goes” portion of the program that he was coordinating. This series of sports-related games was a precursor to the “Survivor” series currently on television. There were teams from different neighborhoods made up of both men and women.

I remember that a couple of former major league baseball stars, Dave Giusti and Steve Blass, were part of the action, and they were competing as if they were in the World Series once again. George and Diane Morris, Ginny Giusti, Bill Haines, and Nick Cullen participated, as well. George fondly remembers that his team won the competition “because we had the best women on our team.”

Steve used to boast that he had been living the dream for a long time: one team, one house, and one wife. But last year, he and his wife, Karen, upset the 1-1-1 scenario and moved to an apartment on Grandview Avenue in Mt. Washington and spend half the year in Bradenton, Florida, also the home of the Pirates’ spring training complex. Steve announced his plans to retire as a broadcaster for Pirates’ home games after the 2019 season, a role that started in 1983. He will stay on as a Pirates’ ambassador and continue to host Fantasy Camp with Kent Tekulve.

Steve is best known for pitching two complete game victories in the 1979 World Series, including the deciding seventh game against the Baltimore Orioles. He gave up seven hits and two runs in a total of 18 innings. It is unlikely that anyone will match that record. He finished second in the MVP voting to outfielder Roberto Clemente, who matched his own 1960 World Series performance with a hit in all seven games.

Steve was not the only sports star who resided in Upper St. Clair. Steelers coach Chuck Noll and his wife, Marianne, lived on Warwick Drive, just across the street from Eisenhower Elementary. His home was located behind the Consolidated Coal headquarters, which has since given way to a shopping complex, Siena at St. Clair.

Several of Noll’s assistant coaches from those Super Bowl-winning teams also lived in USC, namely Tom Moore, George Perles, and Dick Walker.

There were several coaches and sports executives within two blocks of my Trotwood Hills house, including Frank Lauterbur, the head coach of the Pittsburgh Maulers; Chris Wright, the general manager of the Pittsburgh Spirit indoor soccer team; and Eddie Johnston, the former head coach and general manager of the Pittsburgh Penguins, and his wife, Diane. The Johnstons, who I first met at a block party on USC’s Tragone Drive, continue to reside in the USC community.

Kent Tekulve, the former Pirates’ ace relief pitcher, lived in Upper St. Clair, too. He is now in charge of the Pirates’ alumni and is the Fantasy Camp coordinator, replacing the late Nellie Briles.

Steve and Kent were frequent participants in USC’s Community Day parade. In about a dozen of those parades, I rode in a fun, classic convertible along McLaughlin Run Road, proud to be recognized by a community that had replaced Hazelwood as my hometown.

Grant Jackson, now age 76, who pitched in the World Series for the Orioles, Yankees, and Pirates (1979), still lives in USC, as does Sean Casey. Sean was known as “the most likable player” in baseball when he played for the Pirates and Reds. Sean was a classmate of our daughter, Sarah, and he continues to ask me how she’s doing when we see one another. Sarah said Sean was the rare athlete who was nice to the nerds. “That wasn’t the case with all the jocks,” she said.

In addition to Sean making it big on the college scene on his way to the major league, USC High School also sent two stars to Pitt: Joey David in basketball and Doug Whaley in football. Joey was a two-year starter in Big East action and Doug was a terrific defensive back who later became a scout for the Steelers and Seahawks, eventually attaining the general manager position for the Buffalo Bills. Joey now coaches the boys’ high school basketball team for Mt. Lebanon, where he also owns and operates a physical therapy complex. Both Joey and Doug were college Academic All-America selections.

Bob Junko, an assistant football coach under several head coaches—Foge Fazio to Pat Narduzzi—at Pitt, has lived in USC since the early ’80s. Bob’s son, Mike, succeeds Jim Render as the head football coach of the USC Panthers, with his first season beginning in fall 2019.

Suzie McConnell-Serio, a two-time Olympic medalist and a WNBA standout player and coach, grew up in Brookline, but has been a long-time resident of Upper St. Clair, where she and her husband, Pete (Boyce Middle School physical education teacher), raised their family. Over the years, she’s coached the women’s basketball teams at Duquesne University and the University of Pittsburgh.

Jaromir Jagr lived in USC with his mom while he played for the Pittsburgh Penguins. Now back in his Czech Republic hometown, the winger and 13-time NHL All Star is playing for the HC Kladno, that country’s first hockey league team. I suspect he will be selected to the Hockey Hall of Fame someday.

Steelers Mike Wagner, Steve Furness, and Edmund Nelson all lived in USC, too. Edmond, a State Farm ® agent, has an office on Fort Couch Road, near South  Hills Village.

There were many television and radio celebrities who also called Upper St. Clairhome, including Bob Prince, Myron Cope, Dave Kelly, Tom Hritz, Al McDowell, Jack Bogut, Don Cannon, Craig Wolfley, Tunch Ilkin, Shannon Perrine, and Stan Savran.

It’s really something when you think about it. The little town of Upper St. Clair, with its total ten-mile radius, claims two of the greatest relief pitchers in the history of major league baseball: Steve Tekulve and Dave Giusti, the latter who won the Fireman of the Year award in 1971. USC also claims two of the best football coaches in Pennsylvania: Chuck Noll and Jim Render.

By the way, Jim mentioned he might write his memoire. I suggested calling it Render Unto Caesar, but Jim, in his humor, resisted that suggestion. 

Sports author Jim O’Brien’s 30th book, Franco, Rocky & Friends—It Pays to be a Good Guy, is near completion and will be available in time for Father’s Day. Check it out!

This first appeared on pages 20&21 in the Summer 2019 issue of Upper St. Clair TODAY.

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