Dr. John Wilkinson, Belle Vernon Area’s Superintendent of Schools, uses a simple litmus test when he’s interviewing prospective educators. At the beginning of the interview, Wilkinson cuts to the chase and poses what appears to be, at least on the surface, a no-brainer.
“I always ask the same question,” Wilkinson said quite matter-of-factly. “What do you teach?”
But Wilkinson is looking for more than just a smatter of facts. He is looking for an answer as simple as the question itself, but an answer that is also philosophically aligned to the vision he believes an educator should possess.
“I’ve had people say, ‘I teach AP Chemistry,’” Wilkinson said. “Calculus or whatever the subject is just a vehicle to get children to learn.
“The answer I’m looking for is, ‘I teach children.’”
Fayette County native and former Laurel Highlands and California University of Pa. quarterback Matt Humbert was interviewed by Wilkinson this past winter and he passed Wilkinson’s litmus test with flying colors.
Wilkinson knew right away he wanted Humbert to teach in his district and likewise, he knew he wanted Humbert to take over Belle Vernon’s high school football program.
“I needed someone who was going to be dynamic in the classroom and be able to reach these kids no matter what they need, not just on a football level,” Wilkinson said. “We feel Matt’s personality, his commitment … we feel Matt is going to be another leader of young people not only in the classroom but also on the football field.”
Humbert, 29, spent the past five seasons at Ringgold, his last four as head coach and his first as offensive coordinator. When then-head coach Lloyd Price was suspended for the second and third games of the 2009 season, Humbert guided Ringgold to a pair of victories.
After Price resigned in April of 2010, Humbert was named interim head coach and was officially hired three months later.
At 25 years old, Humbert became one of the WPIAL’s youngest head football coaches when he was handed the reins to Ringgold’s program.
Looking back, Humbert said his inexperience may have been one of his biggest assets.
“I almost feel it’s less stressful at that age,” Humbert said. “There’s a lot of experiences that you haven’t had to go through and because of that you don’t have to worry about them.”
Ringgold’s football team had been on the decline for a decade prior to Humbert taking over. Before Humbert was hired, Ringgold had seven different head coaches in the previous 11 seasons and had not won a WPIAL playoff game since 1999.
Humbert immediately won over his players and the results were hard to believe. Ringgold marched through the 2010 regular season to the tune of nine wins without a loss.
The Rams were seeded No. 3 in Class AAA heading into the WPIAL playoffs, but were upset in the first round, 21-13, by Central Valley.
The following season, Humbert guided Ringgold to a 7-2 regular season mark and the Rams then won their first postseason game in 12 years when they defeated Highlands in the opening round, 14-10.
Humbert brought stability to Ringgold in his four-plus seasons as head coach, and he also brought success. The Rams went 30-13 under Humbert, and perhaps more importantly, the players learned to believe in themselves and each other. They also learned to believe in their coach.
Ron McMichael was hired as Ringgold’s athletic director in 2010, and his first hire was Humbert.
“He certainly set a standard of expectation not only for the football program, but for the players and the rest of our athletic programs,” McMichael said.
“His energy, his commitment, he had a vision of what he wanted to do with the program. And he was very good with our kids.”
Humbert’s decision to leave Ringgold had perhaps more to do with his future in teaching as opposed to his future on the sidelines. Humbert taught in the Bentworth School District while coaching at Ringgold, and when the opportunity presented itself to teach and coach in the same district, it was one he couldn’t pass up.
Humbert will teach ninth-grade civics and join his wife Kimberly, who teaches at the elementary and high school levels at Belle Vernon.
The move allows Humbert to begin a new chapter in his life, but it also forces him to turn the page on another. Humbert had to leave a Ringgold program he brought back into respectability, and he had to leave the kids he had watched come up from the middle school program and then coached the past five years.
“It was extremely hard, probably one of the hardest decisions in my life,” Humbert said. “Last year was probably the most fun I’ve had coaching just because it felt like the kids and the coaches really gelled together.
“I talked to a lot of the kids about the move, probably more than I should have. But we knew we were leaving the program in such better shape than it had been. The kids are resilient and resourceful. This can be a challenge to them that might benefit them somewhere down the road and we thought the kids were equipped to handle it.”
One player who looks equipped to handle anything asked of him is Ringgold senior quarterback Nico Law. Last season, it is believed that Law became the first WPIAL player to throw for more than 1,000 yards and also eclipse the 1,000-yard mark on the ground.
Law combined to rush and pass for just over 2,700 yards as Ringgold posted a 7-2 regular-season mark before losing its first-round playoff game to Indiana.
“We groomed him the last three years and I think he’s not just one of the best quarterbacks in the state but in the mid-Atlantic region as well,” Humbert said. “It’s hard to walk away from a quarterback who fits your offensive style to a ‘T’.”
Humbert takes over a Belle Vernon program that has been mired in mediocrity. Under former head coach Gary Dongili, Belle Vernon won seven straight section titles from 1994-2000 and made three appearances in the WPIAL Class AAA championship game at Three Rivers Stadium. Belle Vernon won its only WPIAL title in 1995 when it defeated Franklin Regional, 22-6.
Dongili left Belle Vernon to take over Hempfield’s football program in the summer of 2001, and the Leopards’ last section title came under former head coach Jesse Cramer in 2002.
If it seems like forever since Belle Vernon last won a playoff game, it has been. The Leopards last postseason victory came with Bill Clinton sitting in the Oval Office.
“I knew this was going to be a very big challenge,” Humbert said. “This is going to be a personal challenge. This is going to be a challenge for my coaches and this is going to be a challenge for my kids.
“I’m never going to set an expectation in terms of wins and losses. We expect the kids to go out and compete. We’re going to do everything we can do as coaches to get the program where we want it to be.”
Humbert brought his entire Ringgold staff with him to Belle Vernon. Brett Berrish, Brandon Livsey, Scott Knee, Jim McGinley, Jim Trenk, Chet Welk, Frank Nangle and Adam Gillingham were part of the turnaround at Ringgold and the group is hoping they can work with Humbert to accomplish the same results at Belle Vernon.
Humbert also brought in another assistant, Anthony Battaglini. The two were teammates at California University of Pa.
“We have an excellent staff, a lot of good coaches,” Humbert said. “A lot of guys will get into coaching for selfish gains, but we have guys who want to help kids out and build a program.”
One of the first matters Humbert and his staff tackled upon coming to Belle Vernon was making sure the players were put in the best position to succeed when it came to practices and working out.
For decades, the Leopards have played their home games at James Weir Stadium but have practiced on a non-regulation-sized football field. Humbert will now conduct his practices at the stadium when it is not occupied, and when it is, the team will relocate its practice to a regulation-sized field used by the district’s midget football team.
Belle Vernon has traditionally run a spread offense, and practicing on an undersized field was often a headache.
Through Belle Vernon’s football boosters, Humbert has been able to upgrade some of the Leopards’ practice equipment, something he would like to do each season.
Belle Vernon will also now conduct its weight-lifting program on campus, unlike years past when the team and coaches had to meet up at an off-campus site to work out.
“I played football from the time I was 5 until I was 22 and I understand what it takes for any of the athletic programs to be successful,” Wilkinson said. “One of our goals, especially with the football program, was to become more centralized. There were a few small things we were able to do to help Matt accomplish this.”
Now that Humbert has finally been able to marry his teaching and coaching positions within the same school district, Wilkinson is hoping the union transforms the students Humbert oversees not only into winners in the classroom but also on the football field.
“I could see Matt’s passion for the classroom and for the game,” Wilkinson said. “He’s excited about working with young people.”
McMichael may have summed it up best.
“A lot of times, good teachers and good coaches are synonymous.”