(This is the second in a series of feature stories on the 2012 inductees into the Lawrence County Historical Society Sports Hall of Fame).
Not too many people have seen the evolution of football quite like Chuck Cuba has.
When he played at New Castle High School in the early 1950s, his helmet and shoulder pads were made of leather. There was no such thing as a wide receiver ... or a passing game. And there was one defensive set. One. That’s it.
Football was rudimentary — and physical. The game epitomized the head-to-head, smash-mouth style people read and hear about from the old days. But Cuba lived it, both in high school and college.
After starring for the Red Hurricane, Cuba went on to play on the offensive and defensive lines at Virginia Tech University — the same school Michael Vick, among other NFL stars, attended. Cuba helped the Gobblers (their nickname until 1981) earn an undefeated season in 1954, going 8-0-1. Virginia Tech finished 16th in the nation that year, and the Gobblers began a winning tradition that lives on today. But the success is one of the only similarities from the old VT to the current Hokies, who now are perennial powerhouses in college football.
“The stadium that I played in down there probably was similar to Taggart Stadium,” Cuba said. “You could put that (Virginia Tech) stadium inside the one they have now probably three times.”
As the times changed, so did Cuba’s role in football.
He began his coaching career almost immediately after his playing days were over, starting out as an assistant at a high school in Virginia. Following that, he became a head coach at Wytheville (Va.) High School.
Then came the real fun.
Cuba moved to North Carolina, where his wife, Jewell, was from, and started the football program at North Stokes High School. It was a town full of tobacco farmers, and harvesting crops took precedence over everything else, especially sports. So, Cuba had to start from scratch, including showing players where to line up and explaining the duties of each position.
Strangely enough, that was one of the most rewarding roles for Cuba because he was able to mold how they played.
“I thoroughly enjoyed the North Carolina experience because those kids had never played football,” he said. “Because they had to help their families, I practiced at 4:30 in the morning and 8:30 at night. Those kids would go to school, they would go help their families and they would come out and practice football. We started with 36 of them at the beginning of the year, and we ended up with 36 at the end of year. We won like two games, but they didn’t care.”
Cuba moved back to New Castle in 1967 and spent 11 years on the staff of coach Lindy Lauro, serving as the defensive coordinator for most of those seasons. He helped construct a new, advanced era of football that was one of the most successful in Red Hurricane history. He was able to coach his sons, Pat (now 54) and Terry (53) during his tenure and was part of two WPIAL championship teams.
It’s been quite the ride for Cuba, and he’ll reach one of the pinnacle destinations of his journey on April 29 when he’s inducted into the Lawrence County Historical Society Sports Hall of Fame at the New Englander.
It’s a blessing for Cuba, mainly because of the friends, teammates, coaches and players he’ll be joining that he met both coaching and officiating, the latter of which he took up after he left the varsity coaching ranks.
“I was thrilled to death,” he said, “and I was happy because they’re putting me in there with my father and a lot of the people that I played with, plus a lot of the kids that I coached who have become very successful people. I’m proud of them, and for me, it’s an honor to be in there with them.”
One of the people he’ll be joining — a former player — is John Latina. Latina is regarded as one of the top offensive line coaches in the country, with stints at Pittsburgh, Kansas State, Clemson, Ole Miss, Notre Dame, Akron and currently Duke. Latina started at New Castle in the mid 1970s, where coach Cuba helped build him into a dominant offensive lineman. He also aided Latina in his decision to play football at Virginia Tech.
“He had a major impact in many ways,” Latina said. “He was great role model. As a young athlete, I always felt like I wanted to coach, and I never knew I’d be as fortunate as I have been, but he definitely had an impact on that. When he told you something, you knew it was going to be the truth. You could trust coach Cuba, and that’s always stuck with me.
“He also was a pipeline to Virginia Tech for three of us. Myself and two players who went there a year before I did. So he was the pipeline to get us there to Virginia Tech, with a full scholarship and at a great institution.”
Learning how to prepare players for college was a vast change from showing farmers in North Carolina how to get in a three-point stance, Cuba said. And that was all part of, not only the evolution of football, but also of Cuba, who’s now 77 years old. He showed he can still develop young people into solid football players just two years ago when his son, Pat, the Lancers varsity coach at the time, needed his dad to come back and coach junior high football at Neshannock.
“You had to coach them differently than when I played,” Cuba said. “Techniques were different. Skills were different. Game plans were different, because at New Castle, when I was playing there, our game plan was you got the ball and kept it as long as you could. And you played a 6-2 defense and you stopped the other team. That was it.
“But when I coached here and other places, you had to adjust because football was changing, with the wideouts, with the skilled people, the quickness, the weightlifting and so forth, football had changed.”
The game has come a long way from donning a helmet with about as much padding as a stocking cap, which, according to Cuba, “is probably why I don’t have any teeth.”
Maybe so, but it’s also part of the reason he became a mentor for hundreds of kids.
TOMORROW: Doug Peters