From venues to playoff format, much has changed in 100 years of WPIAL championships
Don Yannessa remembers vividly how the fans waited on Aliquippa streets for the buses to arrive home with his 1955 championship team.
The Quips, with a senior named Mike Ditka, had just beaten Mt. Lebanon, 14-13, in a WPIAL football final at Pitt Stadium. A little-used sophomore that season, Yannessa watched closely as his hometown celebrated.
“They took us to the (union) hall in the middle of town and gave us a spaghetti dinner,” he said. “They bought us wristwatches with automatic winders. It was great. We were heroes for a couple of months.”
Three decades later, in the 1980s, Yannessa watched Aliquippa celebrate four more times as its coach. The players, the equipment, the stadiums and even the game itself had changed, but the emotion was always the same.
“Without a doubt,” Yannessa said. “The wins were so full of exuberance. There were smiles on the faces of everybody from the town.”
In any decade, that scene holds true.
The emotion will be the same this year, when four high school championship teams lift both a trophy and the hearts of their hometown. But some other aspects of WPIAL football have changed much in the 100 years since Wilkinsburg became its first champion in 1914.
“The league hasn’t let itself down over those 100 years,” Yannessa said. “Even though the whole dynamics of (the region) have changed, it’s gotten better. The league has survived a lot of turmoil and a lot of change. I’m so impressed with the fact that it’s maintained itself so well.”
As the league grew from just 12 teams then to 124 now, the scale of its football championships has increased as well. For the 29th consecutive year, the finals will be held at the home of the Steelers.
“It’s evolved to a point now where it’s something that’s pursued by every kid that puts their pads on the first day of practice,” WPIAL executive director Tim O’Malley said. “The goal is to get to Heinz Field. How many high school teams get to decide their champions in a professional venue? The significance of the venue adds to the significance of the season.”
A professional venue
The WPIAL championships weren’t always played in $200 million dollar professional stadiums. The four finals often were divided among high school fields until after Charles “Ace” Heberling became the league’s executive director in 1976.
At that time, Mt. Lebanon’s stadium was a popular site.
But with much success, Heberling anchored all four championship games at Three Rivers Stadium in 1986. The event drew nearly 34,500 fans that year, with around 20,000 there to see Gateway beat North Hills, 7-6, in the classic Class AAAA final.
“After a year down there, it became a goal for everybody,” said Heberling, who recalled seeing awe on the faces of players there for the first time. “They wanted to get to Three Rivers. Coaches used it as motivation.”
The first WPIAL title game at Three Rivers was in 1970, when Mt. Lebanon beat Kiski Area, 35-12. The WPIAL returned in 1983 but didn’t make the stadium its permanent home until three years later.
When the championship games moved to Heinz Field in 2001, more than 38,000 attended that first year. The four games drew 17,500 last year despite unfavorable weather and 18,600 in 2012.
“We’re the only (district) in the state that does it like this,” Heberling said. “I’m pleased at that fact it has done so well.”
The four WPIAL championships Friday are scheduled at 11 a.m. for Class A, 2 p.m. for Class AAAA, 5 p.m. for Class AA and 8 p.m. for Class AAA.
Awarding a champion
All four trophies will be presented on the field Friday. But throughout the decades, not every champion earned its title the same way.
The Pittsburgh chapter of the Syracuse University Alumni Association decided the first 13 WPIAL football champions. In each of those early years, a committee awarded the Syracuse Cup to the team it decided was best. In 1914, ’15 and ’16, that team was Wilkinsburg.
There was no actual championship game in 1914, when the WPIAL had only around a dozen schools. The first of those came a year later, when Wilkinsburg beat Fifth Avenue, 12-7, at Forbes Field in Oakland.
The Syracuse committee was scrapped in 1928, when the WPIAL instead decided champions with the equally controversial Gardner Points. The tie-breaker system, devised by New Castle math teacher Ralph Gardner, awarded points based on opponents’ records and margin of victory.
In later decades, Gardner Points were used to identify the two best teams to play a championship game. But even into the 1960s, at times the WPIAL champion was decided without a title game. The last “declared” champion was Sto-Rox in 1966.
And when more than two teams finished the season undefeated, someone was left home. So in 1971, the WPIAL expanded its playoffs to include more than just a championship game.
“It went through many stages,” Heberling said. “In the old WPIAL, there were times they didn’t have a championship game because according to them, only one team deserved to be in it.”