After a 36-year tenure at Slippery Rock, Coach John Papa is hanging up the running shoes to conclude coaching his final match in the 2022 season. A former cross-country runner at The Rock, Papa started his career in the same town where it began. Like all kids he enjoyed playing on the playground, but he quickly realized he was much faster than the other kids.
In 1975 he began his freshman year at Slippery Rock as a part of the team where he took the title of conference champion. The team was Division champions within the NCAA at the time.
All in good fortune, Papa decided to announce that he was planning to retire after the conclusion of the 2022 season. He hadn’t originally planned on it, but following the COVID-19 year he knew what he had to do. In the best interest of incoming recruits, he feels now is the right time.
As for his agenda in retirement, Papa has no set game plan. An avid mountain biker, traveler and camper, he plans to continue using his time to do more of those things he loves. He and his wife have seven grandchildren residing within the Slippery Rock area, and the two of them love The Rock community. For those reasons among many others, he plans to stay local and show his face at meets on occasion.
When it comes to passing the torch off to someone else, there is no definite decision made. Papa said he would like to see Bill Jordan, his assistant of 15 years, be promoted to head coach. In his opinion, he is next in line and fits the same style of coaching. As a coach, Papa says you should learn to listen and take advice.
“You don’t know everything, making mistakes is okay and being yourself is the best advice I have,” he said.
In many ways Jordan has similar techniques to the current system. Papa also noted that the recent addition of Tabatha Beam has been an extraordinary help since joining the staff.
From the time he ran in college to the time he became coach, Papa stayed in touch and held long-lasting relationships to acquire his spot. Bill Lennox, former SRU cross-country coach, was later the athletic director. He had the opportunity to coach Papa, encouraged him to become a graduate assistant, and then hired him for the job years later.
“Slippery Rock has been fortunate to have amazing directors like Lennox, Lueken, and now Page,” he said. He says is proud to be here and make these connections.
“Maybe I realized it was time when COVID allowed me to see what it’s like to enjoy a Saturday with my family,” he said about his decision to retire. He added that being in good health and leaving the program in good shape made transitioning out smoother.
Being passionate about coaching is something that will likely follow him in whatever he chooses to do throughout retirement. “I’ll find something new to be passionate about, maybe even yardwork,” he said with a smile.
Something that will stick with him forever, though, are the memories with current players or alumni and connections he’s made with other coaches. Most of all he said he will miss the 6:00 a.m. practices in the dark, where most of the fun was had.
“Those little things are the biggest things I’ll miss the most,” he said.
Guiding them to trust one another and improve their own personal skills is all up to him. “Some of the most notable parts of taking pride in your coaching is watching your athletes develop,” he said.
Prior to taking on the role of coach, Papa led in the classroom as a teacher. Coaching high school students prepared him for his future positions in collegiate athletics and Slippery Rock admissions. Eager to continue his education, Papa earned his master’s degree in Athletic Administration in under one year.
The decision to retire weighed heavily on him and became a mental dilemma. As times are changing, so is the way recruiting, communicating and playing works. Technology played a large role in his choice to let someone more comfortable with the current trends take the reign.
“When technology first came out, I thought it might just be a phase,” he said. Social media has affected his decision tremendously and he prefers communicating in old-fashioned ways. Often, he said he finds himself being bailed out by the other coaches who are more tech savvy than him.
As for final words of advice to those coming into the program, Papa says, “Give it your best effort because the time goes by quickly and leave yourself with no regrets.”