Strong of heart, strong of spirit
Second of a series...
By CHRIS LARICK
When Ed Armstrong left Harbor for Edgewood in 1968 after being asked to resign as Mariners' head boys basketball coach, he didn't burn his bridges.
An amicable split allowed him to return to Harbor's reins five years later, and he justified the faith in him by leading the Mariners to the regionals, one of only 12 times in Ashtabula County history that has been accomplished.
As a result of his successful tenure at Harbor, Edgewood (though not as a basketball coach) and Kent State-Ashtabula, along with countless other contributions to area athletics, Armstrong has been selected by the Ashtabula County Basketball Foundation for its Hall of Fame and will be inducted on April 6.
Armstrong admits the honor took him by surprise.
"I feel great. I really do," Armstrong said. "I wasn't expecting it. I'm very pleased."
Armstrong probably never expected to coach basketball. It wasn't even his best sport, not even one he was really good at, during his high school athletic career at Meadow Bridge High School in West Virginia where he played football and basketball and ran track.
"I was not a good basketball player, but I was always a starter on the football team," Armstrong remembers of those days. "When I played in Japan (with the American Army team), I was a starter. I was always real small, but I had good speed. Sometimes having speed is as good as being big."
The sport of basketball always intrigued Armstrong, however, and sitting on the bench alongside the coach allowed him to see the game from a coaching viewpoint and to analyze strategy.
College football had to wait for Armstrong when the Army beckoned him. At that time, the Korean War was being waged. Armstrong got as far as Japan but never saw battle before the cease-fire that ended that war.
When he left the Army in 1954, he enrolled at Glenville State (W.Va.) College where he joined the football team as a walkon. He started out as fifth or sixth man on the depth chart, but moved his way up to starter by the fourth game and started every other game until he graduated. Meanwhile, he helped fund his college expenses with a "workshop" — sweeping and mopping the gymnasium floor three days a week, two hours per day.
After graduation he and his wife, Reta, whom he met during his sophomore year and married while still in college, moved to Ashtabula after Ed was successfully wooed there by then-superintendent Ralph Lanham. He had previously agreed to be a teacher and head football coach at Stanton, Va., but that system agreed to let Armstrong go.
In 1961, Armstrong was selected to be head boys basketball coach. He rewarded his employers with a winning record in his first three seasons, during which he went 36-24. But hard athletic times hit the Mariners and his teams posted marks of 5-13, 10-10, 7-12 and 1-18 the next four seasons and he was asked to resign.
"I had a year when we won one basketball game," Armstrong said of the 1967-68 season. "I really enjoyed that year. We didn't have a big team. Our center was 5-10; we had a bunch of little guys, 5-6 or 5-7 to 5-10. We played so many games that we got worn down by the fourth quarter. The kids on that team didn't think they were failures."
Armstrong left Harbor for Edgewood, where he served as an assistant football coach under Dave Six, whom he considers "one of the most knowledgeable people I've met." He was also an assistant basketball coach, and, in his final year with the Warriors, head golf coach. For his final two years at Edgewood, he also served as head coach at Kent State-Ashtabula, which had a decent team for what was then termed a "branch campus."
The bridge to Harbor was still up, though, and Armstrong was asked back in the summer of 1973 to once again take over the boys basketball team. It was an offer he couldn't refuse.
That team turned out to be his best. With ACBF Hall of Famer John Coleman leading the way, joined by John Bradley, Ray Henton, Al Ziegler and Matt Kent, the Mariners went 19-4 and advanced to the regionals, defeating two strong teams, LaBrae and Warren JFK, back to back.
"The nice thing about it when I came back is that I had a whole bunch of these kids in the fifth and sixth grades," Armstrong said.
"I knew all of them. They were good guys. From our area, sometimes teams are fortunate to come up with two good players, then fill in with people playing roles."
Armstrong served as head coach for the Mariners for four more years, finishing in 1978. Harbor had good teams in those years, but never matched the 1973-1974's level of competence. In the five years he coached during his second stint with the team, Armstrong went 64-36 to finish his high school head coaching career at 123-113 (.521). He probably would have stayed in that capacity longer, but opportunity knocked. Randy Pope was giving up the athletic directorship he had held for the two years since the legendary Bill Wasulko's death.
As much impact as Armstrong had on molding players, he was also renowned as a molder of coaching talent. When he returned to Harbor for his second stint, he included young coaches like Bob Short, John Higgins and Frank Knudson on his staff.
"I took a lot of my coaching philosophies from a lot of different people in high school and college, but most of what I used was taken from Ed," Higgins, who followed him successfully at Harbor, then had even greater success at Ashtabula, said. "His defensive strategies were the best I've ever seen. I thought he was a master of adjustments during the game, too. He always said that you never should make more than one major adjustment during a timeout.
"Ed always got his kids to play as hard as they possibly could until the final buzzer. I thought he was a master psychologist in getting his players to believe in the system. He also made all of his assistants feel like their opinions were valued."
Later, Armstong added a young man named Andrew Isco to his staff. As Mariner head coach, Isco put together the last Ashtabula County squad to reach the regional championship game until this year when his 1983-84 Mariners reached that level. Now Armstong the mentor follows Isco, the student, a 2004 inductee, into the ACBF Hall of Fame.
Armstrong's influence also reached to a girls program that became a hit at Harbor under Frank Roskovics.
"When I got the job, I contacted Ed and went over his defensive philosophies," Roskovics, who is also in the ACBF Hall of Fame, said. "He taught us the amoeba defense we used, which we ran off a 1-3-1 defense. We were trying to put more pressure out front. The middle person would move up and the point person would move back, which put pressure on the ballhandler quicker and got us a lot of steals.
"We also had Roberta (Cevera) and Chris (Fitting, two more ACBF Hall of Famers), and a lot of people tried to run triangle-and-twos against us. Ed showed me how to counter that, too. He also showed me how to organize my practices. He was a huge help to me."
Denny Berrier, who played against Armstrong's Mariners during his first tenure at the school, then coached against the teams from Armstrong's second stint at Harbor when he returned to Ashtabula to as head coach at St. John, remembers him well.
"I always remember Ed as the nicest guy you'd ever want to meet," Berrier said. "On the court, he was a fiery competitor.
"I remember he always liked to have his teams run a lot. He was always difficult to coach against when he had talent because his offenses and defenses were so sound. He was also a very tough guy to prepare for because he seemed to gear his plan to what he thought the opponents' strengths and weaknesses were and not what you'd expect him to attack. It almost didn't do you a lot of good to scout his teams."
Armstrong, hamstrung by poor gate revenues from a losing football team, found it difficult to keep the boat afloat financially. In 1983, he turned the job over to Dik Pavolino. In 1987, after 24 years at Harbor and five at Edgewood, Armstrong retired from teaching.
But, with Reta still teaching, he found himself with time on his hands. In 1989, he started working for the American Cancer Society, as executive director in Ashtabula. When Reta retired in 1995 after 36 years of teaching, Ed gave that up, too.
"I keep busy going to all my grandkids' functions," Armstrong said. "They're all involved in something."
Ed and Reta have four children — Laura, Peggy, Michael and Cheryl — and five grandchildren ranging from 9 to 19 years of age.
"My oldest granddaughter is 19 and going to Mercyhurst in the field of music," Ed said. "She's an excellent singer. My oldest grandson plays football and basketball at Lakeside. My littlest one plays basketball and soccer. We go to all their events. That keeps us busy. It's nice when they live in town. When Mom and Dad need help, we can be there."
Once an opponent of the consolidation of Harbor and Ashtabula into Lakeside, Armstrong has softened on the merger.
"I think overall it was good for the area," he said. "I was at Harbor so long I hated to see it go. If it's good for the future of the kids, so be it."
Armstrong also gives back to the community, attempting to bridge the gap between himself and younger generations. Some 22 years ago, he founded the Ed Armstrong Golf Tournament to raise money for college scholarships.
"I help run the tournament, but a committee makes all the decisions about the scholarships," he said.
Originally, the tournament raised money for two scholarships to go to one boy and one girl from Harbor. These days, they go to Lakeside students.
Armstrong himself was once a four handicap at the tough Ashtabula Country Club (now Harbor Golf Club) course. But age and illness have taken a toll on Armstrong, who describes himself as a "golf nut."
"I had shingles eight years ago," he said. "I still have effects from them. I lost my hearing in my left ear. I still have a sound in my ear like Niagara Falls. I lose my balance because of the inner ear.
"But I've learned to live with it, try not to let it get me down. I still try to golf some, but when that happened, my game went downhill. I heard that someone said golf is a good walk ruined, but I just love the game. It's hard for me to give it up."
Larick is a freelance writer from Geneva.