One of Joe Nicolella’s primary responsibilities in his early days as an assistant boys basketball coach at Washington High School was preparing scouting reports on teams the Prexies were going to play.
In the late 1970s and 1980s, this meant traveling to another school’s gymnasium and writing notes down by hand – not exchanging DVDs, typing on an iPad or using a video camera – and tucking them inside the front door of head coach Ron Faust’s house in the middle of the night.
“That made it interesting,” Nicolella said. “I tell that to people now, and I always have to say, ‘Remember, this was before videotape.’ ”
Bringing to a close a career that stretched from 8mm film to Blu-Ray discs, 35 years in all, Nicolella recently retired from Washington – as a teacher, an administrator and a coach.
It’s the second notable retirement for the area in the past few months after Jon Vallina stepped down at Burgettstown.
Nicolella started as a scorekeeper with the varsity basketball team in 1978 and coached the junior high and junior varsity teams, before working as a varsity assistant from 1990-2013.
Nicolella was around for four WPIAL championships (1984-86, 1990) and two PIAA titles (1984 and ’86). He was part of a 52-game winning streak. He watched Wash High crush GAR Memorial, 68-50, in 1986.
Nicolella, however, wants no recognition, always downplaying his role on Faust’s staff.
“I was always a role player with Ron and did my job,” Nicolella said. “But we did get to do a lot of great things.”
Nicolella, like Faust, taught English – he was also the school newspaper adviser and yearbook adviser – and spent the past four years as athletic director once Faust retired.
“I think I did what was expected of me,” Nicolella said of taking over for Faust. “That was always my approach.”
Nicolella took over the athletic department the same year Mike Bosnic started as head football coach, and it didn’t take long for Bosnic to notice Nicolella’s work ethic and organization.
“He was one of the most dedicated guys I’ve been around,” Bosnic said of Nicolella. “You drive by the school, even on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon, you would see Joe’s car in there, and he’d be working.
“He’s so diligent in getting things done. He was so organized. He will be greatly missed.”
Bosnic laughed at Nicolella’s obsession with spreadsheets and scheduling – though definitely not in a critical way. After all, it was Nicolella’s obsession with planning and communicating that allowed his coaches to spend more time and energy on improving their teams.
For road trips, this meant checklists, arrival/departure times, practice itineraries and anything else Nicolella could plan.
Mark Gaither, who replaced Faust, is admittedly the opposite of Nicolella – a disaster when it comes to organization. Gaither would often play a prank on Nicolella by leaving some of his books and paperwork on Nicolella’s desk.
“Then he would have to go over and re-organize it,” Gaither said, laughing.
Nicolella’s influence, though, was undeniable.
“He taught a lot of our players’ parents and has a history with some of the families,” Gaither said. “Having that access to him and his support was great. It’s going to be really strange – it already has been – not having him next to me on the bench.”
For now, the 58-year-old Nicolella will spend more time with his wife, Marla, with whom he will celebrate a 30th wedding anniversary this summer, and his kids: Katie, Jamie and Jake, a senior at Penn State.
Nicolella would still like to have a part-time job, most likely in communications or an organization type of role.
“I’d look around for something else,” said Nicolella, who listed some of his top memories as seeing Faust get his 500th win, the 2009 run to the PIAA Class AA semifinals and the first section title under current head coach Mark Gaither. “I’d still like to work.”