George Guido: Bell Township’s Rugh made coaching history 75 years ago

October 2, 2018

Pauline Rugh Smith

High school football history was made 75 years ago this week when a female took over as a head coach.

At Bell Township High School in 1943, all of the male teachers were away fighting in World War II, leaving the Lions without a coach.

About 35 boys were interested in playing that season, but a coach was needed.

Many women during the war years took over male roles such as working in factories -- remember the poster of Rosie the Riveter?

But females in the work force didn’t include football coaching until Bell principal Quintin Kintigh called young health and physical education teacher Pauline Rugh into his office and asked if she’d become the coach.

“And for no explainable reason, I said ‘yes,’ ” Rugh recalled in a 1999 Valley News Dispatch interview.

If Rugh, 22 at the time, hadn’t stepped in, the team would have been disbanded as many schools were during World War II, and the boys wouldn’t be playing football. When Rugh was named coach, the boys didn’t care that she was the only female coach in the country -- they just wanted to play football.

Before official WPIAL practice began, Rugh took a trip to Penn State to confer with then-Nittany Lions football coach Bob Higgins.

Higgins had Rugh sit in on a few practices and gave her some plays from the Penn State playbook that she’d be able to use.

It didn’t take long for word to spread about the lady football coach. The Associated Press sent writer Arden Skidmore to the Bell opener on Sept. 10, 1943, as Derry Borough hammered the Lions, 47-0.

The headline read: “Attractive Pauline Rugh’s team loses first game to Class A contingent.”

Bell was a Class B school, the smallest enrollment classification at the time.

The game story started out: “Comely Pauline Rugh’s Bell Township team ...”

The last paragraph started out: “Attired in a two-pieced brown suit with a sweater under her jacket ...”

Rest assured that none of the male coaches that weekend around the Alle-Kiski Valley had their attire described in the game stories.

About 3,000 fans showed up at Salina Field for Rugh’s rough debut, including reporters from all three Pittsburgh newspapers.

The story took the country by storm. National radio commentator Lowell Thomas -- sort of the Tom Brokaw of that era -- did a piece on the “lady coach from Western Pennsylvania.”

Rugh recalled one night when returning home to the family farm after practice, a contingent from LOOK magazine was there waiting for her. Before television came along, weekly newsmagazines like LOOK and TIME gave Americans visuals of what was happening.

The season went on and Bell didn’t win a game as the coach later became Pauline Rugh Smith. The closet game was a 13-7 loss to Derry Township.

“My husband and I rationalized that a coach would have been ostracized for losing a game to a woman,” Rugh Smith said in her induction speech at the 1999 Alle-Kiski Valley Sports Hall of Fame banquet.

But that wasn’t the end of the story.

By 1944, some of the male teachers began returning from war duty and took over the football reins. Because of Rugh, however, Bell didn’t have to shut down its football program during the war.

The continuity paid dividends several years later as Bell Township compiled a 28-game winning streak, best in A-K Valley history to this day.

Bell Township merged with Avonmore in 1953 to become Bell-Avon High School. Rugh Smith continued on the faculty until the school was merged to become Kiski Area High School in 1962, and Rugh Smith became a guidance counselor.

She retired as an educator in 1972 and died on July 3, 2009.

At the start of the current season, there are female high school football head coaches in West Virginia and Wyoming.

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