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Jim Kenyon: Joe Yukica Is a ‘Man of Quiet Dignity’

  • Former Dartmouth football coach Joe Yukica, 87, of Grantham, N.H., watches a round of golf he was playing in on May 30, 2018 at Eastman Golf Links in Grantham. Yukica will be going back to the Upper Ohio Valley where he grew to be inducted in the Lou Holtz/Upper Ohio Valley Hall of Fame. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Former Dartmouth football coach Joe Yukica, 87, of Grantham, N.H., sinks a putt when playing on May 30, 2018, at Eastman Golf Links in Grantham. His golfmates Don Nicholas, left, Scott Gerlach and Bill Matson, all of Grantham, react to his shot. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Former Dartmouth football coach Joe Yukica, 87, of Grantham, N.H., plays an eighteen hole round of golf on May 30, 2018 at Eastman Golf Links in Grantham. Yukica will be going back to the Upper Ohio Valley where he grew to be inducted in the Lou Holtz/Upper Ohio Valley Hall of Fame. ((Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Dartmouth football head coach Joe Yukica speaks quarterback and co-captain David Gabianelli in an undated photograph. (Valley News - Larry Crowe) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Dartmouth College football coach Joe Yukica is interview in his Hanover, N.H., office on Dec. 4, 1985. (Valley News - Dan Hunting) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.


Saturday, June 02, 2018

Joe Yukica didn’t play on his high school football team in Midland, Pa., until his senior year. The Lincoln High Leopards hadn’t been good for quite some time, but with a new coach, Yukica’s buddies on the team persuaded him to give football a chance.

“I often wonder where I would be if I hadn’t gone out for football,” Yukica recalled. “I may not have even gone to college. I probably would have ended up working in the steel mills.”

Midland, a small town in western Pennsylvania on the Ohio River’s north bank, is steel country. Or at least it was when Yukica was growing up there in the 1940s.

But Yukica didn’t follow his father into Midland’s steel mill, which had nearly 7,000 workers during World War II. Yukica’s ability to catch a football across the middle and block linebackers downfield — skills that a tight end must possess to play big-time college football — was his ticket out of the gritty world of blast furnaces and boiler shops.

In the early 1950s, Yukica was among the top college receivers in the East. From there, he went into coaching — a 33-year career that included three Ivy League championship seasons at Dartmouth.

It was a career that ended in controversy when Yukica took Dartmouth to court and successfully challenged a long-standing practice in college sports.

Yukica, who lives at Eastman in Grantham, turned 87 last Sunday. Today, accompanied by his son Joe Jr., he’ll board a plane bound for Pittsburgh, 35 miles southeast of Midland.

On Monday evening, Yukica will give a brief speech to a crowd of more than 500 people at a banquet hall in nearby Wintersville, Ohio, where he’ll be inducted into the Lou Holtz/Upper Ohio Valley Hall of Fame.

It’s quite an honor. Previous inductees include the Boston Celtics’ John Havlicek, Major League Baseball pitcher Phil Niekro and Holtz, the college and NFL coach for whom the hall was named 20 years ago.

Like Yukica, the above-mentioned can trace their roots to the blue-collar mill and coal mining towns where rural Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia share state lines.

For much of the 20th century, this was a land of opportunity for people who had the will and strong backs to earn a living with their hands. Yukica’s father, who also wasnamed Joe, emigrated from Croatia as a young, single man before the Great Depression.

He found work as a crane operator at Midland’s Crucible Steel plant, which stretched along the Ohio River from one end of town to the other. It was the right job for him, his son said, because “you didn’t have to speak much English to run a crane.”

He married Liz Holava, the daughter of Midland farmers, and in 1931, they had Joe. When he got old enough to earn his own spending money, Joe picked up a paper route in town. On Sunday mornings, he set up a stand outside the gates of the steel plant, which operated seven days a week.

The couple’s second son, Stan, two years younger and 3 inches taller than his brother, gravitated toward basketball. He, too, avoided the mills. He played his way into Geneva College in Beaver Falls, Pa., which led to a career as a school principal, and today he’ll meet his brother at the Pittsburgh airport.

In his one season of high school football, Yukica stood out enough to be named to a Beaver County all-star team. Playing against all-stars from a neighboring county, Yukica, 6-foot-3 and 175 pounds, caught the eye of college scouts.

After the game, a Penn State assistant coach came into the locker room. “Joe, what size shoe do you wear?” he asked.

“I knew right then I was going to Penn State,” Yukica (size 12) told me. “They don’t give you shoes, unless you’re on scholarship.”

In the summers, Yukica returned home to work in the steel plant’s maintenance department. “I didn’t mind it,” he said. “It was a job.”

But after earning his college degree in 1953, Yukica didn’t go back. He remained at Penn State for a year as a graduate assistant coach under Rip Engle. On Sunday nights, he’d go to the Legion hall in State College with another young bachelor on the coaching staff named Joe Paterno.

Yukica spent the next six years coaching high school football in Pennsylvania. After his Central Dauphin High School team in suburban Harrisburg went 10-0 in 1958, Yukica was named Pennsylvania High School Coach of the Year.

In 1960, he landed an assistant coach’s job at what was then West Chester State College, outside of Philadelphia. The next year, Dartmouth coach Bob Blackman called Engle at Penn State, looking for an offensive ends coach.

Engle recommended Yukica. During Yukica’s five years on Blackman’s staff, Dartmouth won three Ivy titles. In 1966, the University of New Hampshire, coming off a winless season, hired Yukica to be its head coach at the age of 35.

In 1968, after Yukica was named New England Coach of the Year (the first of three times, that he’d win the award), Boston College came calling.

Under Yukica, BC began playing a national schedule, opening the 1976 season against a University of Texas team that featured running back Earl Campbell. “They thought we were a high school team,” Yukica recalled with a smile.

BC upset the Longhorns, 14-13.

In Yukica’s 10 years, BC suffered only one losing season. The Eagles had run off a string of five straight winning seasons, but as The New York Times wrote in January 1978, alumni were “hungry for a bowl contender.”

At the same time, Dartmouth, which hadn’t won an Ivy title since 1973, was in the market for a head coach. Athletic Director Seaver Peters had tried to lure Yukica back to Hanover a few years earlier. This time, Yukica didn’t say no.

“For him to leave Boston College was quite something,” recalled Peters, who lives at The Woodlands retirement community in Lebanon. “He was a marvelous coach. It was great for us to get him.”

In a story about his hiring, The Times wrote that Yukica, “in effect, moved from one pressure situation to another.”

He seemed to handle it just fine. In 1978, his first season, Yukica guided a team picked to finish last to an Ivy championship. His quarterback: current Dartmouth coach Buddy Teevens.

When Yukica was hired, Teevens figured his time under center was short-lived. A new coach wouldn’t have much use for a quarterback entering his senior year, preferring a younger signal caller whom he’d have time to groom.

But Yukica let it be known at the outset that on his team, “the best players play,” Teevens said.

Yukica showed so much confidence in his senior quarterback that he allowed him to call his own plays in the huddle — practically unheard of today. “He couldn’t have been more supportive,” Teevens said.

After the season, Teevens mentioned to Yukica that he was interested in pursing a career in coaching. “It’s a wonderful profession, but it’s a challenging life,” Yukica responded, noting the late nights and weekends in the office during the fall and weeks on the road spent recruiting at other times of the year.

“With an Ivy League degree, you might want to consider something else,” Yukica advised.

But Teevens was undeterred, asking Yukica about an opening on the Dartmouth staff that would keep him in Hanover. “The best thing for you is to get away,” Yukica responded, urging Teevens to work with different coaches and learn new systems.

“He was right,” said Teevens, who with Yukica’s recommendation landed a coaching position at DePauw University in Indiana.

Between 1979 and 1982, Dartmouth captured two more Ivy crowns. But then came a stretch of three consecutive losing campaigns. Ted Leland, a West Coast guy, had taken over as athletic director for Peters, who retired in 1983.

After a 2-7-1 record in 1985, Leland gave Yukica an ultimatum: Resign or be fired.

But Yukica — backed by some influential alumni, players and the national coaching fraternity — refused to go quietly.

With one year remaining on his contract, Yukica maintained that Leland couldn’t fire him. A deal is a deal, he argued.

Yukica filed a lawsuit in Grafton Superior Court, seeking a temporary restraining order to block Leland from hiring a new coach.

“Anyone who knows Joe, knows he’s a man of quiet dignity and strong conviction,” his attorney, Mike Slive, a 1962 Dartmouth graduate, said in December 1985. “This litigation has been difficult for him personally, but it’s grounded so strongly in his beliefs that Dartmouth should honor its contract with him.”

(Postscript: Slive, who died last month at age 77, went on to become one of the most powerful figures in college sports, serving as commissioner of the Southeastern Conference from 2002-15.)

In the world of college sports, no one could recall a coach taking Yukica’s stance. Colleges fired coaches all the time — and still do — for not winning enough.

Yukica had one season remaining on a contract that paid him $56,000 a year, plus benefits. Dartmouth expected him to clean out his desk and, in exchange, the college would continue sending him paychecks until his contract expired. Nobody ever challenged a college’s right to do as it pleased.

Until Yukica.

At the time of Yukica v. Leland, I was a 20-something Valley News sportswriter. When I called to get their reaction to Yukica’s lawsuit, coaches around the country gladly picked up the phone.

“Indirectly, we’re all involved,” said Cornell coach Maxie Baughan, a retired NFL linebacker. “Maybe it’s about time something like this happened. It’s not a very good thing to say, but you’re hired to get fired in this business.”

The national media grabbed hold of the story. Yukica was hailed for exposing the hypocrisy of college athletics, in general, and the Ivy League, in particular. Winning, after all, was supposed to take a back seat to academics.

On Dec. 13, 1985, Yukica got his day in court. Paterno, whose Nittany Lions were preparing to play for a national championship, Boston College coach Jack Bicknell and the retired Blackman showed up to testify in North Haverhill.

When a coach is fired prematurely, it can cause irreparable harm that makes it difficult for him to find another job, they told a packed courtroom. Yukica deserved better, they said.

In the end, Judge Walter Murphy sided with Yukica — granting the temporary restraining order. (It probably didn’t hurt Yukica’s case that Murphy was a former head football coach at Plymouth State.)

“It was a matter of principle,” Yukica told me when we talked in his living room on a recent Saturday afternoon. “I had one year left on my contract. I wanted to finish the job.”

Instead of appealing Murphy’s ruling, Dartmouth agreed to allow Yukica to coach for the 1986 season. The team lost its first six games, before going undefeated in its last four.

I traveled to Princeton for Yukica’s final game — a 28-6 victory. As soon as the game ended, a half dozen Dartmouth players lifted him on their shoulders to carry him across the field. Yukica obliged, but only for a few steps.

“I know some coaches enjoy riding across the field like that, but it’s not for me,” he said after the game. “I know what it’s like not to be carried off, so I’d just as soon walk.”

Yukica never coached again, sort of proving his point that coaches who are fired can be perceived as damaged goods.

“I’d had all the college coaching, 21 years as a head coach, that I’d wanted,” he told me. “It was time to try something different.”

He joined his wife, Betty, in selling real estate. He also had a lot more time to play golf, which he still does twice a week.

Betty and Joe were married for 54 years. Since his wife’s death in 2014, Yukica, as could be expected, has not been the same. Most nights, he eats dinner alone at Bistro Nouveau, the Eastman clubhouse’s restaurant. On nights the restaurant is closed, it’s usually frozen foods. “I’m not what you’d call a cook,” he said.

Besides, he added, “I like to get out of the house.”

From his living room, Yukica has a view of Eastman’s 10th green and 1lth tee. When the course isn’t busy, he takes his golf cart through the woods to play a few holes by himself.

In the fall, he attends Dartmouth’s home football games. A season-ticket holder with seats on the 50-yard line, he often invites one of his golfing friends to join him.

In the days after a game, Teevens sometimes receives a short note from his former coach, who lets him know that it was a well-coached game, or after a tough loss, to keep his chin up.

This from the coach whom Teevens replaced after the 1986 season. Yukica has been nothing but supportive of Teevens over the years, following his head coaching career that has taken him to Tulane, Stanford and back to Dartmouth.

It helps that Yukica knows the “highs and lows of coaching,” Teevens said. Yukica showed him the importance of “maintaining dignity and grace” in both victory and defeat.

“He’s a very classy guy,” Teevens said.

The Upper Ohio Valley that Yukica is headed back to today doesn’t much resemble the one that he left 70 years ago.

“Steel is not king any more,” said Robin Webster, the Hall of Fame’s director for the last dozen or so years.

The Midland steel plant, down to 250 workers, closed permanently in 2016. The town’s population, roughly 6,500 when Yukica was a kid, has dwindled to less than half of that.

Last year, Jeffrey Snedden, a local historian, wrote in the daily Beaver County Times that the “collapse of the steel industry decimated Midland, as it did most Beaver County towns.”

But Midland is experiencing a rebirth, Snedden wrote. “New businesses are opening along Midland Avenue, and a beautification effort by borough leaders has had a wonderful effect.”

Midland is a dozen or so miles from East Liverpool, Ohio, home of the region’s Hall of Fame. When the idea of naming the hall after him came up, Holtz initially declined.

East Liverpool’s “favorite son” eventually relented, however, “providing that the concept be expanded to recognize residents and natives of the Upper Ohio Valley in all fields of endeavor who serve as inspirations for the area’s young people.”

In 20 years, it has grown to include more than 100 members from all walks of life. Dean Martin and Regis Philbin are among the better known celebrity members.

The Hall of Fame’s nominating committee keeps a list of possible inductees which it draws from annually. Along with Yukica, this year’s class includes ESPN anchor John Buccigross.

Tickets to the event cost $135 each. The money supports the Hall of Fame, which attracts a couple of thousand visitors a year and admission is free.

Yukica has been working on his acceptance speech. “I’m not here because of myself,” he plans to start out. “It’s the three great schools I coached at and the kids I coached at those schools that got me here.”

“It’s funny,” said the 60-year-old Teevens, who Yukica puts at the top of that list of kids. “After all these years, I don’t feel right calling him Joe. To me, he’s still coach.”

Jim Kenyon can be reached at jkenyon@vnews.com.