Loss of a legend

Longtime football coach Phil Annarella, 70, passes away

Tribune file photo Phil Annarella looks on during a playoff game during the 2010 season at Mollenkopf Stadium. Annarella passed away over the weekend.

WARREN — The Mahoning Valley football community is in mourning after losing one of its legendary figures. Austintown Fitch coach Phil Annarella passed away unexpectedly at the age of 70.

“The whole community has suffered a great loss,” Austintown Fitch Athletic Director Jim Penk said. “When I say the community, I don’t just mean Austintown, Warren and Niles. He’s got a very large family.”

Annarella made many stops along his 47 years of coaching where he amassed a 246-146-3 record across his 38 seasons in the head coaching role. He started as an assistant with East Liverpool, and he then went on to become the head coach at Rayen where he had a 11-8-1 record.

After that, he went Warren Western Reserve where he spent nine seasons coaching before being kept as the coach for the now-consolidated Warren G. Harding High School.

Annarella was famously the coach for Harding’s 1990 state championship team, where he united not only two bitter rivals, but a city as well.

Tribune file photo Former Warren G. Harding coach Phil Annarella speaks to a crowd of fans after the Raiders won the 1990 state championship.

Harding coach Steve Arnold was given his first coaching position by Annarella, when he was hired as the freshman coach in 1990.

“He took a chance on somebody he really didn’t know,” Arnold said. “That was the first year of consolidation. He had to bring a community together. Two different high schools, traditions, colors, booster clubs, players, all that. He had to coordinate more than just the varsity staff. Phil is kind of the architect of bringing everyone together.”

Arnold joked that what Annarella did as a coach that season made his job coaching the Raiders all these years later far more difficult.

“Going 14-0 and winning the state championship was crucial to the community,” Arnold said. “I jokingly say sometimes that that was the worst thing he could’ve done was to win a state championship in the first year after consolidation. It was great, but that was a tough act to follow.”

After leaving Harding in 1996, he crossed over state lines, coaching at nearby Hickory High School in Pennsylvania for four seasons. He returned to the Valley to coach Niles before finally reaching Austintown Fitch, where he won 83 games across 12 seasons, including multiple playoff appearances.

Despite the great successes on the field that Annarella had, his greatest impacts might have been off the field, caring just as much or more about the players off-field success.

Annarella had said that as a high school coach, your job is not only to put a successful product on the field, but to guide young men throughout their formative years into adulthood. According to his former players, Annarella succeeded.

“He probably cared more about you off the field than on the field,” 2018 Fitch graduate and former Falcons running back Randy Smith said. “He checked grades every week. If he had to pull a kid out of the class to ask him, that’s what he would do. He just cared more about the off-the-field stuff. He was just a great guy.”

Cincinnati Bengals center Billy Price took to social media to thank Annarella for all that he did for him.

“It’s a tragic loss for the Austintown community,” Price posted on his Twitter account Saturday. “He made many boys into men and built confidence in many of us. There will always be a special place for coach in this community’s memory.”

Annarella’s old school, no-nonsense approach to coaching brought the team together and helped them succeed, no matter the odds against them.

“He was old fashioned,” Smith said. “Clear cut, he wanted it one way, he knew the way to do it and that’s why most people just loved doing it for him because we did it together as one. We were never the biggest team, we were usually undersized, we just got after it. That’s the mentality at Fitch.”

When asked what the team’s plans were for the upcoming season, Penk said those matters will be brushed aside for the time being, wishing to honor Annarella’s legacy.