CANONSBURG – Ron Coder put his hands on his hips and scanned the sunny sky outside of the Canon-McMillan School District’s Central Administration building on Jefferson Avenue yesterday afternoon, his black mock turtleneck visible underneath a gray, patterned blazer, as he tried to locate Southpointe.
There, Coder pointed.
Wait, no, correcting himself, over there.
Coder’s sense of direction is without a doubt something Canon-McMillan will be counting on after the district wrapped up a five-month-long search yesterday by unanimously approving Coder, a former NFL player and team chaplain at Pitt, to become its head football coach.
“It’s about changing the mentality from losing to winning,” said Coder, who takes over a team that has gone 2-26 the past three years. “I know that’s easier said than done, but that’s my goal. I wouldn’t have taken this if I didn’t think I could change the hearts and the minds of the guys.”
Perhaps there’s no one who can better vouch for Coder’s character than Canon-McMillan athletic director Guy Montecalvo, who played football at Penn State alongside Coder.
“They’re going to get a guy who exudes character and class,” Montecalvo said. “I’ve known Ron since the mid-1970s. I’ve been a teammate of his, watched his progress as a player and watched him become an outstanding offensive lineman. He’s a charismatic guy. He’s a compassionate and caring guy.
“You couldn’t ask for better qualities out of a leader of young men, which is really what that position is.”
Coder went to high school in Japan – his dad was in the Air Force – and walked on at Penn State. He earned a scholarship as a sophomore and a starting spot as a senior before getting drafted by the Pittsburgh Steelers in 1976.
During training camp, he was traded to Seattle and played four years there. He also spent two years with the St. Louis Cardinals and the 1983 preseason with the Denver Broncos.
Coder played for Jim Mora with the Philadelphia (later Baltimore) Stars in the United States Football League – winning two league championships – before retiring at the age of 31.
Coder worked a number of odd jobs after that, mostly in sales and for a company called Pro Athletes Outreach, specializing in helping athletes becoming better role models. That took him to Pitt, where he worked as chaplain for eight years until April of 2008.
“You want to win games, but first and foremost you want to have a great leader,” Montecalvo said. “He’s a fine example of all the things you want to see.”
Coder did win a few games, too. In his one and only season as the head coach of the Pittsburgh Passion women’s football team, Coder led the Passion to an undefeated record and the 2007 Independent Women’s Football League championship.
After leaving Pitt, Coder worked as a regional manager for the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association before losing his job three weeks ago because of company downsizing.
That gave Coder the spare time to devote to Canon-McMillan, which did not attach a teaching position to the job. And after helping out at Northgate the past two seasons, helping the Flames to a pair of 5-5 seasons after not winning more than two games the four seasons prior, Coder decided to give it a shot.
“I haven’t seen the school and haven’t talked to the kids. But I feel like, if we could do that at Northgate … I’ve heard that there’s some good athletes here,” Coder said. “If we can build on those athletes … at least hear me out and give us a try. We need as many guys as we can out there to make a difference.”
For the foreseeable future, Coder will leave his wife, Kathy, and their dog – a diabetic Maltese named Sugar – to drive from Bellevue to Canonsburg every day to try and resurrect a football program, picking up occasional motivational speaking gigs with his wife’s company, Inta-Great, for extra income.
“I want to meet with the team, lay down some expectations, get them in the weight room, get them going on some conditioning – we’re not going to kill it on conditioning yet, but we’ll get there later through the summer,” Coder said. “We’ll have a program for them. But, really, I want to see them have a winning attitude.”