Passion for game still burns in Isco
Former Harbor, Bula coach thrilled to be an ACBF Hall of Famer
By KARL PEARSON
For love of the game.
Yes, there's a movie about it, but that was baseball. Andrew Isco has lived it in basketball with nearly 50 years of involvement as a player, coach and official.
Given the proper opportunity and timing, he'd be willing to throw his hat back into the coaching ring, too.
The game Isco loves so much is giving back a little bit. He will be part of the second class of inductees Sunday into the Ashtabula County Basketball Foundation Hall of Fame. It will take place at the second annual ACBF banquet at 6 p.m. at the Conneaut Human Resource Center.
Told of his selection, Isco seems overwhelmed.
"I was really surprised," he said. "I didn't even think I'd be considered. I was taken aback. I am really honored."
Several illustrations of just how much Isco loves basketball are evident. The first was as a player.
"When I was in high school, Ohio rules were that you couldn't play in the summer," the 1963 Brookfield High School graduate recalled. "So I went over to Farrell (Pa.) to a camp run by Ed McClusky. I played over there under an assumed name, Andrew Thomas (his middle name)."
That had benefits several years later when Isco got into coaching, as the legendary
Farrell coach enlisted his help.
"Later on, (McClusky) invited me back to coach in his camps with him when I started out in coaching," Isco said. "It was a lot of fun."
The other two instances are from his head-coaching tenure. After 12 years as the head man of the Harbor Mariners and a 148-116 record that included two Northeastern Conference titles and a regional final appearance in 1983-84, Isco decided to step aside in 1994.
"I think I was a little burned out at Harbor," he said. "I couldn't put the energy into it I wanted to."
That didn't last long.
"I was out of coaching for two weeks," the 1968 Kent State University graduate said. "After Bob (Walters) resigned at Ashtabula, (athletic director) John Higgins asked me if I was interested.
"I think it was just the change of scenery. It re-energized me. I knew the kids wanted to play as hard at Ashtabula as they did at Harbor."
In 1998, with the 30 years he needed for retirement from teaching in the bag, he left coaching at Ashtabula in 1997-98 after four seasons and a 33-52 record.
"The kids were good, the coaching was good and the friendships were great," the 59-year-old Isco said. "But the other stuff, all the paper work and testing and other things, just sapped my energy."
But he couldn't stay away from the game, spending two years as an official. Surgery for a neck injury that wouldn't allow him to officiate anymore didn't knock the love of the game from him.
"I couldn't do the running," he explained.
The coaching bug bit again. He answered when Ashtabula girls basketball coach Roby Potts called.
"I asked Roby if I could help. I just volunteered," Isco said. "I think I had learned some things in officiating. I felt I had some knowledge to share."
Apparently, somebody else did, too. When both Potts and then-Harbor coach Mike Hassett were passed over for the job of fielding the first Lakeside girls team, he was approached.
"I didn't seek the Lakeside job at first," he said. "I never applied until the other two had been rejected. I was ecstatic to have the chance to bring the two together."
Health issues for his parents, Raymond and Pia Marie, who reside in Florida, forced Isco to step aside from the Lakeside girls job after only one season and an 8-13 record. But he is proud of the start he gave the Dragons.
"I'm happy with what we accomplished," Isco said. "I'm sorry it only lasted one year."
It all adds up to a record of 189-168 (.529 winning percentage) in Ashtabula County. Including three years at Jackson Center in southwestern Ohio, Isco has compiled a 207-194 mark (.526).
Still, recognizing the company he is now keeping in the ACBF Hall of Fame gives Isco pause.
"To be put on that level never was my dream or my goal," he stated, emotions taking over a bit. "My main goal has been to be a good husband and father. Sometimes, that was second, and that hurts.
"I've been fortunate. I've had a lot of luck in my life. This is all beyond me."
Isco's father instilled the love of the game in him early.
"I grew up in a blue-collar neighborhood in Sharpsville (Pa.)," he said. "I was 7 or 8 years old when he took me 400 miles to games in Philadelphia. I saw Wilt Chamberlain and Bob Lanier play in high school. We used to go places like Farrell, Pittsburgh, Uniontown, anywhere."
That gave the youngster the desire to hone his basketball skills, as well as other sports.
"We put up an old door out by the barn, hooked a hoop to it and played," Isco recalled. "We used to play at the Buhl Club in Sharon. The church up the street had a gym in the basement, like the one at West (Junior High). We played football and baseball in the streets. But basketball was always No. 1 with me."
After eighth grade, the family moved to Brookfield. He worked his way up through the freshmen and JV ranks until the middle of his junior year.
"I got my first varsity start as a junior," he noted. "It's kind of a Wally Pipp (who was replaced in the New York Yankees lineup by Lou Gehrig) story. I had played the JV game, which had gone to overtime.
"We had a varsity player who was kind of a hot dog. Our coach, John DeMass, came into the locker room and said this kid was sick and could I start. I did, the game went into overtime and I played all five quarters of the varsity game, too, 10 quarters for the night. I started every game after that."
Role player would probably describe Isco's high school career.
"I was a scrapping, hustling type of player," he said.
There was one shining moment.
"My uncle Johnny was coming in from Philadelphia to watch me play," Isco remembered. "He got caught in a big snowstorm on the way, but he managed to catch the game on the radio. I don't remember if he got to see any of it. I scored 16 points in that game."
Isco's Warriors had the misfortune of playing in the rugged Steel Valley Conference against schools like Hubbard, Boardman, Austintown Fitch and Girard.
"That was tough, but I think we laid the foundation for the great teams Brookfield had later," he said.
Already the seeds for coaching had been planted.
"I knew in seventh and eighth grade that I wanted to get into teaching and coaching," Isco stated.
His JV coach at Brookfield, Vince Cortez, is one of Isco's coaching mentors.
"He went on to coach at a big school around Pittsburgh," he said. "He taught me a lot about the benefits of working hard, having a good work ethic and conditioning."
His other heroes are McClusky and Texas Tech coach Bob Knight, a McClusky disciple.
"McClusky taught me about seeing the floor and organizing practices," Isco said. "I took a lot of his offense like the five-man weave, which most people call the motion offense now. Later on, I found out Knight used it.
"My defense is kind of from all three of those guys. They believed in good man-to-man defense if you could. I wasn't crazy about a zone, but sometimes you had to use it. But you have to go with man defense first. It's easier to go from man to zone defense than the other way."
The coaching wheel
Isco didn't play at Kent State, but he hooked up with the basketball team as a manager, serving in that capacity his freshman, junior and senior years. Those were teaching experiences of a different type.
"I learned the things you don't want to do," he said. "I learned you can't go into practice, or anything, without a plan. I also learned you can't just yell at people. You have to show them how. Many times, you have to repeat things over short periods of time."
Another bonus from his days at Kent State, which ultimately got him to Ashtabula, was meeting his wife, the former Susan Giordan. They've been married 36 years and have five children — Angela Orr, who lives in North Canton with her husband, Steve, Andrea, who resides in Los Angeles, Bill, who lives in Kingsville with his wife, Maryann, Raymond, who lives in Orlando, Fla. with his wife, Suzanna, and Suzanne, who lives in Cleveland. The Iscos have five grandchildren — three from the Orrs and two from the Kingsville Iscos — and another on the way from the Orlando connection.
Isco counts his blessings.
"I'm so lucky to have a good wife," he said. "If you're going to stay in coaching, you need a good wife who understands. Susan raised our kids."
After graduation from Kent State, the Iscos initially headed back to Ashtabula County as he earned a teaching job in Pymatuning Valley Local Schools. He served the 1968-69 school year as Al McClung's seventh-grade boys coach in New Lyme, was his JV coach at PV the next year and served in the same capacity for Bob Hitchcock in 1970-71, as well as being an assistant football coach for Thad Kisnowski.
His first opportunity to be a head coach came at Jackson Center. The three years there were quite a change for two young adults with a young family from Northeast Ohio.
"That was a real education," he said. "It was hard on Susan. It was a nice town of about 500 people who were all related to each other. And you couldn't get a good piece of Italian bread there to save your life.
"I had a lot of ideas I had to change. I learned a lot more things you don't do, like trying to make sure you don't make the same mistake twice."
Back home again
The lure of home brought the Iscos back to Ashtabula for the 1974-75 school year.
"Susan was homesick," he said. "She'd come up here and spend the summers. She told me there was a job opening down at Harbor and she told me to go apply. I think Ange Candela was the superintendent then."
But there was no basketball coaching job at Harbor.
"I was the assistant football coach at Columbus Junior High for Tony Chiacchiero," Isco said. "I ended up coaching track with Ron Chutas and Dean McQuaide when Darrell Sargent was around."
The lure of basketball coaching called for desperate measures.
"I just had to be around the game," Isco said. "I stuck my nose in around Kent-Ashtabula and ended up coaching for two years with Bob Peura."
Finally, the freshmen basketball job at Harbor came open for the 1976-77 school year. Isco spent five years in that post, first for Ed Armstrong, then Higgins.
"That was great," he said. "When you coach freshmen, you're on your own. It was a chance to work on my new philosophies. Ed and John let me teach the motion offense."
A connection with the players that would make him at success at the varsity level, guys like Andy Juhola, Tony Lignetta, Chris Jones, Al Altonen, Joe Sadler, Scott Johnson, John Light, John Ringer and Chris Lunghofer, was developed.
"That was a good group," he said. "They were very close."
After the 1981-82, Higgins took the head coaching job at Madison. Isco stepped up to head coach.
"I was elated," he said. "I knew that group, and I wanted to make sure they achieved excellence.
"There was no pressure with that team. Putting in the motion offense was easy with those guys because they'd played it. The fact they were an intelligent group made it even easier. All I wanted to do was help them reach their potential."
Which they did in the 1983-84 season, reaching the Class AA regional championship game at Canton Fieldhouse before falling to an Akron St. Vincent-St. Mary team that featured future Cleveland Cavalier Jerome Lane and future NFL player Frank Stams. No Ashtabula County boys team has been that far since.
"That was a hard loss to take. It still is," Isco said. "But Tony Lignetta kind of put it all in perspective when we were having dinner after that game. He said, ‘You know, we could play that team 20 times and they'd beat us 20 times.'
"If I had to do it over, I'd probably slow the ball down more, but we only had one day of practice to put it in, which wasn't enough. That (season) was probably the highlight of my coaching career."
Strangely, those Mariners did not win an NEC championship. Two later Harbor squads did.
"Now that was pressure," Isco said. "I can't tell you the sense of relief when we won the NEC the first time."
His Harbor days still resonate with Isco.
"I feel good about my time there," he stated. "I have a lot of fond memories of Harbor, of all the great kids and great assistants I worked with. I loved coaching there."
When he arrived at Ashtabula for the 1994-95 season, he found a group of players eager to enjoy the type of success his Harbor teams had and return to the glory days of the Panther program.
"The kids at Ashtabula wanted to play just as hard as anywhere else," he said. "I just had to get them to play as a team, rather than individuals."
It took two years for everyone "to get comfortable.
"After that, I felt we were starting to gel," he said. "We had a great group of kids like Carlos Cancel, Alan Dunbar and Joey Boggs. We got off to an 8-1 start, and then we found out we had an ineligible player, someone that was way down our bench. We forfeited three games, which dropped us to 5-4. We never got it back after that."
His fourth season was also solid but, in his 30th year of teaching, Isco decided it was time to leave.
"We had a good year," he said. "I remember we played a fantastic game at Edgewood. I got a little burned out that year. But I think I left the program (to his former Harbor player and Ashtabula assistant Tim Tallbacka) in good shape."
His expectations were no different when he took over the Lakeside girls job.
"I never thought of the girls as anything other than athletes," he said. "I think that it helped that I had three girls at home.
"My expectations weren't different. There are hard workers and not-so-hard workers among girls, the same as boys. The girls at Lakeside did the same workouts and worked just as hard as any of my boys teams. I really enjoyed myself."
Those who think Isco is done on the area basketball scene might be surprised. After all, coaching is his passion.
"I'm not closing the door on coaching again," he stated. "It would have to be the right timing and the right circumstances, but I think I'm still physically and emotionally capable of doing it. I haven't forgotten my name yet.
"I still have goals. It hurts that I haven't reached those goals. I still hope I get the chance."
Isco realizes he's received a whole lot from the game, even if he never coaches again.
"I worked with a lot of fine young kids over the years," he said. "If I've been able to help them grow in any way, to be honest, that's far more important than any win."
Besides, there's one other achievement in which he ultimately takes pride.
"I'm most proud of my family," he stated emphatically, the emotions showing again. "Getting the chance to coach my kids has been one of the best parts."
For now, Isco just enjoys being around the game, even if it's on the fringes, because he loves it.
"I like to go to a game and say hello to (Tallbacka) or (Conneaut's Kent) Houston or (Jefferson's Steve) Locy," Isco said. "I think I had a good relationship with other coaches, and even officials. We're all in it for the same reasons."