Slippery Rock University currently has 15 coaches in its athletic department that are alumni, two of which have served as a head coach for over two decades.
John Papa was named as the head coach of the men and women cross country and track and field teams in 1987. Since then he has led the teams to a combined total of 23 Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference (PSAC) titles. Over the past 21 years, Matt Meredith has established himself as one of the top coaches in Division II tennis and has accumulated over 300 career wins. He is the winningest coach in SRU history, according to Athletic Communication.
Papa was recruited to the university by long-time coach and director of athletics Bill Lennox.
“While I was in high school, I never had any real interest in going to college,” Papa said. “I was contacted by (Bill) Lennox and began discussing the idea of going to college with my parents. Neither of them went to college, so it was a whole new experience for our family. We decided that it would be a good idea and I decided to go to Slippery Rock.”
Papa noted how going to school in the present is much more different than when he was a student.
“As far as athletics go, back in the ’70s, there was basically no compliance, no NCAA regulations and the school was far less selective than it is now,” Papa said. “I am not even sure if I would get into Slippery Rock if I was applying today.”
Papa graduated SRU in 1979 with a degree in elementary education. Upon receiving his degree, Papa moved down to Virginia to teach at the local middle school. It was at that time that he also began his coaching career.
“I was in Virginia for four years,” Papa said. “I took a job as an assistant coach with the local high school track team. The head coach was only there because the school needed someone to coach or else there would be no program. After the first practice, the coach approached me and told me the program was mine. For the first year, I was the assistant coach for the team but really served as the head coach.”
After a couple of years of working in Virginia, Papa got a call from Lennox, who was recently hired as the new athletic director for SRU. Papa said he returned to The Rock in 1984 to became a graduate assistant under Lennox.
“I worked for [Lennox] for a couple of years and earned my master’s degree in the process,” Papa said. “I returned to Slippery Rock because I really enjoyed the family atmosphere when I attended The Rock. There’s a reason why people who get jobs with The Rock never leave.”
Papa worked with The Rock’s track and field teams for the next several years, working his way up the coaching ladder in the process. He became an assistant coach, then head men’s track coach and then finally taking over as head coach in 1987.
Papa attributed his success at The Rock to his assistant coaches.
“When I went to school, coaches, even head coaches, were not full-time,” Papa said. “Now I have three full-time assistant coaches in Bill (Jordan), Meagan (Shadeck) and Nathan (Shadeck). Without them, our programs would not be anywhere nearly as successful as they are now.”
Papa said the key to having successful assistant coaches, is by hiring a staff who, individually, are better than the head coach and by retaining said staff.
“We have had the same staff for several years now,” Papa said. “I have been here since the ’80s. Replacing the head coaching position is not the end of the world, but there is an unavoidable period of transition that occurs. Keeping that same staff allows the wheel to keep on moving so our programs keeps on being successful.”
Papa praised SRU Athletic Director Paul Lueken for placing track and field as a priority within the athletic department.
“Most schools don’t care about their track and field team,” Papa said. “I talk to other coaches from specific schools and they always praise The Rock for placing importance on other sports besides football. [Lueken] has one of the toughest jobs on campus in my opinion because everyone wants everything to do with sports.”
Coach Meredith’s tennis career began in his seventh grade year.
“I grew up in DuBois and started taking tennis lessons,” Meredith said. “I fell in love with the game and just feel very fortunate to have been able to have had the experiences that I have had. Over the summer months one year, our family had a player come stay with us for a few weeks and that is where I got my first chance at coaching. That is where I realized I could have a future in coaching.”
Meredith’s journey to The Rock began in the late ’80s where he was recruited by both SRU and Edinboro.
“I just decided that Slippery Rock was the best choice for me,” said Meredith, simply.
As an undergraduate, he majored in secondary education and social studies with a focus in history. He graduated in 1992 and began his coaching career. He coached one season at DuBois high school, his alma mater, before moving to Philadelphia for several years to instruct tennis at the Bucks County Racquet Club.
“I taught tennis for a number of different clubs and organizations in the Philadelphia area,” Meredith said. “After a few years, I returned to Slippery Rock under the guidance of Dr. McFarland.”
Upon returning to SRU, Meredith earned his master’s degree in special education and eventually took over as the interim head coach for the men’s tennis team.
“I was the interim coach until the university hired a new full-time coach,” Meredith said. “That guy ended up not working out and Director Lueken ended up giving me the job and that is how I stayed here for 20 years.”
Meredith coached the men’s tennis team for 12-13 years before it came to a bitter end.
“The university made the decision to ultimately cut the men’s program,” Meredith said. “I understood why the decision was made, but it was still unfortunate.”
The men’s tennis team was dropped at the end of the 2005-2006 academic year due to the university’s need to comply with Title IX, Director Lueken said. Lueken said that Meredith helped the difficult transition that followed the dropping of the men’s tennis program.
“It was very disheartening to me,” Meredith said. “I would get the men’s team back in a heartbeat. But I think that losing the men’s team helped the women’s team prosper. We were able to put more money into the women’s program because of Title IX and that helped establish our program as a winning program and as a program that also places a large priority on academics.”
Lueken acknowledged the coaches as two of the best he has had the privilege to work with.
“Both Papa and Meredith are great examples of what it means to be a coach at SRU,” Lueken said. “John [Papa] has to manage huge rosters in both cross country and track and field. I don’t know how he does it, especially on top of having to be a coach. Meredith has really helped our tennis programs over the years and has established Slippery Rock as one of the top tennis schools in the PSAC.”
Lueken said there are a number of positives that come with hiring alumni to head coaching roles.
“Alumni don’t necessarily have any advantage when applying to coaching roles,” Lueken said. “We conduct a nationwide search but when we do have alumni apply, we already know a little bit more about them and their playing career. We have a pretty good idea based on them having gone to school here on what kind of person they are and player they were.”