Nese’s impact on countless lives remembered
STEUBENVILLE — John Nese was not born in Steubenville, but his decisions to come to town for his college education, to get married and raise a family here and to make a career in local education had a great affect on the lives of countless residents of the Tri-State Area.
“John was one of those guys who moved to Steubenville and wanted to stay here, and the community is better for it,” said Mike Florak, executive director of community relations at the Franciscan University of Steubenville, while remembering Nese, who died Thursday at the age of 78. “There were so many things he was involved in. He made an impact on so many areas and touched so many people.”
Nese was a longtime educator, a successful coach, one of the area’s top baseball and softball umpires and the radio voice for Steubenville and Catholic Central high schools and the Post 33 American Legion Baseball team.
“You could not have found a better human being,” said Rich Donnelly, a professional baseball coach who played for Nese at Catholic Central in the early 1960s and served as an assistant coach under him in the late 1980s. “I had the honor of playing for him and coaching with him. He was one of my dearest friends.”
A native of East Pittsburgh, Nese came the town in 1956 to play on the then-College of Steubenville basketball team. He was a member of the 1957-58 Barons team that legendary coach Hank Kuzma directed to the national championship, as voted by United Press International.
“There’s a sense of history,” Florak explained. “He helped to bridge the gap between the university and the community. He played on that 1958 team, and there was no one in town who did not know him.”
His 54-year career in education began in 1960, when he taught social studies at St. Anthony School in Follansbee. Nese also coached basketball there and directed the team to a 17-5 record and the West Virginia Class B Catholic championship. After spending a couple of years as a teacher and coach in East Pittsburgh, Nese returned to Steubenville in 1963 as the basketball coach and baseball coach at Catholic Central.
Both teams enjoyed success under his direction. He led the basketball team to a 121-87 record before stepping down in 1973. That period included three sectional titles, three district titles and the 1973 Ohio Valley Athletic Conference title. That OVAC championship team finished at 22-2, the best record in school history.
The baseball team, meanwhile, finished at 197-77 before Nese stepped down in 1975. That run included seven sectional titles, five district titles and one regional title. His 1965 team lost a 4-0 decision to Shaker Heights in the state championship game.
Donnelly put the lessons learned under Nese to good use, enjoying a long career in professional baseball that included a 14-year run as a coach under Jim Leyland with the Pirates, Florida and Colorado. He earned a World Series ring in 1997 with the Marlins. Donnelly said hard work was the key to the success for Nese.
“He was one of the most prepared coaches I have ever seen in my life,” Donnelly remembered. “When I played, he had scouting reports. We had never seen scouting reports like that before. If you studied those reports, you had a great idea of what you wanted to do.”
From 1987 through 1990, Nese was the head coach of the Central girls basketball team, directing that squad to a 56-10 record that included two sectional titles and two OVAC titles. His 1989 team finished at 21-2, a school record.
Donnelly was one of Nese’s assistants during that period.
“John is among the best basketball, baseball and girls basketball coaches they have ever had at Central,” Donnelly said. “He was always trying to get better, always respectful of his opponents. When I was coaching in the majors, whether it was with the Pirates or the Dodgers, he was always wanting to know what was going on, always looking for ways to get better.”
Nese’s career in education included work in the development department at the university and time as a guidance counselor at S.C. Dennis Middle School in Toronto, Catholic Central, East Liverpool High School and the Indian Creek Local School District before his retirement on Sept. 30, 2014. From 1995 to 2007, Nese led the Indian Creek Junior High girls basketball team to a record of 116-40, and his last three teams won 51 straight games.
“He was so committed to helping young people and working in education,” Florak said. “Everybody knew him, respected him and liked him.”
Florak attended Central while Nese was a counselor there. A multi-sport athlete with the Crusaders, Florak said he got to know Nese very well, in the school, on the field — Nese had a long and successful career as a baseball umpire — and through Nese’s work as a broadcaster.
“John had that rare ability to go from the court to the classroom to the broadcast booth,” Florak said.
If you have any doubts about Florak’s statement, all you have to do is ask Jim Huggins.
“John and I broadcast games for about 32 years,” Huggins said. “He was a good guy and we got along well.”
Nese and Huggins called games for WSTV-AM, WOGH-FM and, during the last few years, for Ohio Valley Sports Online. It takes great chemistry for a pair to be able to work side-by-side for that long, something Huggins said really developed over time.
“There was a period of adjustment after we started to work together,” Huggins said. “He was always really loud and boisterous. I’m like that too, so it took a little bit of time for us to settle in.”
As broadcasters, Huggins and Nese spent a lot of time on the road together, but no matter where they went they ran into someone Nese knew.
“He was larger than life — everybody knew him, and everybody had a story,” Huggins said. “Everywhere we went out of town, he knew somebody at the location, and that always made it easier on us.
“He always was looking to borrow a cigarette,” Huggins remembered. “If you were going to be around him and you smoked, you had to make sure you had extra cigarettes.”
Nese earned numerous awards and recognition from many organizations and halls of fame. He also had the opportunity to coach the U.S. All-Stars in the 1973 Dapper Dan Roundball Classic. At the time, the classic, which called the old Civic Arena in Pittsburgh home, was the premiere high school basketball all-star event in the country.
He also was a respected baseball and softball official.
“I remember going to meetings with him and hearing all of his stories about coaching,” said Steve Seminara, who umpired with Nese for more than 20 years and succeeded him as the assignor in the Steubenville Umpires Association. “He was a great guy and I enjoyed hearing those stories.”
Seminara said Nese really cared about the people he knew.
“Every time John saw me, he always asked how my boys were doing,” Seminara said. “I have never forgotten that. I think that says a lot about him.
“I was honored that John asked me to drive him and his wife to Columbus when he was inducted into the OHSAA Hall of Fame. He actually said to me, ‘Semi, I have ridden with you before and I feel safe and honored to have you drive us to Columbus.’ I was very honored by that,” Seminara added.
Florak agreed that Nese’s connection with people was important.
“It really shows what a great guy he was. I remember when I was 14 years old and trying to pitch in a tournament game that he was umpiring. I’m not a pitcher,” said Florak, who would go on to be a power-hitting first baseman at Central and Ohio University. “I was getting ripped pretty good. He came over and dusted off the pitcher’s rubber and said, ‘Keep throwing strikes, and you’ll be fine.’ He didn’t have to do that, but he just wanted to help.”
In addition to his roles as a coach, teacher, mentor and friend, Nese was active in the community and in the lives of his wife, Marlene, their four children and their 10 grandchildren. Members of the community will have the chance to pay their respects from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. Monday and 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. and 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. Tuesday at the Mosti Funeral Home, 4435 Sunset Blvd. A funeral Mass will be celebrated at 10 a.m. Wednesday at Holy Rosary Catholic Church, with the Rev. Ryan Grey officiating. Entombment will be at Mount Calvary Cemetery.
“Everybody who came in contact with him was a better person — that’s the kind of guy he was,” Donnelly said.
“I hope we can celebrate his life and how many people he affected. He helped so many people who grew up and became successful,” he added.
“He was a positive influence on the community,” Florak added. “We’ll miss him greatly.”