By Greg Gulas
The Austintown Fitch High School baseball program was resurrected by Rich Coppola in 1968.
After building the Falcons into one of the area’s finest scholastic diamond programs, Coppola retired in 1995. Three seasons later, one of his players, Wally Ford, took over, guiding the team for 18 seasons.
Under Ford, the Falcons transitioned from the Steel Valley Conference to the Federal League to the All-American Conference.
A battle with prostate cancer (currently in remission) has forced Ford to the sidelines. The 1974 Fitch graduate and longtime teacher decided to retire last June from his classroom duties. He also has passed on his coaching duties to his top assistant Joe Paris.
Ford led the Falcons to 262 wins, four conference crowns and three regional tournament appearances. He said the opportunity to coach at his alma mater was the opportunity of a lifetime.
“This was my dream job and without question, my ultimate job,” Ford said. “I played for both Rich [Coppola] and John [Rorick], found myself coaching under them and then took over the helm from two coaches whom I consider two of the finest teachers and knowledgeable baseball minds.”
After going 4-16 his initial campaign, Ford quickly turned that around with a 21-7 mark two years later and a feeling that he finally belonged in the dugout.
“Coach Coppola led Fitch to multiple Steel Valley Conference titles and four state appearances, those coming in 1977, 1978, 1983 and again in 1994,” Ford said. “I know how tough an act that was to follow.
“Our ‘83 team featured the late MLB umpire and alum, Wally Bell as they advanced to the title game,” Ford said. “I was an assistant in ’94 and can attest first hand to the challenges of getting to regional play, yet alone the state tournament.”
While Ford never advanced to the state’s “Final Four,” his three regional appearances — 2003, 2004 and 2007 — give him the distinction of joining Coppola as the school’s only two coaches to achieve that feat.
“You do not have a program without a loyal, dedicated staff and I was very fortunate to have both,” Ford said. “Joe Paris was with me all 18 years, assistant coach Jake Corbett 15 years, Don Dobrindt was there my first 12 years and former player T.J. Parker joined me the last three years.
“Because of that stability and loyalty, it was easy to sell our program to the kids and even easier for them to buy into what we were selling.”
Coppola called Ford a gutsy player who was destined to become an excellent head coach.
“Wally kept everything going when he took over for John [Rorick],” Coppola said. “The biggest thing was that he made sure discipline remained a huge part of the program.
“He was a no-nonsense player who commanded and gave respect, then continued that same thought process when he became head coach.”
Ford said several things stood out during his 18-year run.
“I got to coach some great young men who have kept in contact after graduating while several former players also returned to coach with me,” Ford said. “I was able to forge lasting friendships with the coaches that I went up against and that would never have happened had I not been given this opportunity back in 1998.”
Wayne Zetts, former Campbell Memorial head coach, and Dave Smercansky, Boardman High School’s former baseball coach, were two coaches that sang Ford’s praises.
“We played against each other in high school, Class B and AA then coached against each other,” Zetts said. “It’s safe for me to say that Wally coached like he played.
“He was a tactician, very competitive and was always thinking ahead as he pondered his next move.”
Smercansky added that Ford was always professional in his approach to the game.
“Wally was a hard worker who expected the same effort of his players that he put forth,” Smercansky said. “He respected the game and you knew to expect a battle when you went up against one of his teams.”
Ford, who currently serves on Dan Yeagley’s football staff at South Range High School, ended his baseball coaching career with a 262-188 overall mark.