The Star Beacon; Ashtabula, Ohio

Sports

March 21, 2014

Back in the game

Former Conneaut, Liberty grid coach lands at his alma mater, Mineral Ridge

After taking two years off from coaching to recharge and reevaluate things, Jeff Whittaker will be back to roaming the sidelines this fall.

The only coach to lead the Conneaut Spartans to the playoffs isn’t just returning to the sideline, he’s also returns home, to his alma mater Mineral Ridge as he takes over the Rams’ program.

Whittaker is best known to Ashtabula County residents for a successful 10-year stint with the Spartans, where he posted a 60-41 record, including a perfect 10-0 regular-season campaign in 1985 that resulted in a playoff birth.

Most recently, Whittaker was at Liberty where he went 100-76 from 1995 through 2011. He led the Leopards to five playoff appearances and went an impressive 59-17 during a stretch from 2002-08.

Now, he heads to Mineral Ridge where the field — E.Z. Whittaker Field — is named after his brother.

“It’s funny, I graduated from high school there and as my career went on, basically I had gone in a different direction,” he said. “So when the opportunity presented itself, I kind of went full circle back to where I started. I still have a lot of family and friends there. The field is named after my brother.

“It’s really just an honor to be able to go back there and coach on that field.”

E.Z. Whittaker was a former Mineral Ridge player, teacher, coach and administrator. He was a three-year starter at the University of Pittsburgh. He passed away suddenly at age 39.

The Rams’ new head man said returning to the field named after his older brother has been more emotional than he anticipated.

“It’s really been really a lot more of an emotional experience than I expected,” he said. “A lot of close family and friends are there. When I got back and walked on the field and looked at the stadium — it’s a beautiful facility — and I saw the monument with my brother’s name… that was really a time of reflection for me.”

After sitting out two seasons, Whittaker said he knew it was time for him to get back to work.

“I’ve been out two years now, that first year I was coming off 32 years of coaching, teaching and being an athletic director, I was burnt out,” he said. “So that first year wasn’t too bad, it didn’t bother me as much as the second year. I started to feel those fires of passion again and I was ready to get back in.”

The Rams are coming off a 5-5 season with a team that was mostly senior laden, but Whittaker knows that won’t be an excuse if the team doesn’t succeed right away.

Like all schools, he knows the expectations will be for Mineral Ridge to win, and win now.

“I think the expectations are always high anywhere,” he said. “We’ve had some success at Liberty and I think with a good group of coaches and the staff I’m putting together they’re really expecting success. They’re young, but like any other school, they’re expecting to win. Everyone around here expects to win to put it mildly.”

Whittaker is already assembling an impressive staff.

Joining him at Mineral Ridge will be David Pappada, who most recently was the head coach at Warren John F. Kennedy before inexplicably being let go following the 2013 season, Tom Cornacelli, a longtime assistant of Whittaker’s at Liberty, and Jim Pappada, brother of David, who is a former assistant at Kennedy and Liberty.

“Those three coaches have at least 35 years experience either as an assistant, head coach or collegiate coach, so they’re very good guys to teach the game of football,” Whittaker said. “Tom was my right-hand man at Liberty for 18 years, I’m glad to have him back. He’s an excellent educator and coach and a good friend.

“All those guys are good friends, though. The Pappada’s do a lot of good for Trumbull County coaches and they’re just good people. We’re real excited to work together.”

Now retired from teaching, Whittaker, who also worked as Liberty’s AD later in his career, is excited about the prospect of solely focusing on football.

“At this point in my life, I’m able to enjoy things that I really enjoy and football is a passion of mine,” he said. “Some people have golf as a passion or fishing as a passion. I like to fish, but football has been my passion throughout my life.”

While Whittaker knows the tradition and success he had at Liberty will come with him to Mineral Ridge, he isn’t as concerned with that as he is with establishing Mineral Ridge’s tradition.

He said he spent much of his time off looking at what did and didn’t work during his time with the Leopards.

“As a coach I think you’re always doing a self analysis, but we draw back on our prior experiences,” he said. “I know that when we look at programs, Liberty is a different program with a different type of athlete and tradition than a Mineral Ridge. We need to emulate the traditions Mineral Ridge has had in the past and maybe create some new ones.

“We’re not going to try to be Liberty at Mineral Ridge. We want to be Mineral Ridge. Even though we’re going to have our own traditions, I’ll always draw on my past experiences of success and failures to make me a better coach now.”

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