NEW CASTLE — (Video screen appears below the story.)
Joe Cowart is living the dream.
Cowart, whose wife, Meghan, gave birth to the couple’s first son Wednesday night, was named the new head coach of the New Castle High football team last night at a special meeting of the New Castle Area School Board. Cowart was chosen by a 5-3 vote. Board member Marilyn Berkley did not attend the meeting.
Cowart, 31, is a 1999 New Castle graduate who starred for the Red Hurricane as a quarterback and safety. He went on to play at Allegheny College, again as a quarterback and safety. He spent two years at Clarion University as a quarterbacks and wide receivers coach, where he also handled strength and conditioning duties, then came back to New Castle, where he served as an assistant coach for four seasons, taking over as defensive coordinator the last two years.
Cowart called this his “dream job,” but admitted he has other things on his mind at the moment.
“This was a big deal tonight, it was a huge deal, but to me, this pales in comparison to what happened to me last night when I had my son,” said Cowart of his newborn baby Colt. “I had a baby last night, so really, I’m floating on Cloud Nine right now. This whole event was awesome to see how passionate people are about it, but I’m going to be honest with you, I’m thinking about getting back to the hospital and seeing my son right now. That’s what’s in my heart and on my mind right now.”
There was a lot to digest at the meeting, where the board’s decision didn’t come without some controversy.
SUPPORT FOR CLARK
Cowart replaces Frank Bongivengo Jr., who resigned in March after charges were filed against him and his wife, Karen, following an incident involving money linked to a youth football program.
About 70 people attended last night’s meeting and seven spoke on behalf of candidate Bruce Clark, a former New Castle High and Penn State University standout who went on to play in the National Football League. The Rev. David Young Sr. and Evelyn Ward, the president of the New Castle NAACP, both said they felt Clark was more qualified for the job.
The 54-year-old Clark, who didn’t possess the same amount of coaching experience as Cowart, said he felt a bit disrespected by not getting the job, but he did congratulate Cowart and wish him the best.
“It’s funny, you’re accepted all over the world — literally, United States, Canada, Europe — but you’re not welcome back in your home. How does that work? But, I’m free now. People can say, ‘Bruce, what have you done? What can you do?’ I asked and I offered. I feel free now. ... No one can say that I didn’t come back and try to contribute to my youth and my community.”
Board president Allan Joseph said a committee interviewed and analyzed the final eight candidates (Cowart, Clark, Pat Cain, Pat Cuba, Sam Holmes, Nick Marmo, John Protopapa and Stacy Robinson). The committee was made up of board members Mark Kirkwood, Karen Humphrey, Maryann Tofel, Stacey Fleo and David DiGiammarino.
Joseph, Kirkwood, Fleo, Humphrey and Tofel voted yes, while DiGiammarino, Anna Pascarella and Barbara Razzano voted against Cowart’s hiring.
Kirkwood was the chairman of the committee that recommended Cowart as coach, and said he based his decision on the fact that Cowart, who is a junior high math and high school video teacher at New Castle, is in the school on a daily basis and has a strong rapport with the students.
“A big factor is being in the building — it’s huge,” Kirkwood said. “We did that before (hire a person outside of the district) with the basketball coach. He taught at a different school and it didn’t work with our kids. You have to know our kids, you have to be with them every day — it’s just too hard.
“I don’t know if you noticed after the meeting, all the kids that were here went over and shook (Cowart’s) hand. He’s a great guy with good character. We’ll be fine.”
Kirkwood said he was under the impression that Clark, who lives in State College, only would take the coaching position if he landed a job as the school’s truancy officer. The job as truancy officer recently was taken off the school’s budget so the $30,000 the job paid could go to retaining its tutors. The football coaching position pays $8,000.
“That’s a big reason I didn’t vote for Bruce,” Kirkwood said. “If he was only moving here for the $8,000, that was one thing, but he wanted $8,000 plus the $30,000, and we didn’t have that to give.”
Joseph said he understands how the public would see Clark as the right candidate because of his past success in football, but added that “playing professional football does not make you a great coach. Mr. Cowart’s been coaching in our district for four or five years and coached in the college ranks for a couple of years. And he gave an outstanding interview.”
Cowart spoke briefly at the end of the meeting to thank the board and everyone in attendance for displaying their passion for New Castle football. He also said he would like Clark to join him to help guide the ’Canes. It’s an idea that Clark said he appreciated, but quickly dismissed.
“I’ve never played second team in my life,” he said.
The new team of coaches will include Cain and Marmo, both of whom coached New Castle’s ninth-grade team last year, along with Bill Humphrey, who is Karen Humphrey’s husband. Cowart said he is still piecing together the rest of the staff. The scheme they will implement will revolve around multiple I formations “with hints of spread football.”
“If you watch USC or Stanford, those are the type of offenses we’ll run,” he said. “We’re going to tailor our game plan to the players we have.”
Much of the defense will remain the same, Cowart said. New Castle was one of the top defenses in the WPIAL’s Parkway Conference two years ago, but the ’Canes fell off last season, especially with their ability to stop the run. Cowart said New Castle will utilize a 4-3 defense with a Cover 4, and he intends on taking advantage of the ’Canes’ athleticism as much as possible.
“Two years ago we gave up 15 points a game in one of the best conferences in the country,” he said. “Last year, we didn’t stop the ball as much as we needed to. So, we’re looking forward to the challenge.”
If the meeting was any indication of how things will be, Cowart’s in store for quite a ride.
Those who spoke on behalf of Clark questioned the board’s judgment. Some said they thought the choice was racially motivated (Clark is black, Cowart is white), while others said Cowart was chosen because he’s a great-nephew to Lindy Lauro, the legendary New Castle coach who died in January. Numerous members of the Lauro family attended the meeting to support Cowart.
At one point, just before the vote was taken during a period when board members are allowed to discuss the topic, Joseph spoke sternly about the hiring process. He started to point at Bob Razzano, an assistant principal in the New Castle district and the husband of Barbara Razzano, and said “the entire interview process was tainted from the beginning.”
Joseph said Bob Razzano, who was said to be backing Clark as coach, took candidates through the school to talk to other applicants and ask them to step aside and become an assistant. Solicitor Charles Sapienza left his seat and whispered to Joseph and the president of the board then calmed himself and asked for the vote to be taken.
He briefly elaborated after the meeting.
“You had some administrators get involved in the process, which is totally unprofessional,” Joseph said. “It’s disrespectful, and I didn’t want to be a part of anything like that. There are teachers in your building applying for the job, and you’re bringing other people around. They’re not to be involved in it, period.”
Throughout it all, Cowart remained silent and uninvolved. He said the strange proceedings didn’t bother him at all. He likes the enthusiasm people have for New Castle football.
“I thought it was awesome how passionate people were about our program,” he said. “Those same people, they can be passionate against me if they want, just show up on Friday night and be passionate for your son or daughter or the kids in the community because that’s what I’m going to do every day. I’m going to be passionate for your son every day.”
The tradition, the fervor people have for New Castle football and the risks and rewards that come along with being head coach are all part of the reason this job is one Cowart has always wanted.
“If I had a dream at night, this would be my dream job,” he said. “I put in my cover letter that when I was in high school, I ran out of the tunnel as a player, the last four years I’ve been running out of the tunnel as an assistant coach, and I think I am the right guy to run out of the tunnel and be the next head football coach at New Castle High School.”