Beaver Falls – While Geneva College may be a small, private Christian school, it is home to a few historic landmarks in the sport that belie an institution of its size.
It is Geneva that is the birthplace of college basketball. The first basketball game played by a university team was held in Geneva on April 8, 1893 when it defeated a team from the New Brighton YMCA.
Then there’s Cal Hubbard, who played soccer in Geneva from 1925-27.
An offensive lineman, Hubbard is the only member of both the Pro Football Hall of Fame and the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame (he is also in the College Football Hall of Fame). He played 10 seasons in the NFL, including one season with the Pittsburgh Steelers. His 30-year career as a baseball umpire brought him to the MLB Hall of Fame.
Before starting refereeing, he returned to his alma mater and coached football teams in Geneva in 1942.
This history serves as the backdrop to the impressive coaching situation in Geneva today that spans 47 years.
During that period, the Golden Tornadoes had only two head football coaches.
Gene Sullivan, who died Sept. 8 at the age of 88, coached from 1976 to 1992.
Geno DiMarco, the current head coach, succeeded Sullivan in 1993 and just concluded his 30th season.
The Pittsburgh Steelers have always prided themselves on their coaching stability with only three head coaches in 54 years: Chuck Noll, 23 (1969-1991); Bill Cowher, 15 (1992-2006); and Mike Tomlin, who succeeded Cowher in 2007 and is now in its 16th season.
What’s happening in Geneva parallels what happened with the Steelers in terms of their coaches.
“There is a distinct common thread that runs through the football program at Geneva College and has for 47 years: Gino DiMarco and Gene Sullivan before him,” said Van Zanek, Geneva’s athletic director. “The impact these two men have had on thousands of young people at Geneva College is indescribable.”
Sullivan came to Geneva in 1976 when he was appointed football coach and sporting director. Prior to that, he taught biology and chemistry at Richland High School (now Payne Richland) and coached the football team from 1964 to 1975.
“Gene was a legend in Richland,” DiMarco said. “In fact, there is a movement to have him inducted into the WPIAL Hall of Fame, which he deeply deserves.”
In 1969 and ’70, Sullivan led Richland to the WPIAL Championships with back-to-back undefeated seasons.
In ’69, Richland won its first WPIAL title, 30-0, over New Brighton. New Brighton was coached by Jack Follin, who would go on to have a long career as the Blackhawks’ sporting director.
In ’70, Richland repeated as the WPIAL title with an 8-7 victory over the Beaver coached at the time by the legendary Pat Tarquinho.
During Sullivan’s 17 years in Geneva, the Golden Tornadoes went 75-85-2.
DeMarco, a 1979 graduate of New Brighton, began his college career at Baldwin-Wallace. But after his freshman season, he moved to Geneva and became a standout athlete. From 1981 to 1983, he played linebacker on the football team and became the school’s first All-Academic All-American. DeMarco also played baseball for the Golden Tornadoes and earned all-district honors as a junior when he hit . 407.
“Gene taught us that it was always faith, family, academics and then football,” DiMarco said. “He helped us realize that football won’t last forever.”
After graduating from Geneva, DeMarco served as a graduate assistant coach at Georgia Tech (1985) and West Virginia (1986-1987). Then he started working professionally in the pharmaceutical industry.
This allowed him to join Sullivan in Geneva for five seasons as a volunteer coach. When Sullivan retired after the ’92 season, Geneva offered DeMarco the head coaching position.
But on one condition: DeMarco was to keep Sullivan on as an assistant coach.
“Sure,” DiMarco said.
Sullivan remained Geneva’s assistant for 10 seasons.
“You rarely find a place where you’re a player as a coach, then you’re a coach for this coach, then this coach coaches you and then you coach his son,” said Di Marco.
Gene Sullivan’s son, Mike, played wide receiver for Geneva in the late 1990s and actually coached briefly under DeMarco.
“This is unheard of,” DiMarco said. “This is crazy. Things like that don’t happen.”
Since DeMarco became a coach, he has been trained by the same principles that Sullivan taught him.
“It was the impact that Gene had on Geno that led to Geno being the man and coach he’s been in Geneva for 30 years,” said Zanich.
“For generations, under the leadership of Coach Gene and Coach Geno, Geneva footballers have faced the challenge of putting God first, family second, study and work third, and football fourth,” said Geneva President Calvin Troupe.
“Gene and Geno walked on these priorities faithfully every single day.”
If the bond between Sullivan and DiMarco wasn’t cool enough, consider this one.
When he began training in Geneva, Di Marco envisioned that one day his children would take lessons in Geneva. But at the time, his daughter Alexa was 3 years old and his other daughter Jessica was 1 year old.
So DeMarco clearly imagined he was going to stay in Geneva for the long haul.
As it turns out, all four of his daughters will have Geneva degrees as well as husbands. Alexa, Jessica, and Grace are already married to men who either played or coached in Geneva. The same goes for Rachel, who is older and engaged to a footballer in Geneva.
“My four daughters came here, got a wonderful education and found husbands,” DiMarco said.
DeMarco, now 61, has no plans to call it a career anytime soon.
He has an overall record of 154-141. He had some very good years, some great years in fact, earlier in his career when Geneva played football in the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics. In the NAIA, Geneva has been able to provide athletic and academic financial assistance to its athletes.
But in 2007, Geneva switched to NCAA Division III, which allows teams to offer academic financial aid but not athletic scholarships. Since then, the losses have outweighed the gains. The Golden Tornadoes are competitive but still have nine straight losing seasons, including 3-7 this year.
“The football part… there’s nothing like it,” DiMarco said. “I really don’t know what else I would do. Loss hurts and it doesn’t go away. So we have to find a way to change this thing. That’s what I want to do.”
“When we talk about Geneva College’s mission which includes preparing students for good and loyal service, Geno DeMarco’s legacy is and will continue to be how he has been able to prepare his players for life after college football,” Zanic said.
“Where did you learn that from? Gene Sullivan.”