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Mike Zmijanac adjusting to a new environment at Ringgold

August 24, 2018

Mike Zmijanac and his wife Michelle toured around France for more than three weeks earlier this year. In his words, they walked, traveled, saw, did, ate, drank for 23 days in the spring.

They lived six days in Paris in a rented apartment. They took a train to a region where castles remain. They booked a bed and breakfast for four days. They rented a car and drove for nine. They visited Normandy where Michelle’s family once owned a cottage; her grandfather was an architect in Paris, he adds.

It’s a trip the Zmijanacs happily take every couple of years.

“I feel at home,” Zmijanac said of the French streets. “I have no issue with the fact that there’s somewhat of a language barrier.”

How does this relate to coaching football?

After decades wearing red and black, Zmijanac wore a pair of blue shorts and a gray T-shirt Monday for the first day of summer football camp at Ringgold. After 21 seasons as head coach at Aliquippa, Zmijanac was in an unfamiliar gym with unfamiliar players.

But whether in Paris or Monongahela, he said, adapting to a new environment isn’t as hard as it may seem.

“I’ve never had a problem with that,” Zmijanac said. “For whatever reason, I don’t know what it is, I’ve always been able to fit in.”

Zmijanac had 46 players attend Monday’s two practice sessions, a young roster with only four seniors. Other than the thunderstorms that forced the afternoon workout into the gym, this first day wasn’t all that different than the past 21, he insisted.

“We had defensive practice in the morning, we’ll have offensive practice in the afternoon,” Zmijanac said. “Just like I’ve always done. Kids are kids. Football is football.”

Zmijanac won 237 games, six WPIAL titles and one state championship at Aliquippa. He’d led the Quips to Heinz Field for the WPIAL finals in each of the past 10 seasons before the school board voted in February to replace him.

He lives in Mt. Lebanon, so the commute time to Ringgold isn’t much different than to Aliquippa, he said, but it was too far for any of his former assistants to follow him there.

He’s adapting to Ringgold’s campus, which includes new turf and a renovated weight room, but also brought with him some traditions from Aliquippa. That includes his knack for handing out nicknames.

One player was already dubbed “lunch,” he said with a laugh, because that’s when the player was running the hardest, after someone hollered “lunch.”

More nicknames are in the works.

“I have to know their real names first,” he added.

But he’s serious about football and making Ringgold a winner.

The Rams finished 3-6 last season and missed the WPIAL Class 4A playoffs. But in the three seasons previous, the team went 27-7 and reached the WPIAL semifinals twice.

During the interview process, an administrator asked him how long it would take to build a winning team.

“My answer was: ‘I’m more impatient than you are,’ ” Zmijanac said.

He was hired in April to replace Nick Milchovich, who resigned after four seasons. Zmijanac told administrators that he was committed for at least five years and maybe longer if they still wanted him, Ringgold athletic director Laura Grimm said.

“He hit the ground running from the first day that he was hired,” Grimm said. “I joke with him because every day he comes in with a to-do list of things and (asks), ‘Hey, can you help me with these five things?’ Every day it’s a new list.”

Zmijanac’s application arrived at the school when Grimm was in Hershey for an athletic director conference. Her secretary called to say they’d received another football coaching applicant.

“It’s no secret, we were in dire need of a football coach at that point,” Grimm said. “We’d advertized several times. We’d offered it, and for whatever reason that didn’t work out. And then we went back out a second time and weren’t happy with our second pool. We put it back out a third time and were thinking any coach that’s worth it is probably already gone.”

The secretary had trouble reading the name on the application, so Grimm had her send a picture.

“I’m thinking to myself, ‘Holy (cow),’ ” Grimm said. “That went from probably one of my worst times as AD to the best, all in the course of three months.”

With the players divided up by position for the afternoon workout, Zmijanac bounced between groups. As the linemen circled around him to hear his instructions, all eyes were on the hall of fame coach.

“The kids love him,” Grimm said. “He’s too modest, but I think he’s slowly starting to see that everybody knows who he is. They know that’s ‘Coach Z.’ ”

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