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Written by: Phil Myers on Tuesday, September 15th, 2020
(Note: this interview was conducted in the spring of 2020)
Before Bill Cherpak became the Athletic Director at Thomas Jefferson people were dying to meet him, but when they did, they simply wouldn’t say anything. That’s because Coach Cherpak was a successful mortician from 1991 to 2004. Most people probably do not know that about one of the living legends in the WPIAL coaching ranks.
‘Cherp’, as he is affectionately known as, has done nothing but win at Thomas Jefferson. Entering the 2020 season his overall record is 274-46 for an incredible .856 winning percentage. That puts him second only to Jim Roth of Southern Columbia as far as active winning percentages for coaches with over 200 career wins. He’s never had a losing season in his 25 years as head man for TJ and the Jags have made the playoffs every year Coach Cherpak has been in charge. That accomplishment ties Aliquippa for the longest current streak in the WPIAL. He has 8 WPIAL titles tying Bob Palko for the most by any D-7 coach. He is 4-0 in state championship games tying Tom Nola for the most state titles by a D-7 coach. At one time, the Jaguars had won 57 straight home games and are currently riding a 28-game home winning streak. In fact, Thomas Jefferson has won 85 of their last 86 home games dating back to 2004! So, what is his secret for success and what is the intangible that sets him above the rest in getting the most out of his players. The answers to those questions and more can be found in my intriguing interview with Coach Cherpak.
Cherpak, who has a brother and a sister, is the youngest of three siblings. He attended Steel Valley and played football there for the fabled coach George Novak. The Ironmen won a WPIAL title in 1982 when Cherp was a sophomore. He also played basketball and did track where he participated in the unusual combo of high jumping and throwing the shotput. After graduating from Steel Valley in 1985, Bill went to Pitt and was a guard for the Panther football team. He blocked for a Heisman Trophy Finalist in 1987, the great Craig ‘Iron Head’ Heyward. One of his fellow linemen was future NFLer Mark Stepnoski. Another of his teammates, but on the defensive side of the ball, was prospective NFL star, Tony Siragusa.
After graduating from Pitt, Cherpak decided he’d go to mortuary school at The Pittsburgh Institute of Mortuary Science. When he completed the two-year program, he acquired his funeral director’s license and embarked on what he felt would be a rewarding career.
PM: “How did you get into coaching?”
BC: “When Jack Garrity took the head coaching job at Thomas Jefferson in 1990, he asked me to be one of his assistants. He had been on George Novak’s staff at Steel Valley when I played there and I always had a good relationship with him. I had just finished mortuary school so I was able to commit the time, so I said ‘sure.’ I was an assistant on Garrity’s staff from ’90 to ’93 when he retired.” Cherpak then coached one year at Woodland Hills with George Novak before taking the job as Thomas Jefferson’s head honcho for the 1995 season.
“Honestly, I had no plans of even coaching coming out of college. It just kind of fell in place,” Cherpak remembers. “So,” he continued, “when I got the head job, it was enjoyable. I liked it. Again, I was not planning on being there long-term. But, in 2004 when the Athletic Director job opened and the School Board offered the job to me, I took it and it became more of a career. That’s when I gave up the funeral director job.”
PM: “How do you measure success.”
BC: “That has changed over the years. It’s now about the relationships you make. Obviously, winning is still a huge part of coaching. The thing I love about coaching is any given Friday night we have a home game we’ll have 20 to 30 former players on our sidelines. The thing I see now as I get older is seeing the kids go through the program and come back and be successful. I also have 6 or 7 assistant coaches that played for me.”
PM: “How does coaching factor into your success?”
BC: “The way that we approach it is to coach every player whether they are the best player or the least skilled player. To help them get better, we give them the tools to get better and we make them feel like they are part of the team. Last fall we had 71 kids and we needed everyone to help us be as good as we can be.” He went on to say another reward of coaching is when kids who were not necessarily star players come back and want to see the younger kids.
“Another thing is that I am not a year-round guy either. Once the season is over, we’re done. We don’t do anything, nothing. We’re off till the spring when we work out and do some lifting, no football stuff. We do work in the summer though.” To drive that point home, listen to what Shane Stump (quarterback of the 2019 state championship team) said in an interview with the Trib Review, “I can’t imagine playing for another coach. You finish your first year realizing you could never have imagined something as bad as Cherp’s summer workouts. Aside from that he does everything in his power to make every person the best they can be.”
PM: “How involved are you with the youth or midget program?”
BC: “I will say this, my main goal is to have the kids enjoy playing and want to keep playing. They do not run the systems we run. (Object is to) just have good coaches in there that have the same goals. The kids have a day where they work out with us and do our drills.” That is a big deal to the younger kids to have a chance to be around some of their Friday night idles. “In terms of direction and coaching, I don’t really get involved.”
PM: “What is the toughest thing about coaching these days?”
BC: “I think to get kids to put that team first mentality ahead of their own personal self. There’s a greater purpose here and what you do or don’t do affects everybody. To try to get that through to them is sometimes difficult. I would say one of the main reasons for our success is we have kids that have been here four years and are still not starters, but they contribute in some way. We are fortunate to have those kids because many times these days if a kid isn’t starting as a sophomore, then they don’t want to be here. How good are your second-tier players? Because I really feel they make a good team a great team and that is what determines the strength of your team.”
PM: “Do you have a favorite year or group of kids?”
BC: “This past year (2019) was one of my most rewarding seasons because this group was a quality group. Now there’s only 14 seniors, but they were known as the good group coming through and they lived up to that. But they only cared about winning and that’s what mattered the most. None of the seniors were D-1 players, but we trusted them to warm up properly and sometimes we coaches met for the first half of practice and you knew they were doing the right thing. You never had to be concerned. They worked with the younger kids on the team too. I came up here in the summer one day and found Shane Stump with the freshman quarterback working on things and showing him some things. It was just that type of group. It’s really pretty amazing. It’s that type of thing that makes you a good program not just a good team.”
PM: “What are the most important concepts you try to or instill into your players?”
BC: “Mental toughness is #1 definitely, no doubt about it. We talk about it all the time. I played for Joe Moore at Pitt and he was so demanding mentally, not just physically, but mentally. So, we work on that a lot. We’ve had so many kids that didn’t have the most talent but they were successful. We haven’t been known as having just great athletes. Our kids execute well, they’re always in shape, they do all the little things right, and we don’t make mistakes usually to hurt ourselves. I would say mental toughness is followed by coachability and work ethic.”
PM: “How were you able to build a winning tradition at Thomas Jefferson?”
BC: “We had to change the mindset. When I played at Steel Valley, TJ was kind of a rival but they weren’t very good and we didn’t think much of them. They did win a championship in 1980 under coach Bap Manzini. That was their last championship before we won in 2004.” Coach Cherpak said that it got to the point where the fans and parents were happy if Thomas Jefferson kept the game close. “We changed that mindset and got the kids to believe and execute on the field. The whole mindset of everything here has changed. We have great community support and when we have a home game it’s just a fun night. When we played Belle Vernon last year, it was sold out, you couldn’t get in. This (Jefferson Hills) is a pretty neat little town. Everybody is involved doing something from the band to the cheerleaders. In fact, our band’s good, they’re real good.”
PM: “How does it make you feel with all that community support?”
BC: “For me, seeing the kids enjoy it means more to me than anything. The kids even talk about playing the games and having the fans come, the student section and all of that. Football kind of sets the tempo for that whole year and it’s a type of foundation for the rest of the year athletics. We’ve had a lot of good years and you can see it just pick everybody up and kind of just kick start the whole year. That’s what’s exciting. You can see it in the school and the community.”
PM: “Have you had any desire to coach at the next level?”
BC: “I’ve had plenty of offers. Coach Wannstedt, when he was at Pitt, for one. I’ve even had some scouting offers in the NFL. For the first part of my career when I was still in the funeral business, that was my focus and priority. I wasn’t even thinking of a full-time coaching job in college until I got this A.D. job and we had some success. Then some of the offers came around, but it’s been so great here I had no reason to leave and look around.”
PM: “What motivates you to continue to coach?”
BC: “Um, that’s a really good question. I think it’s that once you get here (to the next season) and you see those 8th and 9th graders and some of the young kids who are improving who are going to be playing for you, that brings it right back and gets you right back into it. Then it’s full speed ahead from there. It’s exciting and it kind of rejuvenates you and gets you ready to go.
PM: “If you could pick any coach’s brain, past or present, who would that be?”
BC: “Wow! I’m an old school guy. I can’t even think of anybody. That’s a pretty good question. I’ve never compared myself to anybody. My thoughts are coaches like Chuck Noll, even like Bobby Knight in basketball. That’s where my mindset is, that old school of being tough, the kids doing the right thing… That’s always been important to me.”
PM: “What would you like your legacy to be?”
BC: “Just that I’m not high on coaching accolades. They don’t mean anything to me whatsoever. I don’t think about how many wins as a coach. None of that stuff matters at all to me. I would like it to be that I made it better here than I found it and I’m leaving it in a good position for somebody else. I’m doing the right thing and helping kids be successful.”
“The biggest thing for me this year was seeing our kids experience and enjoy the whole state championship environment and winning that game. That’s what made the whole year for me. We’ve been here before, but it’s been awhile. To let them have that experience, that meant everything.”
PM: “Now for some what I call fun questions. What do you do with your free time?”
BC: “I love to play golf. This whole quarantine has been difficult because I’m not somebody that sits around much. I love to stay busy and do something. It’s (the quarantine) been pretty rough.”
PM: “Do you have any hobbies?”
BC: “I love to watch football in terms of high school and college. I’m not a big NFL guy. Every year whether we’re in the state championship or not, I go to the state championship games. I go to Florida quite a bit and will travel to go see a high school football game.”
PM: “What would your favorite meal consist of?”
BC: “I’m kind of an old school steak and potatoes type guy. As big as I am, I’m not a big eater, but I like going to my parents’ house on Sundays and have dinner and hang out. It’s a fun thing to do.”
PM: “What would be your favorite dessert?”
BC: “I’m not a dessert person at all. I don’t eat sweets.” Coach Cherpak pauses in thought for a few seconds and then says, “but I would say something chocolate probably.”
PM: “What is a favorite movie or two of yours?”
BC: “I’m not one who has seen many movies. I don’t watch a lot of television either. I’m the one person who has never seen ‘Star Wars.’
PM: “If you could go back in time is there anyone you’d like to meet?”
BC: “One of the people that I admired most that was an athlete would be someone like Arnold Palmer. Or like Michael Jordan, you see him now with this documentary. It’s something how driven they were for success. I always looked at Arnold Palmer as the perfect athlete and how he handled himself and the way he did things. The way he treated people.
PM: “What is the one thing people may not know about you?
BC: “It’s definitely that I was in the funeral business, that I was a funeral director. I liked it. It was rewarding in its own way. I still do some things now when I get the chance.”
PM: “What is the reason you always wear shorts, even in the cold weather?”
BC: “Honestly, when I was a young coach I’d get so worked up during the game and I would get hot and start sweating. So, I wore shorts just to be comfortable. Still to this day that’s why I do it. It gets a lot of attention and some think it’s done to be a tough guy, but it’s just for pure comfort.” As a side note, Mr. Cherpak told me he hasn’t worn blue jeans for probably 40 years.
PM: “Anything else you’d like to say? I appreciate the time you gave me.”
BC: “As a coach and you get older, you realize how important your assistant coaches are. The efforts of the kids too. Our assistants have the opportunity to do their coaching. I don’t over rule them in any way. That’s how I liked it when I was an assistant. I work with the offensive coordinator. I don’t call any of our defenses.” I told him that seems to be less stressful for you and he said, “it is.”
Another side note is the fact that one of the Bill’s faithful assistants over the years was Jack Garrity, who was more than willing to help out whether it was with the quarterbacks, running backs, or where ever he was needed. Sadly, Jack passed away in 2017. “He was the one most responsible for me getting into coaching,” said Cherpak.
It was a pleasure to converse with Bill Cherpak. He seems to be laid back and takes things in stride. Cherp was very personable and made me feel quite comfortable during the interview. He never had any idea he’d be coaching this long, but he loves it and that probably doesn’t bode well for TJ’s opponents any time soon. In fact, he is looking forward to the upcoming year even though the Jaguars lost quite a few starters to graduation from their state championship team. The Jaguars have a gem in Bill Cherpak. If he continues to coach another 25 years, he will set all kinds of coaching records that he doesn’t care about. One thing is for sure, he has put Thomas Jefferson on the Pennsylvania High School football map.
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