The Star Beacon; Ashtabula, Ohio

August 31, 2009

FIfth of a Series: Mighty Mike

Blauman, Eagles soared to great heights


GENEVA — Almost anybody who’s been around athletics for any amount of time will tell you changing coaching personnel every year is a prescription for failure.

Constantly changing philosophies, particularly offensive schemes, is extremely difficult for young players to digest. It’s generally a sure sign of instability.

But the Geneva High School football program from 1968-70 seems to fly in the face of that theory. In those three seasons, the Eagles went from a 6-3-1 record in 1968 for Tom Jennell, a 9-1 season, which included a Northeastern Conference championship, for Gary Prahst in 1969 and a 7-2-1 record for Bob Herpy in 1970.

What’s more, that last season initiated a 25-year run by Herpy, a Geneva alumnus, that produced the most victories by one coach in Ashtabula County history (150). That eventually landed him in the Ashtabula County Football Hall of Fame.

That 1970 season also started a run that made Herpy’s Eagles arguably the team of the 1970s in Ashtabula County with an 82-25-2 record compiled between 1970-79 (.753 winning percentage). Tack on the 1980 season and Geneva’s record for Herpy was 82-25-2 (.767).

The only record better than that was the record amassed by Hall of Famer Tony Chiacchiero’s 1960-69 Ashtabula Panthers, who went 75-18-4 (.808 winning percentage). Extending it to 1970, the Panthers were 80-22-4 (.784).

At any rate, one of the key players that enabled the 1968-70 Geneva teams to make a smooth transition from coach to coach to coach was Mike Blauman. In fact, it can be argued that he was the player chiefly responsible for those achievements as the quarterback for those teams.

For those reasons, to a lot of people, it would seem to be pretty obvious why Blauman has been selected as one of two Eagles to enter the Football Hall of Fame this year on Dec. 7 at the Ashtabula County Touchdown Club Awards Banquet. But to him, he was just doing what his three coaches needed. Besides, he figures, quite correctly, that he didn’t do it on his own.

“I was pleasantly surprised when Sue Herpy (Bob Herpy’s widow) called,” he said. “It’s a nice honor.”

What really resonates with Blauman is the fact he is going to be entering the Hall of Fame with teammate Doug Deal, who, as the center, snapped the ball to Blauman for all three of those seasons.

“That really means a lot,” Blauman said. “We’ve continued to be friends over the years.”

In fact, it probably means as much to Blauman that Deal is being inducted this year as his own induction means.

“I was telling (current Geneva head coach) Tony (Hassett) that we needed to work to get more of those linemen in,” Blauman said with a smile.

It also pleases Blauman to be connected with Herpy again.

“That’s a nice privilege,” he said. “Bob was a good coach and a good friend.”

He is also pleased to be reunited in the Hall of Fame with other Geneva legends like Mark Debevc, who he admits he idolized as a youngster, and younger teammates Don Craine and Ed Pizzuto.

“That’s really nice, too,” Blauman said. “Mark and I have been close friends for a long time.”

Blauman prefers to give the credit for the successes of his Geneva squads to his teammates. Also a standout for Hall of Fame coach Bill Koval in fine Eagle basketball and baseball teams, it is still those gridiron adventures that resonate with him.

“I think I enjoyed the camaraderie of football the best,” he said.

Deal’s happy the guy to whom he snapped the ball is joining him in this latest adventure.

“It’s great to be going in with Mike,” he said.

Blauman isn’t much into talking about himself, so it’s left to others to do any bragging for him. Tom Koehler, who first encountered Blauman as one of the assistant coaches for Prahst and then for Herpy, is left to do it for them. He has come to a deeper appreciation of Blauman’s skills in recent years.

“Mike was one of the better three-sport athletes we had at Geneva,” Koehler said. “Some of the films that I’ve seen lately that (Geneva football archivist) Norm Potter has put together have made him look even more impressive.

“I just recall what a good athlete Mike was. He had a real good understanding of the game. He ran the ball very well. And Mike led by example. He wasn’t a rah-rah guy. He was part of a good group of kids who always stayed together.”

Koehler is grateful to players like Blauman for starting the 1970s Geneva teams on their high level of performance.

“Those guys set the standard and got the tradition rolling,” he said. “Those kids just went out and played hard.”

Apparently, their coaches had a big impact on Blauman and his teammates, too. He followed in Herpy and Koehler’s footsteps in attending Ashland College.

“I got my degree in education there,” Blauman said. “I thought I was going to get into teaching and coaching.”

Indeed, it looked like he was headed into coaching with Prahst, who had been one of his coaches at Ashland, when it appeared Prahst had his own head coaching opportunity. But it just didn’t work out.

“It looked like Gary was going to get the head coaching job out at Montana, and I was going to be the defensive backs coach,” Blauman said. “But he didn’t like some of the things that were going on out there, so he turned down the job, and I decided to come back home and stay in business.”

That meant working with his father, Bill, in Northeast Plumbing Supply, which the elder Blauman had established in 1961. When Mike graduated from Ashland, his father decided to move the business to 503 W. Main St., where it remains to this day, with Mike running the business now.

Operating his own business has had its compensations. It has given Blauman the opportunity to avidly follow the exploits of his children. Ironically, his twin daughters, Amy and Emily, and oldest son Mike, all were fine athletes at Madison, a school which Blauman took great delight in beating during his career. Youngest son Chris is a student at North Madison Elementary School.

“I root for both schools now,” Blauman said with a smile.

The early years

Early in the childhood of Mike and his brother Chris, who died in 1995 and is his youngest son’s namesake, the Blaumans lived in Painesville. His athletic career did not get off to a particularly auspicious beginning.

“I went out for football in the seventh grade at Hobart (Middle School),” Blauman said. “I was the littlest guy on the team and the last guy on the team. I was the fourth-string quarterback. When they put me in, they told me, ‘Don’t fumble.’”

One has to remember that all sports leading up to Harvey High School at that time were powerful. Blauman would have been competing with athletes like Chuck Baxter, who would eventually go to Ohio State, John Wooten and Tim Cannon, among others for a job.

At any rate, Bill and Margie Blauman moved their family to Geneva by Mike’s eighth-grade year. They moved to Roosevelt Drive and lived there until Mike’s senior year. Bob and Sue Herpy moved their family into that house.

Football started to go better for Blauman with the move to Geneva.

“I got a lot bigger in the eighth grade,” he said.

By the ninth grade, Blauman and the rest of his classmates had really begun to show their talent. They had a solid freshman season for Phil Belding.

In that era, freshmen were not allowed to play varsity football. Blauman thinks that was the only thing that kept a lot of the Geneva ninth graders from that level that year.

“The varsity wasn’t very good when we were freshmen,” he said. “I think a lot of us would have played if they had let us.”

In the game

Blauman and his classmates were a big part of helping Geneva football get back on track when they were sophomores. It certainly didn’t take him long to make an impact.

“We played Madison in the first game and they went up, 12-0, in the first quarter,” Blauman said. “I think Tom Hook was the starting quarterback. Jennell put me in in the second quarter and I threw a couple touchdown passes and we won, 14-12. We broke an eight-game losing streak to Madison.”

Blauman was always appreciative of the amount of trust Jennell placed in him.

“He taught me everything,” Blauman said. “He let me throw the ball a lot. We ran the spread, and I think we threw it 15 or 20 times a game.

“Jennell was an ex-quarterback. He taught me the fundamentals on how to throw the ball correctly. For a young quarterback, he was the ideal coach. He was a very good teacher.”

It was quite a turnaround for the Eagles. But they had the misfortune of being in the Northeastern Conference that was ruled that year by Jim Orr’s Harbor Mariners, who were undefeated in 1968. Years later, the Star Beacon would choose that Harbor squad as the school’s greatest in its “Legends of the Fall” publication.

It was a bit of a blow to the younger Eagles when Jennell was replaced before the 1969 season by Prahst.

The Prahst era

The 1969 Eagles found Prahst to be a bit of a change. He wasn’t much older than most of his players and his coaching staff was in the same mold. All had pretty impressive credentials of their own.

Prahst had played at the University of Michigan and had also had a cup of coffee with the Cleveland Browns. Bob Taucher had played at the University of Nebraska and had also been drafted by the pros.

Herpy was already a known commodity from his days as a standout player at Geneva and had enjoyed an excellent career at Ashland, too. Koehler had also been a fine player for the Ashland Eagles.

“We were like a college team,” Blauman said. “We had a great coaching staff.”

Prahst brought a different kind of intensity to the Geneva program.

“He was a real disciplinarian and he was very energetic,” Blauman said. “I remember I took my football shoes and painted them white like Joe Namath. Prahst saw them, ripped them off my feet and threw them away. He said, ‘We don’t have hot dogs on this team.’”

Prahst’s arrival also saw the blossoming of running back Tim Packrall. Always considered a fine player, Packrall went crazy in his senior season, becoming only the second running back in county history (following Grand Valley’s Walter Coleman, who will also enter the Hall of Fame this year from 1,609 yards in 1968) with 1,599 yards and 136 points. Packrall is also in the Hall of Fame.

“Tim was a great back,” Blauman said. “He was very fast and he had a way of using a dead leg to shake off tacklers. He was really great that season.”

Packrall’s season meant Blauman was called upon to throw the ball much less.

“I think I only threw it 100 times that year,” Blauman said. “We didn’t need to. We had Packrall.”

It was a breakthrough season on another level for the Eagles in their march to the NEC championship.

“It was the first time we beat Ashtabula,” Blauman said. “We beat them, 42-16. Harbor was tough that year, too, but beating Ashtabula meant a lot.”

The Eagles outscored their opponents, 295-68. They pitched shutouts against Madison, Harbor, St. John, Jefferson and Pymatuning Valley.

The only blemish on the Eagles’ record was a loss to Parma Byzantine, a non-conference opponent, in the final game, 38-14.

“They were a tough team,” Blauman said. “We’d had a great season.”

Blauman threw a touchdown pass to Bill Carter in a 7-0 win over Madison, completed five of eight passes for 100 yards, including a 39-yard scoring pass to Chris Jessup, against Edgewood, hit Bill Todd with a nine-yard touchdown strike against Ashtabula, threw a touchdown pass to Chuck Buck against Conneaut and also threw a 42-yard scoring pass to Buck against Byzantine.

He rushed for 290 yards on 57 carries for a 5.1-yard average, including a 75-yard touchdown run against St. John. He also returned 19 punts for a 7.3-yard average.

Prahst and his staff apparently felt Blauman had done his job well as reflected in a handout they published each season called the “Geneva Senior High Football Extra.”

“Mike has done a great job for us this season at quarterback,” the handout read. “Mike is a very fine young man and has displayed a keen competitive attitude and a burning desire to win.

“Mike completed 49 of 82 passes (for 569 yards and five touchdowns) this year, which averages out to 59 percent. He has all the tools to become an even better quarterback next year. We are looking forward to having Mike back.”

Herpy takes charge

But Prahst heard the call of Ashland and coach Fred Martinelli, who was already well into a career that ranged from 1959-93. Martinelli was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 2002. Prahst left Geneva after the 1969 season.

“We were disappointed when Prahst left,” Blauman said. “He was pretty dynamic. He had a charisma about him.”

At the same time, the Eagles, especially the seniors, were quite pleased when Herpy was elevated to head coach.

“Bob had been the quarterback coach the year before,” Blauman said. “He already had a quite a reputation in Geneva. I think he could have been in the Hall of Fame as a player or a coach.

“Bob could be fiery, but not like Prahst. Prahst could really fire you up. He was a little tougher his first year as head coach than he had been as an assistant, but you have to remember, Bob was under more pressure as a first-year head coach. Bob was probably quieter than Prahst, but louder than Jennell.”

Coming off such a great 1969 season, there were high hopes among Blauman and his fellow seniors for the 1970 season, but circumstances got in the way of making it everything it could have been.

“I had sprained my ankle playing outdoor basketball over the summer and I really didn’t get over it until the football season was halfway over,” Blauman said. “We lost our fullback, Rick Mohrmann, early in the year and a lot of other guys got hurt, too. Guys like Don Craine and Ed Pizzuto played a lot because of all the injuries. I had to run the ball a lot, too. We didn’t have the depth we had the year before.”

But he also offers no excuses for a season that still ended with a fine 7-2-1 record, but no repeat NEC championship. Instead, it was split between Edgewood, Harbor and St. John.

“We should have won the league,” Blauman said. “We lost to Edgewood and to Harbor. We had a 0-0 tie with St. John. We were inside their 20 a bunch of times, but we just couldn’t score.”

The Eagles had other reasons to look back with regret. They outscored opponents, 196-49, including shutouts against Riverside, PV, St. John, Conneaut and Harvey. But their two NEC losses were to Harbor on a 13-8 decision and Edgewood in a 6-0 contest, as well as the scoreless bout with St. John.

Because of all the injuries to the other running backs, Blauman had taken on a lot of the running duties. He finished with 360 yards rushing on 79 carries for a 4.6 average. He also completed 37 of 98 passes for 386 yards and three touchdowns. He led the team in scoring with 58 points. He also returned nine punts for a 6.8-yard average.

There were plenty of highlights for Blauman. He threw a nine-yard pass to first-year player Norm Urcheck in the win over Riverside, ran for a 52-yard score and returned an interception 42 yards against PV, ran for nine- and 25-yard scores and rushed for 73 yards on 12 carries against Jefferson, ran 45 yards for one score and threw a 10-yard scoring pass to Greg Hunt against Ashtabula, threw a scoring pass to Mike Lanigan and ran for two touchdowns against Conneaut and threw a 12-yard touchdown pass against Harvey.

He was recognized for his efforts as a unanimous Star Beacon Ashtabula County and Coaches’ All-NEC selection at quarterback and also made the first team on both squads as a defensive back.

Herpy and his staff expressed their appreciation of Blauman’s efforts in the Football Extra.

“Mike has done a tremendous job of handling the ballclub this year,” it read. “After a slow start due to an ankle injury suffered during the summer, Mike came back in NEC play and score 44 points and help the team finish second (actually fourth). Mike has excellent speed and good hands; he should be a major-college prospect.”

The Ashland connection

As it turned out, the ties between the Geneva Eagles led the Ashland Eagles to pave the way for Blauman’s college career.

“Prahst was the offensive coordinator down there for Coach Martinelli,” Blauman said. “They offered me a full ride, which I wasn’t expecting.

“I went down there to a basketball game. They put me in a handball game against some experienced players. I’d never played handball before, but I won, and I guess Martinelli either saw or heard about it and offered me the full ride.”

As an NCAA Division II school, Blauman was able to play varsity football as a freshman with the Eagles.

“We went 7-3 my first year,” he said. “Ronnie Slater was the quarterback when I got there, and I backed him up. We ran the option. I got in one game and ran 89 yards for a touchdown.”

In his sophomore season, with Slater still on the scene, Martinelli decided to utilize Blauman’s skills elsewhere. It turned out to be a genius move.

“They had me play safety my sophomore year,” Blauman said. “We went 11-0 and we ranked fourth in the country. We only gave up four points a game.

“We figured we were going to the playoffs (Amos Alonzo Stagg Bowl, now the Division III national championship game). But, somehow, Heidelberg was also undefeated that year, and one of the main guys on the selection committee was from Heidelberg, so they got to go to the playoffs. They got killed. It was the biggest disappointment of my life.”

That season sealed Blauman’s role at Ashland. He remained at defensive back for his junior year and also became a key contributor on special teams with his 4.65 time in the 40-yard dash.

“We went 7-3 my junior year,” Blauman said. “I had seven interceptions. They had me returning punts, too, and I ran back four or five for touchdowns. I wasn’t real fast, but they knew I could catch the punts.”

Blauman and the Eagles enjoyed another successful, if unspectacular, year in his senior season.

“My senior year was pretty uneventful,” he said. “I still played defensive back. We won seven games again.”

By that time, the desire to keep the pads on had worn off.

“I was glad football was over,” Blauman said.

Back home

There was the glimmer of hope of seeing his career goal through with Prahst, but with the door at Montana closed, Blauman just decided to come home and get involved in the family business. He doesn’t regret that decision.

“I enjoyed working with my dad,” he said. “I like working for myself, too.”

Being his own boss, which he has basically done since 1980, gave Blauman the freedom to live out his coaching dream in a different way.

“I got to coach all my kids in sports when they were small,” he said. “We’re a very close family. With this job, I’ve never had to worry about missing my kids’ games. I get to play as much golf as I want. I get to call my own shots.”

Daughters Amy and Emily were key players on the basketball and volleyball squads at Madison and also enjoyed time on the football sidelines, helping tend to matters on the Blue Streak sidelines before they graduated in 2002. Both girls, now 25, went to different colleges, with Amy graduating from Mercyhurst and Cleveland State and Emily graduating from Mount Union. Both have careers in the healthcare industry.

“Amy works at the Metzenbaum Center (a facility to the mentally challenged) in Chesterland,” Blauman said. “Emily lives in Canton and is a human resources regional manager for Maxim.”

Amy, a Willoughby resident, has initiated a new family football connection.

“She’s married to Nate Bell, whose brother, Jon, was a great quarterback at Chardon,” Blauman said with a grin.

Son Mike was a fine basketball player at Madison before his graduation in 2005. He followed Emily to Mount Union, from which he graduated this past spring. He works with her at Maxim.

Chris is just two weeks shy of his seventh birthday as he enters the second grade at North Madison Elementary School. His dad is already into coaching some of his teams.

Blauman still hearkens back to his lessons from the gridiron. Sometimes, they were hard lessons, but they were to his benefit years later.

“Football is such a brutal game,” he said. “When you’re in a team sport like that, you realize how hard everybody had to work together to be successful.

“I remember the closeness we had in football.”