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Written by: Phil Myers on Tuesday, April 6th, 2021
Greg Botta got into coaching because of his love for the game. He is quoted as saying, “when coaching is done right, it is a great sacrifice of time and personal life.” Coach Botta has sacrificed a lot over the years and his decision to retire was agonizing. But when good friend Larry Sellitto passed away on Christmas, that tipped the scale in favor of calling it a career as we’ll find out in this intriguing and comprehensive interview with the popular Franklin Regional Panther head football coach of the last 27 years.
Mr. Botta doesn’t care about wins and losses. His concern is for the kids and doing things the right way. He ended his coaching career with a record of 177-110 including a PIAA championship in 2005. His teams at Franklin Regional had made the playoffs an amazing 16 years in a row until this past season, which was shortened by the Covid virus pandemic. He has coached in the Big 33 and numerous other all-star games which he says he enjoyed immensely. In addition, he is in the Pennsylvania Scholastic Coaches Hall of Fame.
His father, Joseph Botta, met his mother, Anne Bizub, when she was a nurse doing residency at Mercy Hospital. “My dad was a city slicker and she was a country girl.” Greg is one of seven children and grew up in Penn Hills till about 6th grade when his parents moved to Oakland for three years. Then they moved back to the same house in Penn Hills that they moved out of three years earlier. He went to Central Catholic his freshman year, but then ‘came back’ to Penn Hills graduating from there in 1970.
Botta played tight end and linebacker in high school, but was excited to tell me about the sandlot team he played for while in junior high school. “I played football for a sandlot team in 8th and 9th grade called the Morningside Bulldogs. It was one of the premier sandlot teams throughout western Pennsylvania.”
“We went to Ohio, played in Cincinnati and went to New Jersey too. They played all over the place for about 30 years. Bill Fralic played for them. It was an elite group. We used to play all the 9th grade and JV teams from around the area. They had an unbelievable record over 30 years. Nobody would play them they were so good. You had to try out for the team. It was a great experience. That’s where I started playing football.” (The Morningside Bulldogs are now defunct, but they finished with an amazing 271-19-8 record during their existence from 1950 through 1979. They were founded and coached by Joseph Natoli.)
After graduating from Penn Hills, Botta headed to North Carolina State on a scholarship to play linebacker for the Wolf Pack. But his father had a heart attack and Mr. Botta came back home, transferring to IUP. “I was to be the starting linebacker in the fall, but had suffered my 6th or 7th concussion during the spring game that year. When I showed up to get my equipment for fall practice, that’s when they told me I could not play anymore. That’s all I wanted to do was play football.”
“I found out years later my mother wrote to the head coach. He asked me if I wanted to come up and coach. He said you have a passion for the game like no other. After a while thinking about it, I went back (and took up the offer). I coached the freshmen my sophomore year. My junior and senior years I coached the varsity level. That’s how I got my start in coaching.”
Coach Botta earned his degree in Health and Physical Education from IUP, graduating in 1975. He has two children, both boys, Greg and Nick. Greg is an oncologist at the University of California at San Diego, and Nick is a lawyer in Philadelphia. “I have one on each coast,” he subsequently stated.
PM: “You already talked about how you got into coaching. How did you get the job at Franklin Regional?”
GB: “It’s a long story. I couldn’t find a job when I got out of college. I had a teaching job at Penn Hills, but there were no openings on Andy Urbanic’s staff. So, I coached a catholic grade school for three years. We won the Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh two of those three years. Then I got my start at one of the three schools that make up Woodland Hills. I was the defensive coordinator at Swissvale. When they merged to become Woodland Hills, the board didn’t want to take anybody from the three schools. That’s when Novak (George), who was at Steel Valley, got the job.”
Botta then went to Penn Hills who was under a new regime with Neil Gordan at the helm. He was there as the defensive coordinator for five years. “I knew Neil wasn’t going anywhere, so I moved out to Murrysville from Penn Hills. They (Franklin Regional) came after me to be the defensive coordinator knowing the head coach was leaving in two years. So, the ’92 and ’93 seasons I was defensive coordinator at Franklin. Then in ’94 was my first year (as head coach).”
PM: “How were you able to build the program at Franklin-Regional, how were you able to turn that program around?”
GB: “I think, number one, they had to believe in themselves. The culture of winning was not there. When I took the job, Phil, I literally had tens of phone calls with people telling me ‘you will never win at Franklin-Regional.’ I brought the toughness we had at Morningside with what we had at Penn Hills and we had to try and change the culture and the belief that they could do it.”
“My first year we lost the first three games and I was livid, but the kids turned it around. We went 6-3 and the team that beat us out for the playoffs we were beating 13-7 and we were going to make it 20-7, but my running back dropped the ball, their corner picked it up and ran 80 yards to score. They kick the extra point and win 14-13. After those first three games the kids started believing in themselves. It was a great tribute to them and their belief that they could win. They had to put the time, the energy, and the work in to do that. And they did. They were a bunch of tough kids who needed some guidance.”
Franklin-Regional had gone winless the year before Botta took over the program. In his second year, he took the Panthers all the way to the WPIAL finals where they lost. But those first two teams set the foundation for what was to come.
We talked for a while with coach telling me that you also have to have some talent in order to be successful. Then the coach told this story. “I don’t know if you know about the story in 2003. We lost our first five out of six or four out of five games and I told my staff…I knew the sophomore class was good…I said if we lose another game, I’m going to start playing these kids. We did and I did.”
“There was a big movement to get rid of me as a result. I stayed as the board voted 5-4 to leave me in. I left it in the hands of the Lord. In 2004 we began our playoff streak of 16 straight years making the playoffs. We lost a heartbreaker in the first round of the playoffs in 2004 and the following year we ended up winning the state championship. So, those sophomores (in 2003) ended up getting a lot of playing time.”
PM: “What’s the most important concept you try to teach your players?”
GB: “We have a motto and it’s pride, character, and discipline. It’s on everything we do. Take pride in what you do and how you do it, whether it’s the weight room or whether it’s on the practice field or in school or in the community. Hold your head high and walk with pride. And play that way too.”
“Discipline was another one we live by. Every day you got to do the right things. There are times you may be drawn away from that by friends or something that may be wrong but you want to do it. You got to be disciplined enough not to do it. Discipline in the classroom, discipline in the weight room.”
“The last thing is character. You are who you are when there’s people not around you. Be kind to other people. We live by that motto. It’s on everything we print and everything we do. We say it before every game and break out at the end of our practice with it. That’s what I talk about, the belief.”
PM: “What you taught the kids in football over the years is deeper than that. Hopefully it stays with them in the game of life, so to speak.”
GB: “You know Phil, we’re on this earth to do the Lord’s work. That’s the way I believe. I wanted to be a teacher and a coach since I was in high school. I was really, really touched by the phone calls, the messages, and the texts that I got. When you go back to what you said about doing the right things for the kids that make them better people and it stays with them their whole life…that’s why you coach. The wins are great, don’t get me wrong. Everybody wants to win, but it’s much more than that. And that’s why we coach. There are a lot of great coaches out there that do the same thing.”
PM: “Tell me a little about your decision to retire. I know you’ve probably been asked this by dozens of people, but for our readers’ sake walk us through that decision, if you wouldn’t mind.”
GB: “I’m a family man and I’ve sacrificed a lot there’s no doubt about it. My kids are important to me and they both live on each coast. I had a grandson, who is 8 months old, and I just went out to San Diego to see him for the first time. I couldn’t see him because of Covid and because of football.”
“When Larry Sellitto, my assistant head coach and special teams’ coordinator, passed away on Christmas that gave me finality that life is short. And there’s a lot I want to do. I have a health problem and longevity is not something in my family. Am I going to miss the game, Phil? Absolutely I’ll miss it. But I wasn’t looking forward to going back to the weight room. I wasn’t looking forward to going back to the summers and 6 A.M. camp. I’ll miss the preparation. I’ll miss the players. I’ll miss the camaraderie. The kids made me feel young. For two and a half hours on the field Friday nights all your problems go away. But I had to make that decision. And it was difficult, extremely difficult because I love the game. But it was time, it was time.”
PM: “Did the shortened season, did the virus enter into your decision?”
GB: “Yeah, that was part of it too. Every day was a struggle. We had to divide the kids into two locker rooms…there was never an easy day. It took its toll also.”
PM: “What was the toughest thing about coaching?”
GB: “You know, it’s just making sure, number one, getting kids to play their position. What’s best for them and also help the team. And when you are doing that, a lot of times you have to sell it to them and tell them why you are doing it. Then you get to deal with the parents once you moved them or you’re not playing them. I didn’t have too many problems, I’ve been blessed. My administration was great, the AD and the principal were great. I’m going to miss them. You know what else is tough is when you have to bench a kid who’s not doing what you asked him to do.” He gave me an example that had come to mind.
PM: “Have the kids changed over the years that made it any harder to coach? Do you have any thoughts on that?
GB: “Yeah, I do. I told one reporter, I said, ‘listen we just don’t have the number of football players we used to have.’ We used to have, when I was at Penn Hills and first started here, a lot of tough, physical, nice-sized kids. Kids who wanted to play the game. So, the number of tough, physical, nice-sized kids has declined over the years from what I’ve seen. A lot of kids aren’t playing the sport like they used to. So, as schools have shrunk in numbers, and with that the number of kids who play football. And with the number of sports there are now compared to the ones back when Andy Urbanic came to Penn Hills…” Coach interjected the fact that Penn Hills had 214 kids come out for football one year. “We share our athletes here at Franklin, but they’re just not like they used to be.”
We talked some more about all the sports today compared to when we were in high school and had a few laughs when Coach Botta shared a couple funny stories.
PM: “If you could get a do over somewhere along the line when you coached, what would it be?”
GB: “I would handle situations with my coaches differently, especially early when I was a hard ass.” He told of the time when he had a falling out with one of his coaches and they have never spoken to each other since then and he regrets it to this day very much.
PM: “How has the high school game changed over the years?”
GB: “Oh my gosh! It’s gone to an athletic game. It has gone from when if you were not as skilled you had a good chance of winning still if you had tough, physical players who could grind it out. Now you got to have athletes all over the field. That’s why they go to the 4-2-5 (on defense). It has changed tremendously. All these RPOs (Run-Pass Options), all these screen packages have increased. Before if you could stop the run, you’d win. Now people are throwing the ball 60% of the game. You got to have pretty darn good athletes back there. If we play someone with athletes we don’t have, we just have to try to grind it out and out scheme them and out play them. The speed of the game has changed tremendously and the athletes have just taken over.”
PM: “How do you measure success?”
GB: “Success, a lot of times, people measure in wins and losses. It’s a shame. What has to be really looked at is what you do for these kids, how they respond to you, and then how do they carry on later in life. You know, we’re put in a position to make a major impact on these young men. And, if it’s done right, and there are lines I would never cross to win a football game. Never! Because we teach the kids about rules, about what’s right, about pushing through adversity, and you try to teach kids principles every day. If you could tell kids that this is going to impact you for the rest of your life and they take this with them, I think that’s success. I never knew how many wins I had until this year. We coach to make these kids better people.”
We then chatted a few minutes about how certain states and areas of PA by not having high school football has negatively impacted many kids. Suicide rates have risen, crime has increased, there are mental health issues, kids have dropped out of school, etc. because of no structure, camaraderie, and discipline in their lives that football brings. Coach cited a study dealing with the effects of not having fall football in California that was recently released.
PM: “What would you like your legacy to be?”
GB: “I’d just like it to be that I made an impact on these kids’ lives. I know I’ve ticked kids off over the years, but that’s what I’d like my legacy to be, that I helped these kids.”
He related a special text he received from a former player that made him cry when he read, among other things, that the player said he’d never be where he is today ‘if it weren’t for you, coach.’
PM: “What are you going to miss the most?”
GB: “I think the camaraderie of the coaching staff, the preparation before games, and just being around the kids, joking with them. Just the relationships you build with people and those are special. I’ll miss it, I’ll miss it.”
PM: “Do you have a most memorial season?”
GB: “That had to be the 2005 season. That was magical when we won the state (championship). It was how we won games, how we lost a game that I think we needed to lose. We beat Pine-Richland 49-48. Kids were getting hurt. Others were stepping up. Just things like that, you know. Lots of great memories that’ll be with me forever.”
PM: “Do you have a most memorable game?”
GB: “Well, there’s probably a few. One was the game we lost to Knoch. We kicked the ball to the one-yard line with a minute and ten seconds left and we’re winning 7-6. And we lose the game on a field goal 9-7. There was a fumble right before the field goal that one of the referees told me a year later ‘that both your kid and the Knoch kid had the ball, but your kid had a broken arm on it and the other kid had both hands on it.’” There was another game that turned out to be a classic that he had told me about early in our conversation. That was the time they beat Pine-Richland 49-48 in overtime, when the Rams elected to go for the 2-point conversion to win the game and did not make.
PM: “What did you like to do with your free time when you were coaching?”
GB: “It’s strange and people don’t see me doing it, but I have fruit trees and a garden. I love to golf and I didn’t do much of that, but would love to get back to it. I like being with friends, but I like my alone time too. I like working with my hands and biking too. And I work out practically every day.”
PM: “If you could go back in time, is there someone you’d like to meet?”
GB: “Boy, there’s a number of people. I would like to meet Vince Lombardi. Would have loved to sit down and talk with him. I just think he was a special man. He was someone who motivated people through his speeches and his hard work, dedication, and commitment to the game.”
PM: “What would be Coach Botta’s favorite meal?”
GB: “You know I love to eat. I try to watch what I eat. I really love Thanksgiving dinners. I’m a big seafood guy too. So, a nice lobster or crab legs would be pretty good.”
PM: “Along those lines, what’s your favorite dessert?”
GB: “Probably apple pie a la mode. I make a mean apple pie from my own apples.”
PM: “Do you have a favorite movie?”
GB: “I love movies. My favorite one is probably ‘Gladiator.’” We talked some about movies and the newer ones not being as good as the older ones. The emphasis on newer ones seems to be technology, there’s not enough realism and good acting we decided.
PM: “What’s one thing most people don’t know about you?”
GB: “I think my strong desire to go back to Sicily where my great-grandfather came from when he left the country to come here. I have a burning desire to go back there and see my roots and how they lived. You know, I got relatives over there. My older brother and I went there and found my great grandfather’s sister’s family, but we didn’t get to spend enough time with them. So, I’d really love to go back and try to find out more about them and how they lived.”
Coach Botta appears to be an amazing man who coached for all the right reasons. He’s a very active man who loves life and what it has to offer. Panther Nation will surely miss him, but if you follow Franklin-Regional football you may catch a glimpse of him prowling the sidelines as a spectator this fall on various Friday nights at Panther Field in Murrysville.
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