top of page

Don Cannell

Cannell made the cut

10th of a series...

Staff Writer

The unkindest cut of all may have been one of the best things that ever happened to Don Cannell.

When his senior season of 1953 at Ursuline High School in his native Youngstown rolled around, young Cannell was hoping to earn a spot on the Fighting Irish varsity, even though he'd had little impact on the program to that point. But coach Tom Carey saw it differently and cut Cannell from the squad.

At the time, Cannell was heartbroken, because basketball was truly his passion. But, as the years went by, Cannell realized Carey had been right.

"I was too slow," Cannell said. "I thought I could be a hot shot.

"Tom Carey coming into my life really opened my eyes. I was mad at the time, and my attitude wasn't that great, but I actually learned a lot from him, and we became friends over the years. I tried to follow the things he had done in my own coaching. It worked out pretty well."

One of the main things it taught Cannell was to be a good judge of people's ability and their character. It served him well in a brief four-year run as the head boys basketball coach at St. John High School, in picking two young men to follow him who kept the Herald program going and in helping at least one other school pick another young man as head coach who has gone on to great things.

Carey's truths also helped the 1953 Ursuline graduate be a voice of wisdom and reason when Cannell moved on to administrative duties, first at St. John, then at Riverside High School, then back again at what is now known as SS. John and Paul. It also helped him be an influential figure in the workings of the Northeastern Conference and in sports, including basketball, for boys and girls in this part of Ohio.

For all of those reasons, Cannell has been selected to enter the Ashtabula County Basketball Foundation Hall of Fame on Sunday. It is a great source of pride that he will be inducted along with one of his first great players, Denny Berrier, who he eventually selected to succeed him as the Heralds' head coach.

"I knew what kind of player Denny had been for us and what his character was like," Cannell said. "That's what sold us on him."

His own selection is a total surprise to Cannell.

"It definitely is a real thrill, but it came as a real shock to me," the 72-year-old Cannell said. "I was thinking, ‘Why me?' It's a great honor.

"I always wonder when these things come along, ‘Are you worthy?' I feel honored to be there, especially when I look at some of the people I'm going in with. It helps put it all in perspective."

He is also excited to be joining many of the coaches and players he matched wits with during his coaching career and who he worked so closely with years later when he moved into administration, guys like the late Al Bailey of Geneva and his successor there, Bill Koval, his long-time friends Gene Gephart of Ashtabula and the late Andy Garcia of Conneaut and the late Ed Batanian of Kingsville and Edgewood and his old tennis buddy, retired Ashtabula coach Bob Walters.

"It's nice that they're bringing us all together again," Cannell said.

Any doubts about Cannell's worthiness are erased by many of those already in the Hall of Fame or who will be joining him. For instance, Frank Roskovics, who was the student manager for Cannell's St. John teams, can attest to the impact Cannell had on him as a teacher and coach.

"I've always felt Don was a mentor to me, in high school and beyond," he said. "I was always impressed with his demeanor. He didn't do much yelling. If he had a situation, he'd call a kid aside and talk to him one-on-one.

"He was a great teacher, too. He carried me through biology."

Berrier echoes Roskovics' sentiments.

"Don was my mentor," he said. "I had him as a teacher, a coach and a boss and he's been a close friend ever since.

"He had the ability to make things very simple to the point that you thought, ‘Why didn't I think of that?' And he was always so well prepared. He had a way of finding your strengths and your weaknesses.

"When I took over as head coach, Don was my freshmen coach," Berrier said. "I always just let him do whatever he wanted because I knew I was going to receive players who were well prepared fundamentally."

A loss Garcia and Ron Richards' Conneaut team took from Cannell's Heralds in his first season as St. John head coach cost the Spartans an outright NEC championship and gave the player respect for his coaching skills.

"St. John was always well coached when he was around," Richards said. "His teams were hard to contain because they were always running and gunning. He had some athletes with Berrier, Billy Johnson and Denny Allan, and he knew how to use them."

Like Berrier, Gary Kreilach came to know Cannell as a coach, a boss and a mentor, even though some of those occasions where as an opponent at Geneva.

"I always remember as a player liking his demeanor," Kreilach said. "He always seemed to have a great sense of himself. And I always liked Don as a person. He was very supportive of me when I was the coach and he was the AD."

Harbor's Ed Armstrong also had many occasions to connect with Cannell over the years as a rival coach and athletic director.

"Don was a very fine coach, and he was also a very fine gentleman," he said. "We had some great games when he was the coach. We also had a great working relationship when we were both athletic directors working together in the NEC."

The early years

Cannell grew up playing in the Catholic elementary school system in Youngstown.

"I started playing in the seventh grade at St. Ann School," he said.

When he moved on to Ursuline High School, he missed out on a chance to play for a highly successful freshman team.

"They were 18-0 that year," Cannell said.

Once he got into high school basketball, though, young Cannell never rose above the JV level in Carey's program until he was cut. But that experience didn't keep him from his goal of becoming a teacher and a coach. When he graduated from Ursuline, he went to Youngstown College, now known as Youngstown State University, where he got his degree in 1958 and would eventually earn a masters degree.

He was hired at St. John for the 1958-59 school year, which also meant the possibility of a job as an assistant football and basketball coach. It was the thing that attracted him to the school all along.

"I knew I wanted to get into teaching and coaching," he said. "I knew it was a small school where I was going to have the opportunity to coach.

But he only got to stay there for a few months before he was drafted he was drafted into the U.S. Army. Fortunately, that only lasted for 14 months since teaching was considered "critical circumstances" in those days. By the middle of 1960, Cannell was back marching the hallways of St. John and working as an assistant for Dan McGinnis.

"I got back here in mid-year and went right into coaching football," he said.

Early in that second period at St. John, he also met Charlotte Pastor of Ashtabula, who was also on the teaching staff. They are now celebrating 46 years of marriage.

The Cannells are the parents of three sons — Kevin, who resides in Chicago, the late D.J., who lived in South Carolina, and Brian, who lives in Columbus. They have six grandchildren, five from Brian and one from D.J.

His assignments also included coaching the JV basketball team for McGinnis. When the latter was replaced as the varsity coach in 1962, it would have seemed a natural that Cannell would take over, but he was passed over for Roland "Smokey" Cinciarelli.

Cannell molded some fine material for McGinnis and Cinciarelli, compiling a 36-16 record along the way.

Finally, the Army interceded on Cannell's behalf when Cinciarelli was drafted. He took over the head coaching job for the 1966-67 season.

His shot

Given the opportunity to run his own program, Cannell used a blend of information he had picked up over the years, even from Carey.

"Tom Carey really stressed defense," he said. "If you didn't play good defense for him, you didn't play."

McGinnis also taught him, including some things to discard.

"Dan McGinnis knew a lot of basketball, even though my first full year coaching with him, we only won one game," Cannell said. "I know he used to pick up a lot of drills. One time, he read somewhere about a coach having his players practice wearing galoshes and dark glasses, so we tried it, too. It didn't get any better. In fact, Dan said we played like we were wearing galoshes.

"He ran a really controlled offense with a lot of two-on-two and three-on-three situations. He had some great kids like Gene Varckette and E.G. Colin. We ran an offense called the Auburn shuffle."

Cinciarelli had shown him another side of coaching.

"Smokey was a real disciplinarian," Cannell said. "You'd better adhere to what he said or you were gone."

When he took over the reins of the program, Cannell was fortunate to have a great group of athletes he had worked with at lower levels.

"We had Denny Berrier, (future Notre Dame football standout) Denny Allan, (future Perry boys basketball and cross country coach) Lou DiDonato, (future SS. John and Paul football coach) Dom Iarocci and (current Ashtabula County sheriff) Billy Johnson," he said. "They were good players."

Even though he adapted from a lot of other coaches, Cannell still was secure enough to incorporate his own philosophies.

"We had speed, so whenever we had the opportunity, we flew," he said. "We had five kids who played well together, but our bench was pretty short. Our big trouble was getting the rebound."

The Heralds were good enough to carve out a 12-7 record against dynamic Conneaut, Geneva and Ashtabula teams. Berrier's putback at the buzzer of a missed shot against Conneaut denied Garcia's Spartans the outright NEC title that year.

"We lost two to Geneva, two to Ashtabula and we split with Conneaut and Harbor," Cannell said. "Four of the seven losses we had were really close. We played most of our opponents tough.

"We got beat in the sectional final by Kirtland that was coached by (future Cleveland Cavaliers coach) Don Delaney and had Jeff Mills, who was the (Class A) Player of the Year in Ohio that year. That was a tough loss. (Berrier) fouled out and we lost the game."

The Heralds' season made enough of an impression on Cannell's colleagues that he was chosen Coach of the Year.

"It was the first time a first-year coach ever got it," he said with a hint of pride. "I was just in the right place at the right time."

As David in a land of Goliaths, Cannell kept the Heralds humming along at a respectable pace for the next three years. Fueled by super shooters like Johnson and John Wheelock, the Heralds went 9-10 the next two years. In his final season, led by Pat Kilker, Tom O'Brien and Bruce Hendrickson, they went 7-11.

Cannell's Heralds often seemed to find a way to rain on Conneaut's parade. Another upset they pulled against the Spartans in Wheelock's senior year resonates with Cannell.

"It was (ACBF Hall of Famer) Harry Fails' first year as head coach," he said. "They had that great team with Scott Humphrey and Al Razem, the guys that he took later on to the regional. They were undefeated at that point that year, too, and they won the conference, and we knocked them off."

But after the 1969-70 season, the opportunity to be the athletic director arrived for Cannell, and he took it.

"I just didn't feel I could do justice to both jobs, so Paul Kopko took over the basketball job," he said. "It was at a time when our oldest son, Kevin, was coming up, and I wanted to watch him play, too.

But he didn't leave basketball behind.

"I couldn't tear myself away completely," Cannell said. "I kept coaching freshmen for another six or seven years."

Plus he felt comfortable tapping Berrier for the head job for the 1972-73 season and Kreilach after him.

"I hired Gary for the same reasons I hired Denny, because he was such a character guy," Cannell said. "Plus, we never could beat Gary's Geneva teams when we played them."

Other arenas

It seemed a bit strange when Cannell left himself in 1986 for Riverside, but it turned out to be a good thing for all concerned because it kept him in the NEC, helped with his retirement and helped the Beavers find a pretty good coach of their own.

"I was the assistant principal at Riverside when they hired Rob Winton (who has just completed his 20th year there and is approaching 300 career victories)," Cannell said. "I was in on some of those discussions.

"I was impressed with Rob because of his playing background from Madison and Baldwin-Wallace. When he played for Madison, we called him The Franchise. He had such a great coaching background working with Harry Fails at Alliance and he had a lot of the same qualities I had seen with Denny and Gary — a character guy who knew the game and was a great teacher. I think we picked a winner."

Heart problems ended Cannell's career at Riverside.

"After my second heart surgery in 1993, we started talking to the people at Riverside about taking disability, and they agreed, so I retired," he said.

Having maintained his home in Ashtabula, he came back and went to work on his health. When the Diocese of Youngstown agreed to reformulate St. John into SS. John and Paul in 1997, Cannell was ready to listen.

"I stayed out of it until (principal) Bina (Larson) asked me to come back," Cannell said. "I loved it."

And the faculty and students at the school loved him. He has been nearly a constant figure at the school ever since, even after his official retirement in 2007, forced in part by more health concerns.

He is often seen these days watching athletic events at the entrance to Mahoney Gymnasium, viewing the scene on Don Cannell Court, officially named for him on April 24, 2006 in a special ceremony.

"I keep telling people, ‘Stay off my court,'" he said with a chuckle. "Our volleyball team hasn't lost a match on it yet in two years. Believe me, having that court named after me was a real thrill."

Cannell actually feels he achieved more as the originator and long-time coach of the tennis team at the school. But basketball is the sport to which he clings.

"Basketball put me in contact with a lot of great kids and great coaches," he said. "It helped shape so much of my thinking.

"There's no doubt basketball has meant the most to me. It's the sport I hold nearest and dearest to my heart."

bottom of page