Athletes remember former Madonna coach Joe Krivak

WEIRTON – Joe Krivak, who steered the Madonna Blue Dons to two Ohio Valley Athletic Conference football titles and one state Catholic school basketball championship during the 1960s before moving into the collegiate coaching ranks, is being remembered as a “taskmaster who brought out the best in everybody,” in the classroom as well as on the playing field.

Krivak, 77, died Christmas Day at his home in Bowie, Md., after a long battle with leukemia.

“He had been suffering with a blood disorder for several years, but it didn’t impact him physically until the summer of 2011,” said Weirton native Paul Paolisso, who played for Krivak at Madonna and Syracuse. “He was in such great shape, physically and mentally, that he fought through it for the last 18 months.”

A native of Central City, Pa., Krivak graduated from Syracuse in 1957 with a bachelor’s degree in history science and in 1961 with his master’s degree in education. He was a three-year letter winner on the gridiron for Syracuse, blocking for future National Football League Hall-of-Famer Jim Brown and playing in the 1957 Cotton Bowl. He also lettered in baseball for the Orange.

Krivak spent eight years at Madonna – earning football titles in 1962 and 1967, and the basketball title in the 1964-65 season – before leaving in 1969 to take an assistant coaching position under former Syracuse football coach Ben Schwartzwalder. He also was an assistant at the University of Maryland and at Navy, and in 1987 succeeded Bobby Ross as Maryland’s head coach.

It was during his time in Weirton that he met his wife, Jeanne.

An innovative play caller, Krivak was perhaps best known for engineering a 1984 comeback that saw Maryland, down 31-0 at the half, post 42 second-half points to beat Miami, 42-40, on the road.

The Terps scored 40-plus points five times and posted an 8-3 record during that 1984 season, including big wins against arch-rival West Virginia University and Penn State University.

He also was known for his ability to groom quarterbacks, coaching six future NFL signal callers – Boomer Esiason, Frank Reich, Stan Gelbaugh, Neil O’Donnell, Scott Zolak and Scott Milanovich. Esiason, O’Donnell, Reich and Gelbaugh all played in Super Bowls.

He coached in 14 bowl games and ran the offense for seven Atlantic Coast Conference championship teams.

“He was a good teacher all around, he taught you about sports and about life,” former player Al Boniti said. “When you were in his classroom you knew you were going to learn, he was just a very knowledgeable man and he had control of his classes. He wanted you to act in a certain way; he demanded respect and he earned it.”

Boniti, a Weirton resident, said Krivak would “take teams that were supposed to be average” and make them better.

“He was just one of those guys you respected,” Boniti said. “You knew what to expect when you went in his classroom and you knew what to expect when you went onto the field. When report cards came out, he’d stand by the door to the lockerroom and he’d check them. (If he didn’t like what he saw) he’d send you into a classroom to be tutored, and he wouldn’t let you back on the field. That’s how much he put academics over athletics.”

Paolisso remembers him as “a strong man of faith, an upright guy” who loved what he did.

“It’s like his son said in the eulogy, when he was at Maryland a sportswriter once wrote that with Joe Krivak, ‘what you see is what you get.’ That’s the way he handled himself. He was a straight-shooter, a direct man,” Paolisso said.

Paolisso credits Krivak with getting scholarships to Syracuse for him as well as Madonna standouts Bill Zanieski and Chuck Boniti, Al’s older brother. Krivak joined the Syracuse staff in 1969, Paolisso’s senior year.

“We didn’t throw the ball a lot in those days,” said Paolisso, who quarterbacked the team. “He took over a group of receivers who’d been pretty much neglected … and made them better blockers. He took what he had to work with and made it better. He took guys who hadn’t been given much attention and made them better players.”

Paolisso described Krivak as a devoted family man who put God, family and teaching before athletics.

“He had a very simple way of doing things,” he said. “He’d set out on a path and expect you to follow it. That’s the way he got things done.”

And he said anybody who had him “knew he didn’t mince words.”

“He was a disciplinarian,” Paolisso added. “I don’t know that Joe Krivak ever sent anyone to the principal’s office, he handled discipline his own way, but it was all done for the right reasons. He gave you his attention, and he expected as much back from you.”

Weirton’s Tom McDonald said Krivak “was somebody I always tried to emulate.”

“You couldn’t go wrong,” he said. “He was such a faith-filled man.”

McDonald said Krivak was an excellent teacher and coach.

“He was driven,” he said, “just a special person. When you were around him, you knew you had to respect him. He labored at Madonna, working for a meager salary, and started his family in Weirton.”

His coaching record at Maryland wasn’t what he’d hoped, “but he touched many lives there, and not all because of athletics,” McDonald said.

“I’ve read comments from people he’d recruited, they … described him as a second father, said he taught them how to live life,” McDonald added.

Bill Barrett, who joined the Madonna teaching staff in 1962, remembers Krivak guiding the Blue Dons “from a losing season the year before to winning the OVAC.”

“He was a great teacher in the classroom, too,” said Barrett. “That’s probably the No. 1 thing. He was probably about 6-foot3, and when he came down the hallway everyone kind of parted. He didn’t phone it in, he was a hard worker in the classroom as well as on the field.”

Barrett said Krivak had a fun-loving side, too.

“When he won that first championship he kind of lit up, telling stories,” he said. “The kids didn’t get to see that, but in the faculty lounge he’d crack jokes. He had a good sense of humor. He was a humble guy and he’d always spread the credit around. He was ramrod straight, on the football field and in the classroom.

“Religion was a big part of his life,” Barrett added. “He lived his life that way and was a good example for people around him. (Growing up) there are certain ones you remember having an impact on your life – Joe was one of them.”