BEAVER FALLS – While Geneva College may be a small private Christian school, it’s home to a few historical milestones in sports that belie an institution of its size.
It’s Geneva which is the Birthplace of College Basketball. The first basketball game played by a college team took place at Geneva on April 8, 1893 when it defeated a team from the New Brighton YMCA.
Then there’s Cal Hubbard, who played football at Geneva from 1925-27.
An offensive lineman, Hubbard is the only member of both the Pro Football Hall of Fame and Major League Baseball Hall of Fame (he’s also in the College Football Hall of Fame). He played 10 seasons in the NFL, including one season with the Pittsburgh Steelers. His 30-year career as a baseball umpire got him into the MLB Hall of Fame.
And before he started to umpire, he came back to his alma mater and coached Geneva’s football teams in 1942.
That history serves as a background to a remarkable coaching situation at Geneva right now that stretches over a 47-year period.
During that span, the Golden Tornadoes have only had two head football coaches.
Gene Sullivan, who died Sept. 8 at the age of 88, coached from 1976-1992.
Geno DeMarco, the current coach, succeeded Sullivan in 1993 and just concluded his 30th season.
The Pittsburgh Steelers always pride themselves on their coaching stability with just three coaches since in the past 54 years: Chuck Noll, 23 years (1969-91); Bill Cowher, 15 years (1992-2006); and Mike Tomlin, who succeeded Cowher in 2007 and is now in his 16th season.
What’s happening at Geneva parallels what’s happened with the Steelers in regards to its coaches.
“There is a distinct common thread that runs through the Geneva College football program and has for 47 years: Geno DeMarco and Gene Sullivan before him,” said Geneva athletic director Van Zanic. “The impact that these two men have had on literally thousands of young men at Geneva College is indescribable.”
Sullivan came to Geneva in 1976 when he was hired as head football coach and athletic director. Before that, he taught biology and chemistry at Richland High School (which is now Pine-Richland) and coached the football team from 1964-1975.
“Gene was a legend at Richland,” DeMarco said. “In fact, there’s a movement to get him into the WPIAL Hall of Fame, which he greatly deserves.”
In 1969 and ’70, Sullivan guided Richland to WPIAL championships with back-to-back undefeated seasons.
In ’69, Richland won its first WPIAL title, 30-0, over New Brighton. That New Brighton team was coached by Jack Fullen, who would go on to a long career as Blackhawk’s athletic director.
In ’70, Richland repeated as WPIAL champs with an 8-7 win over Beaver which was coached at the time by legendary Pat Tarquinio.
During Sullivan’s 17 years at Geneva, the Golden Tornadoes went 75-85-2.
DeMarco, a 1979 New Brighton graduate, started his college career at Baldwin Wallace. But after his freshman season, he transferred to Geneva and became a two-sport standout. From 1981-83, he played linebacker on the football team and became the school’s first Academic All-American. DeMarco also played baseball for the Golden Tornadoes and earned all-district honors as a junior when he hit .407.
“Gene would teach us that it was always faith, family, academics and then football,” DeMarco said. “He helped us realize that football is not going to last forever.”
After graduating from Geneva, DeMarco served as a graduate assistant coach at Georgia Tech (1985) and West Virginia (1986-87). He then began working professionally in the pharmaceutical business.
That allowed him to rejoin Sullivan at Geneva for five seasons as a volunteer coach. When Sullivan retired after the ’92 season, Geneva offered the head coaching job to DeMarco.
But under one condition: DeMarco had to retain Sullivan as an assistant coach.
“Absolutely,” DeMarco said.
Sullivan remained a Geneva assistant for 10 seasons.
“Very seldom can you find a place where you’re a player for a coach, then you coach for that coach, then that coach coaches for you and then you coach his son,” DeMarco said.
Gene Sullivan’s son Mike played wide receiver for Geneva in the late 1990s and actually coached briefly under DeMarco.
“That’s unheard off,” DeMarco said. “That’s crazy. Stuff like that just doesn’t happen.”
Ever since DeMarco became coach, he’s coached with the same principles taught to him by Sullivan.
“The impact that Gene made on Geno was one that has led to Geno being the man and the coach that he has been at Geneva for 30 years,” Zanic said.
“For generations, under the leadership of Coach Gene and Coach Geno, Geneva football players have been challenged to put God first, family second, studies and work third, and football fourth,” said Geneva president Calvin Troup.
“Gene and Geno have walked those priorities faithfully every day.”
If the connection between Sullivan and DeMarco isn’t remarkable enough, consider this.
When he started coaching at Geneva, DeMarco envisioned that his children would one day take classes at Geneva. But at the time, his daughter Alexa was 3 years old and his other daughter Jessica was 1.
So DeMarco obviously imagined that he’d remain at Geneva for a long time.
As it turns out, all four of his daughters will have Geneva degrees as well as husbands. Alexa, Jessica and Grace have already married men who either played or coached at Geneva. The same will hold true for Rachel, who’s a senior and engaged to a Geneva football player.
“All four of my daughters came here, got great educations and found their husbands,” DeMarco said.
DeMarco, who’s 61, has no plans on calling it a career anytime soon.
He has an overall record of 154-141. He’s had some very good years, some great years in fact, earlier in his career when Geneva played football in the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics. In the NAIA, Geneva was able to give athletic and academic financial aid to its athletes.
But in 2007 Geneva switched to NCAA Division III, which allows teams to give academic financial aid but not athletic scholarships. Since then, losses have outweighed wins. The Golden Tornadoes are competitive but still have had nine straight losing seasons, including 3-7 this year.
“The football portion of it is … there’s nothing like it,” DeMarco said. “I really don’t know what else I would do. The losing hurts and it just doesn’t go away. So we’ve got to find a way to get this thing turned around. That’s what I want to do.”
“When we talk about the mission of Geneva College that includes preparing students for good and faithful service, the legacy of Geno DeMarco is and will be how he has been able to prepare his players for life after college football,” Zanic said.
“Where did he learn that from? Gene Sullivan.”