From mat to hardwood
Higgins’ HOF career started in... wrestling
By Chris Larick
For the Star Beacon
Unlike other, less scrupulous coaches, John Higgins never let a good job get in the way of his principles.
In 1984, after five years as the head basketball coaching at Harbor, the final two of which had resulted in 35 victories, Higgins was called into the principal’s office.
If he expected a pat on the back, he was mistaken. The Harbor administration was eliminating opening the gym in the summer, wanted him to fire an assistant he felt was doing a good job and was taking away his last-period-of-the-day planning period.
So Higgins took the Madison Blue Streaks head coaching job.
JOHN HIGGINS works the huddle during a timeout at storied Ball Gymnasium during his days as head coach of the Ashtabula Panthers.
Two years later, he was approached by the Madison superintendent, who thought Higgins worked the players too hard. Higgins prided himself on his teams’ conditioning, and, disagreeing on a few other key points, resigned that post as well.
Ethics isn’t the only criterion that got Higgins into the Ashtabula County Basketball Foundation Hall of Fame, maybe not even the main one. Higgins’ body of work compares favorably with others so chosen. He will be inducted on April 7 at the Conneaut Human Resource Center.
The son of Walter and Agnes Higgins, John grew up, along with his sister, Carin, on the east side of Ashtabula. (Walter, as many of you know, was a major figure on the Ashtabula County athletic stage for many years and the Edgewood baseball field is named in his honor). John could often be found at Ridgeview Elementary or State Road Schools, playing basketball, football or baseball.
He played high school basketball at Edgewood, starting on the JV team as a sophomore. That year, Dan Foster came over from Jefferson (because of an anticipated teaching strike that never happened) and the varsity enjoyed a successful season.
Steve Bish and Higgins were the only two players from their class to play all three years. The Warriors had some success in that duration (1965-67), but Ashtabula, Conneaut and Geneva were the dominating teams.
Others on those Edgewood teams included Al Runyan (“probably the only guy who passed me the ball,” according to Higgins), Ron Stowell, Rich Korpi and Don Kidner.
A 6-foot-1 forward, Higgins took it upon himself to stress defense.
“I wasn’t one of the top players, but I got appreciated for my defense,” he said. “You don’t get credit for that end of the floor.”
He graduated in 1967 and began his college career at Kent State’s Ashtabula Campus. At that time, the branch offered several sports, golf among them.
Higgins had played golf under coach Ed Sorbiewski at Harbor with other golfers like Greg Kemp, Terry Watkins, Bob Larkins and Korpi.
“I got pretty competitive,” he said. “We came out of the woodwork and challenged for the NEC title. I got hooked on golf.”
He played golf at Kent-State Ashtabula. One of his memories of that period was when the golf team traveled to Tennessee and was near Memphis when Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. Because of the rioting that ensued, the team cut short its trip and headed back home to Ashtabula.
Then, when he went to Kent’s main campus as a junior, he found himself near another trouble spot.
“I graduated in 1971 and was down there when the shootings took place (in May, 1970),” he said. “I was walking across the commons and saw a sign that said classes had been canceled. I heard the shots, but thought it was firecrackers. It was kind of a scary time.”
Higgins graduated with majors in history and government and mathematics. A week after graduation, he married Phyllis (Lawrence).
“I married the greatest girl I could find, the prettiest girl on campus,” he said. “We went to Edgewood together, but hardly looked at each other. We went out briefly at the end of our high school days, but only got serious afterward.”
Higgins had done his student teaching at Harbor in the spring of 1971. He applied for a regular teaching job at four schools. One of them, Geneva, offered him a position teaching math and coaching basketball as an assistant, along with golf. But the Harbor principal asked what Geneva had offered, then countered with the JV basketball job, plus golf when Bill Wasulko retired. A couple of weeks later, the offer was changed to coaching wrestling.
Higgins had never wrestled, but dived into preparation, pushing the furniture back and using Phyllis as an opponent. He also read three books about wrestling.
“We ended up second in the league,” Higgins said.
The following year, Harbor’s head coach, Larry Bragga, resigned to become Jefferson’s principal, and Ed Armstrong took over as coach for the 1972-73 season. Higgins became the freshman coach, serving five years in that capacity. Bob Short coached the JV teams, with Andy Isco and Frank Knudsen also assisting.
“Ed Armstrong was the biggest influence on my coaching career,” Higgins said. “Ed was a master of teaching fundamentals, a true psychologist and a great game strategist. He listened to us, the assistant coaches, but always made the final decisions. Ed and I agreed that we married way over our heads. Reta and Phyllis have been great wives and let us pursue our coaching careers.”
Another strong influence on his career was former Ashtabula coach Bob Ball, himself a member of the ACBF Hall of Fame. Higgins and Ball ran the clubhouse at Chapel Hills Golf Course together for many years, always talking basketball. Higgins asked Ball to come to his first varsity game.
They met at Garfield’s Restaurant the following day. Higgins expected a couple of tips, but what he got was a legal pad breaking down the entire game.
“I said, ‘Bob, we won the game.’ But I found out what a perfectionist he is,” Higgins said.
In 1980, Armstrong became athletic director and Higgins took over as head basketball coach. Some of his earlier players included Gordie DeLaat, Tim Jones, Dave McCoy, Steve McElroy, Robbie and Jamie Laveck, John Stranman, Scott Mickelson and Tim Givens.
“No player ever got to play unless they played aggressive defense and worked together on offense,” Higgins said.
“When Robbie Laveck was going into the army, he was worried about basic training. When he came back to Ashtabula once, he said, ‘It was easier than one of your practices.’ I wanted to have the best training of anyone we were going to see.”
Two of those players, DeLaat and McElroy, also played on the Higgins-coached Harbor team that finished fourth in the state one year. The others on that golf team were Mike DelPrince, Kep Ecklund and Rick Bean.
Higgins’ best team at Harbor included Dana Schulte at point guard, Kirk Willburger, Pat Colucci, Raimo Kangas, Dean Hood and a sophomore at the time, Andy Juhola.
“I liked to run a college-level offense but needed a dominating point guard,” Higgins said. “Things changed when Dana Schulte became a varsity player.
“I thought he was the best point guard in Northeast Ohio, period. He ended up third-team all-state. Dana was a thinker; he had basketball intelligence. Kirk Willberger was a superior defensive player at 6-2; Pat Colucci had a deadly baseline jumper; Dean Hood was our rebounder and hustler. Andy Juhola was just a sophomore, but I think Andy was the best player ever from Ashtabula County for completeness. He was cool under pressure.”
With that group, the Mariners won 17 games in 1980-81 and 18 the following year. In 1981-82, the NEC championship came down to a contest against Geneva.
“Geneva beat us in the championship game,” Higgins said. “Andy (Juhola) had the ball with a few seconds left and us a couple of points down. The Geneva kids were throwing ice on the floor, and the referee called Andy for traveling. We lost the championship on that.”
The Mariners were ranked eighth in their division in the state poll for a while that year. In a tri-county newspaper poll, Harbor was rated second, behind Mentor.
Other players impressed Higgins while he was at Harbor, including Mike Ginn and Tom Quinn.
“Mike Ginn was the most solid kid I’ve ever seen as a 6-footer,” Higgins said. “He was a tremendous scorer and rebounder for us. Tom Quinn was flashy. His junior year, he moved to Geneva, but he moved back as a senior.”
In 1984, Higgins had the aforementioned clash with the Harbor administration. So he left for Madison, where he found an empty cupboard.
“We didn’t have success there, though we had some talented kids, like our point guard in 1986, Mike Warren,” Higgins said.
Others Higgins remembers from his two years in Madison are Duke DiPofi, Cliff Holroyd, Ben Kriegmont, Scott Whitehouse, Todd Emmitt, John Josza and John Sandru.
“Those guys worked hard to improve every day,” he said. “The kids played hard, worked together and got better and better. My second year, we started to see some inroads there, started to become competitive.”
Higgins’ situation at Madison was made more difficult on his first day of practice by a serious car crash when another driver ran a stop sign. He began to see flashes of light that got worse.
He went to see Dr. Sam Morosko, who immediately sent him to St. Luke’s Hospital. He found out he had a detached retina and that his eye was hemorrhaging, recommending that he sit out at least a year.
Ed Naughton took over the team, assisted by Ed Dotson and Jack Austen. The Blue Streaks went 0-21 that year.
When he returned to the coaching reins in 1985, the Blue Streaks won 10 games. But the previously mentioned dispute with the administration brought about his resignation.
Higgins discovered that Ashtabula was looking for a math teacher and football coach. Principal Frank Farello said he could have the math job if he was willing to teach calculus. He jumped at the chance.
“When I got hired, I was not planning to get back into coaching, but I fell in love with Ashtabula (High School),” he said.
The next spring, in 1987, Farello called Higgins into his office and said that the school was replacing Bob Walters (also a member of the ACBF HOF) as basketball coach. Farello asked Higgins if he was interested in the job. He took it and won 16 games his first year, 19 his second, when the Panthers shared the NEC championship with St. John. Two of the losses his first year were caused by a teachers’ strike.
One of the stars of those Ashtabula teams was Sean Allgood. Higgins considers Allgood “the best all-around athlete I’ve ever coached.
“He was an assistant coach on the floor. We sent him into double teams because of his ability to hit the open teammate.”
Others on Higgins’ Panther teams included Deon Heasley, Adrian Mathers, David Whitaker, Jason DiDonato, Sedric Osborne, Jason Raffenaud, Brian Scruggs and Keith McGaha. He credits assistants Jim Hood, Jerry Raffenaud and Roby Potts with helping develop the talent there.
“These players bought into an aggressive fullcourt press, fastbreak style,” Higgins said.
In 2003, Higgins became athletic director at Ashtabula. He thought he could continue as basketball coach, but soon found a conflict in duties. During his days as AD, he worked with other schools’ athletic directors: Dik Pavolino, Al Goodwin, Larry Carlson, Susan Herpy, Bill Fails, Bina Larson, Dom Iarocci, Ron Weaver, Jim Henson, Marilyn Scullen and Mike Mochner, along with former Edgewood athletic director Ed Batanian, still another ACBF Hall of Famer.
“We were a tight-knit group,” Higgins said. “We worked for our own school, but we really worked together to make our league (the NEC) prosper.”
Higgins taught math all of his 32 years. Seven of his students have become math teachers. One of them, Don Rapose, is Lakeside’s principal. Another, Pat Colucci, is superintendent of Ashtabula Area City Schools.
“They are great choices to lead our schools,” Higgins said.
He remains proud of being a trailblazer in bringing advanced placement courses to Ashtabula and Harbor high schools.
The Higgins have now been married for 41 years. John retired after 32 years of teaching, Phyllis taught first grade for 35 years.
“She was an outstanding first-grade teacher at Thomas Jefferson Elementary,” John said. “She’s become a gourmet chef. We never have the same meal twice. We enjoy traveling, often to Maine or Hilton Head, and have been to Europe twice.”
The Higgins have two sons. Chris, the manager of the Staples Store in Lakewood, went to Kent State and now lives in Medina with his girl friend, Allison Brandt. Tim, who graduated from Ohio University, is part owner of the Ashtabula Insurance Center, along with Brent Bunnell. In December, Tim became engaged to Terri Andrus and the couple is planning on an April wedding.
Higgins remains active in retirement. In the winter, he plays racquetball with his opponent of nearly 40 years, Barrie Battorf. When the weather is nice, he plays golf with Myron Niemi, Bernie Haytcher, Joe Hassett and other golfers in their “Fish and Chips” group. He often breakfasts with Pat Sheldon, also a member of the ACBF HOF, reminiscing about old times.
“As I look back, I am so thankful for what my players have accomplished on the court and in life,” he said. “Athletics are a major influence on a person’s attitude and character, and I enjoy hearing of my players’ success in their adult lives.”
Larick, a retired Star Beacon sports writer, is a freelance writer from Geneva.