By: Claude Milot
The Hall of Fame for Great Americans, a national shrine, is an open-air colonnade standing at the summit of University Heights on the campus of Bronx Community College (originally the uptown campus of New York University). Founded in 1900, it is no longer the country’s only Hall of Fame, as they have proliferated to honor people in all walks of life: sports, music, poker, farmers, cowboys, even burlesque. One is the Pennsylvania Sports Hall of Fame that lists among its inductees such legends as Arnold Palmer, Roberto Clemente, Stan Musial, and Art Rooney. The Western Chapter of the PA Hall now lists among its new inductees a long-time resident of Albemarle Plantation, none other than Russ Cerny.
Russ and his wife Ann traveled to Pittsburgh on April 13 for the induction ceremony and dinner at the Sheraton Pitts-burgh Hotel, home of the Hall. Russ was honored for his accomplishments as a cross-country and track & field coach, accomplishments too numerous to list. But here are just a few.
From 1960 to 1987, his North Allegheny High School teams had a record of 722 wins and only 19 losses in dual and tri-meets, an almost inconceivable 97.5 winning percentage. His teams won numerous sectional and district titles, but more importantly, 13 state championships. Russ won numerous local and state awards for his coaching, even a Tri-State Coaches Lifetime Achievement Award. His latest Hall of Fame honor came on top of his induction into the North Allegheny Tigers Sports Hall of Fame (1997) and the Pennsylvania Track and Field Coaches Association Hall of Fame (2002). We could go on. But the most important part of the story is how Russ got to be such a great coach.
Russ Cerny was born in Pittsburgh in 1937 and went to Shaler High School there. He then earned a BA in Education and Biology at Edinboro College in Erie and his Masters from the University of Pittsburgh. In 1959, he began teaching Science and Biology at North Allegheny High School, a position he kept until he retired in 1993. His interest in school sports, however, goes way back. He was a champion wrestler throughout his high school and college years, but a runner almost by accident. His high school didn’t have a cross country program, so Russ went to the sports coach and asked, “Why not?” The coach’s answer was, “Get me seven boys and I’ll start one.” Russ grabbed two of his brothers and five kids from the neighborhood. The rest, as they say, is history.
Russ began his first year at North Allegheny as assistant track coach and in 1960 became head coach of the boys’ cross country team. Amazingly, he proceeded to win three straight state championships, the first of his eventual 13, and went undefeated for many years competing against 100 teams in western Pennsylvania. What was his secret?
Coach Cerny had a simple philosophy that he put into practice every day: The more you control the environment, the more behavior can be influenced in a predictable way. The environment, he explains, is psychological; it’s what make kids want to win. It could be how you recognize the accomplishment of an individual in front of his peers; how you single out a winning performance over the school’s PA system; how you buy every kid a school jacket after winning a championship; how you host a spaghetti dinner at your home after a victory; even something as simple as a pat on the back. When-ever behavior is rewarded, it will be repeated; and the greater the reward, the greater the frequency of the response. The philosophy prevailed in the classroom as well. Russ says his class regularly had the most winning biology projects and his students the most scholarship offers.
It was during his early years as a coach that Russ found himself in a different environment, one that he could not have predicted would make him a winner of a different sort. Needing to supplement his income, Russ worked a second job as a night watchman at a construction site. It was there that he met Ann, the stunning beauty who would become his wife in 1962 and give Russ three sons: Russ, Kirk, and Eric. They in turn have given their mom and dad fourteen grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.
Russ and Ann moved into their mountain chalet after his retirement, but Russ didn’t stop coaching. In 1994 and 1995 he coached cross country for St. Mary’s, a Catholic K-12 school for boys and girls. Not surprisingly, the school won state championships two years in a row.
After stopping at Albemarle Plantation on the way back from Manteo in 2002, Russ fell in love with the view of the golf course and the Sound from the Clubhouse veranda. That did it. The Cernys bought a lot and put the chalet up for sale. Nine months later they moved into their new home on Yadkin Creek Court and had their 22-foot Larson shipped to the marina. And for the last 16 years it has been an ideal retirement life with boating, golf, and many joyful family reunions. A life truly deserved by an authentic Hall of Famer.