It was September of 2003 and I was in my first month at The Progress.
One of my earliest assignments was the Curwensville football beat.
For the first several years of my time at The Progress, I covered the Golden Tide almost exclusively every Friday night and had the great pleasure of getting to know head coach Andy Evanko, who was just in his fourth year at the helm of the program when I started.
Coach Evanko passed away early Wednesday morning after a long battle with ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. He was just 64 years old.
Andy was a fiery figure, a daunting presence on the sideline and someone who was very, very passionate about the game and the kids he coached.
I was actually a little intimidated the first time I interviewed him. It was after a rare loss — a 12-2 defeat in a Saturday evening game against Elk County Catholic. (Coach Evanko was NOT a fan of Saturday games).
He listened attentively to my questions and was very passionate and, at times, demonstrative with his answers. But one thing became crystal clear very quickly — it was all about the kids.
He loved his football players and they obviously loved him. You don’t have the kind of success at a smaller school that coach Evanko had without the kids buying into you and your program, and his kids were willing to run through a brick wall for him.
Evanko, who worked as an assistant coach from 1985 to 1999, put together a 150-63 career record in his 19 years at the head of the program, leading the Golden Tide to District 9 titles in 2000, 2004 and 2010 and runner-up finishes in 2001, 2006 and in his final season after ALS had taken his voice. He had to communicate to his players and coaches with the use of an Ipad.
The Golden Tide’s best season under Evanko came in 2004 when they went 12-1 and made it to the Western Finals where they lost a heartbreaker to a Derek Moye-led Rochester team. Moye went on to play for the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Curwensville football was known for its bruising rushing attack under Evanko.
The Golden Tide boast the top three career rushing leaders in District 9 history in Nick Stewart (7,324 yards), Nick Sipes (5,963 yards) and Alex Holland (5,734 yards). Curwensville running backs also have five of the best single-season rushing marks in District 9 history, led by Holland, who had the second-highest total of 2,600 in 2010 as well as the sixth-highest of 2,334 in 2011. Nate Sipes (2,511 in 2004) Zach Tibbens (2,345 in 2013) and Stewart (2,032 in 2016) own the third, fifth and eighth-highest totals, respectively.
While Evanko will be remembered for a long time for his great success on the gridiron, he was much, much more than a football coach.
He was a mentor and a teacher for the boys and girls he coached, a father-figure for many. And while the first thing one may notice was his fiery personality on the field, Andy was actually a very humble man.
Never did he want the spotlight. Never did he want any accolades. Never did he want any credit for what his teams accomplished. Even when ALS had set in and he decided to continue coaching, he did not want it to be about him, and he asked that I not mention it in my stories. It was ALWAYS about the kids.
When they were successful, coach Evanko always said it was all because of the hard work and dedication of the kids and his assistant coaches.
And when the Golden Tide had a bad game, he always took the blame. He would always say, ‘I didn’t do my job. I didn’t have them ready to play.’
But it was really not very often that a Curwensville football team wasn’t ready to play.
I don’t know how many Curwensville football games I’ve covered in my 16-year career, but I enjoyed every one. I was always welcomed with open arms by coach Evanko and his staff as I trudged the sidelines along with them.
And win or lose, Andy was very gracious with his time after a game. When I interviewed any of his players, they were always well spoken and humble, often giving all the credit to their teammates — an obvious lesson they learned from their coach.
During my time at The Progress, I called Andy a few days before each game to get his thoughts as I prepared my preview.
The conversation would always start with him asking about my wife and kids and often would go on for quite a while before we even talked football.
He was personable and genuinely cared about people. I enjoyed every conversation I ever had with him and looked forward to that call every week.
One thing I remember him saying quite often was how great the Curwensville High School administration and the community was for all the support they gave him and the football program, and he always went out of his way to make that clear to me — that it was through the efforts of a lot of people that the Golden Tide were successful, and he was truly thankful for every one of them.
And he always liked to say there was nothing like a Friday night at Riverside Stadium.
Andy was a big reason for that.
And while football Friday nights at Riverside Stadium will continue without him, they will certainly never be the same.