Thurnes, Donahue set to take rightful place

It’s interesting how people can forget where they placed their car keys just minutes earlier, but when they are asked to recount an event or tales of a very influential person from years past, the stories will roll off the tongue like water running in a stream.

Each year, since the OVAC set plans to install its first class of inductees into the OVAC Hall of Fame, recounting those memories, telling the stories and reliving the past as if it were yesterday have become a yearly event.

Oh sure, the OVAC has installed notable greats from the past like Phil and Joe Niekro, John Havlicek, Bill Mazeroski, Bobby Douglas and so many others that made a nationwide name themselves.

Some names may be bigger, but there are still others whose names, achievements and even antics will forever be etched in the hearts and minds of those who lived or have lived right here in the Ohio Valley.

Boston may have Cheers, but long before, Tiltonsville had the Indian Club. Just like so many of our towns up and down the river, for years Tiltonsville has had a place for friends to meet and tell the stories from the past that just don’t get old.

For instance, walk into “The Club” on any given night since the 60s and mention the name Coach Thurnes. If you can’t get a story from someone in the group then you probably walked into the wrong building.

On Saturday, Coach Richard “Dick” Thurnes will join a select group when he will be inducted into the OVAC’s coveted Hall. He will join his long time assistant (or head coach depending on the sport) Henry Lazasz, one of his all-time Warren Consolidated gridiron greats Randy Donahue and will be one of six Ramblers inducted into the OVAC’s Hall of Fame.

To some, the honor may be long overdue, but to all that have played for Coach Thurnes, coached alongside him, taught with him, had one of his classes in school or just knew him as a friend, it will be a time cherished and a moment well-deserved of a man so respected.

Coach Thurnes was a 1946 graduate of Union High School in Benwood. An outstanding prep athlete, he played center and linebacker in high school, earning all-state honors.

He went on to West Liberty, playing for Joe Bartell’s Hilltoppers. A three-year starter at center, twice he played on undefeated teams at West Liberty and twice those teams Hilltopper teams played in bowl games (the Pythia and Smokey Mountain Bowls). He also played baseball and basketball for two years at West Liberty.

His success as a player would carry over into his coaching career, but little did anyone know it would carry over to such an extreme.

He got his start at Cameron High School, coaching both the football and basketball teams in 1955. His football teams at Cameron finished 7-2 in ’55, 8-0-1 in ’56 and 6-4 in ’57. Incidentally, his basketball teams had their share of success posting 13-11, 14-7 and 16-4 records in those three seasons. The lone blemish on that 1956 team was a 0-0 tie to Chester.

Listening to former Warren Consolidated players like Tom Schrader, who played on a couple unbeaten Thurnes-coached teams in the early ’60s, and Paul McKeegan, a ’68 WCHS grad who played on an unbeaten Rambler team in 1967 and Stan Krol who played on quite possibly Thurnes’ greatest team, an unbeaten ’64 juggernaut and Larry DeLuca, a ’67 grad who played on another good Rambler team in ’66, you get the key to Coach Thurnes success.

“He was a motivator,” they all made mention of at one time or another in a Monday night conversation at the Indian club. “Still today, if Coach Thurnes would walk in here and go up to the bar, there would be a circle of guys standing around him just to listen to the stories.”

“He was a great coach,” Schrader said about Thurnes. “He would tell us ‘when you put that uniform on, you are the toughest, you are biggest and you are the best’. And when you heard him say it, you believed it.”

Thurnes moved on from Cameron High School to Warren Consolidated in 1958 wasted little time establishing himself there as one of the valley’s great coaches. In 12 seasons from 1958 to 1969, his teams posted a combined 78-26-6 record. Four of those teams were unbeaten including the 1961,’62, ’64 and ’67 teams.

During the four- year stretch in the early ’60s actually came within two points of four straight unbeaten seasons. The teams amassed an amazing 34-1-2 record during the span. The ’63 team lost their season opener, 8-6, to neighboring Dillonvale. The ’64 team was quite possibly one of the best of all-time in the Ohio Valley.

That team shut out its first five opponents before allowing a touchdown to Bridgeport and 14 points to Shadyside in back-to-back weeks. That was it, though, as the Ramblers outscored their opponents 231-20 over the entire season.

“He was a very emotional coach. He put his heart and soul into coaching and into everything he did. It was just amazing how he would just put every bit of energy into a game.”

Krol relates a story from a 1963 game against Union Local when Thurnes’ emotions and a few burned out scoreboard lights were just too much for the coach to handle.

“We were playing at Union Local and were winning late in the game, 18-14,” Krol says, and he told the story. “There were a few lights burned out on the scoreboard that made it look like we were losing 14-13. Coach kept sending pass plays to the huddle and we kept telling Sam Carducci, who was our quarterback, not to throw the ball. Coach kept sending in pass plays and were kept convincing Sam to run the ball.

“Time finally ran out and the game was over,” Krol went on with his story. “We all went to the locker room and were celebrating a win while coach was beside himself because he thought we lost. Well, I guess the thought of losing was too much for him and he passed out in the locker room. I can just remember, the paramedics reviving him just to tell him about the scoreboard and that we had actually won. He just put every ounce of energy he had into a game.”

Thurnes’ teams won OVAC titles three times and EOAL (the old Eastern Ohio Athletic League) titles four times in the ’60s.

After stepping down following the ’69 season, he would take a break before returning to coach the first two season of Buckeye South. The ’72 and ’73 teams combined to finish 16-3-1. He was selected as the coach of the year in the Eastern District twice, by the EOAL four times and by the local media in ’64 and ’67. He was inducted into the Ohio Valley Football Coaches Association Hall of Fame in 1985. He finished his grid coaching career with a 112-36-7 mark.

It wasn’t just great teams that Thurnes produced, but great players as well. While Thurnes was able to motivate players to play at a higher level, there were those that were chased down by big-time programs.

Regis Woods went from the gridiron in Tiltonsville to play at West Virginia University, Bob Holmes starred at Purdue after being an all-Ohioan for Thurnes and played in the Rose Bowl, Rich Bolock went on to Tennessee-Martin, Gary Orban was recruited by Augustana and so many others played beyond WCHS.

Of course, the most well-known of the former Rambler players was Randy Donahue, a 6 ft. 1, 235 pound tackle that many still consider as one of the best linemen ever in the Ohio Valley.

Back in the 60s when Donahue played, Ohio was divided into just two classes. Of course, that didn’t matter much for Donahue. A four-year starter at tackle, Donahue was named to the AP All-Ohio Class A first team three straight years.

Then following the 1964 season, he became the first-ever OVAC player for be selected at a first team Parade All-American.

Donahue, like Thurnes, is being inducted into the OVAC Hall of Fame on Saturday. Along with Donahue will be former St. John Central great Rick Boron. Boron was a second team Parade All-American in ’64 with Donahue.

“Randy was ahead of his time,” Larry DeLuca and Krol both pointed out and DeLuca added, “he seemed like he was 15 years ahead of his time.”

“Randy also kicked off for us,” Schrader said looking back. “I remember the time Randy kicked then went straight down the field and hit the guy returning the kickoff so hard he knocked him out. He was just that fast that he was about to kickoff and beat everybody down the field.”

In nine games as sophomore, he recorded 112 tackles and 52 assists.

“He was just big and strong and fast,” Krol said in remembering Donahue. “He was just a hardnosed player that played with intensity every day.”

Donahue received offers from throughout the country to play football in college, but he eventually signed on with WVU.

There are times when fate is uglier than any onrushing linebacker. Donahue suffered one of those times. Destined to be a force at WVU and most likely at the ultimate level, Donahue lost his eye in a freak accident during the summer before his first year at WVU. The loss of an eye didn’t deter the young Donahue. He showed up at WVU for practice and only after he realized that his injury wasn’t going to allow him to play at the level he was accustomed to, did Donahue end his magnificent playing career.

He would return home and later worked at Wheeling-Pittsburgh Steel and served as a Warren Township trustee for many years. Donahue passed away a few years ago, but his legacy as a football great lives on.

IN CLOSING, I tell my story about a young kid in grade school rising early to get on the school bus every morning (well, most mornings). Often, the bus driver was the high school football coach.

When he was, the young kid knew that that day he could go to school and brag that he was talking to the football coach that day. It may have been just a “Hi” or a “Good morning”, but it was a conversation.

One day, the young kid gets on the bus, looks at the coach and tells him “I hope you keep coaching until I’m old enough to play.”

“I don’t know,” said the coach. “That’s a long way off. I don’t know if I’ll last that long.”

Well, he did. And that’s when I found out why his teams won and his players were so successful. They played the way they did not because they wanted to for themselves, but because they just didn’t want to let him down.