It was the afternoon of Christmas Day.
My two daughters were both home from Pittsburgh for the holiday. The gifts had been opened. There was joy and laughter. We had just finished dinner, and I was getting ready to tuck into dessert when my phone beeped out that a text had been received.
I saw it was from Jay DeDea. Back in 1977, Jay was a senior at Altoona High. I was a sophomore. We were basketball teammates. I figured he was texting me to wish me a Merry Christmas. I was wrong.
His message consisted of only four words: "Coach Swogger passed away."
I stared at that text for a few seconds. Then I read it again. And again. I knew what it meant. I just didn't want to know what it meant. I was immediately transported back in time to the late 1970s as memories flooded into my mind. I put the phone down.
My wife said, "What's wrong?"
I told her, "Coach Swogger died."
More memories. She asked me if I was all right in the way when she knows I'm not. I told her I was fine in the way when I know I'm anything but.
I had to leave the room.
John Dale Swogger was my high school basketball coach from 1977-80, stepping down unexpectedly after my senior year. He was a larger-than-life figure long before I came under his tutelage as a sophomore. He had already won five district championships and two state championships at Mercer High School in the 1960s, including a perfect 28-0 campaign in 1965-66. He came to Altoona in 1968, and proceeded to win district championships in seven out of his nine years as coach prior to my arrival to the varsity.
But Coach Swogger didn't just win games at Altoona. He transformed sports in the city. Before him, Altoona High was a football attraction in a railroad town where football had always been king. By the 1970s, the storied high school football program and the railroad were in decline. The city had fallen on hard economic times. Its sports fans yearned for a winner. In stepped the Altoona High boys basketball team and its dynamic coach.
Coach Swogger was a true innovator. He brought to Altoona an electrifying style of basketball, the likes of which no one here had ever seen. The focus was on rebounding, hitting the outlet man, filling the lanes and running. His teams ran. And ran. And ran.
Opposing teams found themselves in a track meet at which their poor coaches could only marvel. Altoona High became a scoring juggernaut. Point totals and energy soared. My senior year we scored 80 or more points 15 times. We scored 90 or more points seven times, and over 100 points on four occasions, including a school-record 140 points in one game. And this was before the 3-point shot.
It was amazing - and amazingly entertaining - to watch.
The word quickly spread, and the sports fans in the city began flocking to see what the excitement was all about. They came in droves, first to the wonderful old Jaffa Mosque, and then to the wonderful new Altoona Fieldhouse, opened in 1975 and capable of holding 2000-plus.
If you attended an Altoona High basketball game in the 1970s, you weren't just at a game, you were at an event. Thousands were in attendance as standing-room-only crowds created an electric, almost circus-like atmosphere. To this day, I run into people from outlying counties who tell me stories of traveling to Altoona in those days to see the teams play.
And what of the man behind all this? What of this Swogger?
Well, since his untimely death at the age of 77, much has been said and written about the old coach. He's been called an icon, a legend. He was all that, I guess. But the younger man I knew was also the most intensely competitive individual I ever met. He was born to compete, and whether it was coaching basketball or breeding dogs, he wanted to be the best. And he wanted to measure himself against the best. He asked for no quarter - and gave none. He pushed his players mercifully and himself even harder. He was an absolutely terrible loser. He was old school before there even was an old school.
I had the incredible opportunity to know two great high school basketball coaches: John Swogger and Morgan Wootten.
On the surface, they couldn't have been more different - Swogger a bundle of barely controlled energy, exuding a vague sense of danger to anyone who dared cross him, Wootten a cool, calm character, always in control of his emotions.
However, they shared those two qualities of truly great coaches: They were both intense competitors, and they were both great teachers of not just basketball - but of life. Coach Swogger wanted us to be tough because the world was tough. He wanted us to have our priorities straight, and those priorities according to him were God, family and basketball, in that order. He preached hard work and dedication as the keys to success in any endeavor.
Early on, I was absolutely terrified of him. He had a way of glaring at you that made your blood run cold. One of the first games my sophomore year I made the mistake of talking in the huddle. Swogger grabbed the front of my jersey, and, addressing me only as "sophomore," reminded me in no uncertain terms that I was now an Altoona Mountain Lion, and nobody talked in his huddle but him.
He was never satisfied - not with himself, and certainly not with his players. No matter how well I played, he would say, "Louis [he always called me Louis, never Lou, and certainly never Louie], I was pleased with the way you played. Not satisfied. But pleased."
After one game he told me I could have done a better job rebounding. I gently reminded him I had gotten more rebounds than the entire opposing team. Without missing a beat, he told me that was the worst rebounding team he had ever seen.
His locker room harangues were the stuff of legend. He was once absolutely incensed that I had only gotten one rebound in the first half. He screamed at me that if someone cut off his arms and legs, he could lie on his back and get two rebounds with his neck.
Another episode sticks in my mind. It came after a bitter, double-overtime loss to South Hills High School in the state playoffs my sophomore year. Coach Swogger was as angry as I had ever seen him. He felt that the upperclassmen on the team had let him down.
I sat in the locker room and watched him unleash a truly frightening tirade on each of the other players in turn, working his way eventually to me. Even though I had played my heart out, scoring 31 points, I was terrified when he approached. As he looked me in the eye, his face softened. He reached out, shook my hand, put his other hand on my shoulder, and simply said, "Good game, Louis."
It was truly one of the great moments of my life. He was not big on compliments, and we all lived for his approval.
Coach Swogger also had a vastly underrated sense of humor. In the first half of a game at Williamsport, there had been some very questionable calls in favor of the home team. At halftime he told us to expect more of the same in the second half due to the fact that the referees were "Frank and Jesse James."
As is the case with most successful men, Coach Swogger had his detractors. To some he was arrogant. To others he was aloof. Some thought he was a bully. He was criticized in the mid-1970s for fielding a black starting lineup by people living in a town that was almost all white. And when a 7-foot kid named Ricky Tunstall from Cleveland turned up in Altoona at the start of the 1977-78 season, there was outright hostility that threatened to divide the team - and the city. The controversy over that transfer lingered, casting an unfortunate shadow over the latter years of Swogger's career.
A few years back, I assisted honorary Coach Swogger at an Altoona/Bishop Guilfoyle alumni basketball game. In the huddle just prior to tipoff a couple of the players continued talking when Coach Swogger began to speak. I told them that ONLY Coach Swogger talked in the huddle.
I did it out of respect for my old coach. He just looked at me and smiled.
In 2006, Coach Swogger was deservedly inducted into the Blair County Sports Hall of Fame. I attended that night, and after the ceremony, I saw him sitting by himself on the dais, almost as if he didn't want the night to end.
I approached and sat down next to him. For a half hour or more the old coach and his now middle-aged player reminisced. He was so proud that Altoona High took on all comers during his coaching career, and he listed them: Westinghouse, Oliver, Peabody, Taylor-Allderdice, Fifth Avenue, Brashear, Schenley, Harrisburg, Williamsport, Reading, Sharon, Farrell, Overbrook, DeMatha.
He spoke of the Overbrook game my senior year at the Altoona Fieldhouse (a 60-59 loss) as the most exciting basketball event he had ever been a part of.
During our conversation that night, Coach Swogger admitted to me something I had always known: He left high school coaching way too young. After all, he was only 45 years old when he voluntarily stepped down at Altoona. He didn't say why during our talk, but I suspect he was burned out.
I was glad that he mellowed, glad that he turned his efforts to working individually with younger players, glad that generations after me got to benefit from what few other coaches had to offer.
Toward the end of our conversation, he looked at me wistfully, and his voice trailed off as he said, "Oh Louis, your talent "
Never has a player received higher praise.
Louie Schmitt transferred briefly to DeMatha Catholic in 1978 but returned to Altoona and became a three-year starter for the Mountain Lions. He earned a Division I scholarship to St. Francis, where he was a three-year starter and led the nation in field-goal percentage (71.4) before graduating in 1984. He resides in Altoona, where he practices law.