MIKE BURKE

Allegany Communications Sports­­

Forty years ago in March, I moved back to Cumberland and went to work for the Cumberland Times-News as a sportswriter.

A lot of things have changed since then: My hair is no longer black, Greenway Avenue Stadium is no longer Fort Hill Stadium, its field is no longer grass, the football at Bishop Walsh is no longer played, all of the head coaches I covered no longer coach, many of the players I covered became coaches and now no longer coach, and so many wonderful friends whose paths have crossed are no longer here, such as Richard F. “Dick” Bittner, always Coach Bittner to me, who died on January 11 at age 87.

Forty years ago, Dick Bittner took over as the Fort Hill head football coach, finally getting his chance after nearly two decades as the top assistant at his alma mater. Bittner, who taught geography at the school, was brought in to right the ship, whatever that means in high school football, and though he was the head coach just two years, it feels as though, 40 years later, the ship’s been on a pretty good course ever since he took over.

Bittner guided Fort Hill to the Maryland Class A (now 3A) state playoffs both seasons after the Sentinels had missed the playoffs the previous four. Even worse, the Sentinels had lost to Allegany four straight years.

Fort Hill started that 1984 season 5-0, but entered Homecoming at 6-3 and not many people gave them a chance, particularly when undefeated Allegany scored on its first possession.

Perhaps, though, having been sparked by the 48-year-old Bittner himself leading the team through the band’s tunnel prior to the game, not to mention the new red pants they were dressed in, the Sentinels came back to dominate up front and won the game, 14-12, for their first Homecoming victory in five years.

Fort Hill football would not be taken lightly anymore.

Having already known Coach Bittner for most of my life I was not unfamiliar with his uniqueness. The man rarely spoke in contractions, for instance, with the only time I remember him doing so being during his first season as the Fort Hill head coach when he told me. “I wouldn’t be paranoid if everybody wasn’t out to get me.”

In general, he had a way of expressing himself the way no one else ever had.

Whereas most of us say we “know that,” Coach Bittner was “keenly aware of this.” Whereas most teams would be “pretty upset” to lose a playoff game, Coach Bittner, after Fort Hill lost a playoff game to McDonough at White Plains Center, said, “We are gravely disappointed,” but that, “our boys fought like wildcats.”

Coach Bittner loved Fort Hill and played football for Coach Bill Hahn at a time when many of the Sentinel players received scholarships to play for Coach Jim Tatum and his great teams at the University of Maryland. Coach Bittner was one of those players.

In 1953, he played in the East-West All-American Football Game in Memphis, Tenn. and was named the Outstanding Player for the East, having roomed with and becoming longtime friends with future NFL great and Hollywood actor Alex Karras.

At Maryland, who was the defending national champion, Bittner played for three seasons, with the 1956 team going undefeated before losing to eventual national champion Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl. Bittner, however, suffered a serious chest injury during the Terps’ final scrimmage for the game and his playing career was over.

After serving in the Air Force, then graduating from Frostburg State University, Bittner became a teacher and a coach at Fort Hill. He was meticulous in every endeavor he undertook — his diction, his printing and handwriting, his lesson plans, his maps, his practice schedules and game plans, his yard work — and this carried over to his students in the classroom and to his players on the field.

A great friend and a great man, the late Don Nau, credited Coach Bittner during his acceptance speech into the Fort Hill Hall of Fame in 2015.

Whip (that’s what we called him) graduated from Fort Hill and James Madison University with a degree in Geography. He spent his career in U.S. Intelligence, having begun with the Defense Intelligence Agency training as an imagery analyst to monitor Soviet and Warsaw Pact military forces.

Over the next 32 years, Nau served his country in 45 countries or more; none of which he said would have been possible had he not had Coach Bittner as his high school geography teacher.

Think about that.

Coach Bittner was a stickler for detail and he taught and coached that detail in the classroom and on the practice field. No detail was too small to overlook, and though he had a different way of doing things, he always had each student’s best interest at heart.

It’s safe to say there was no other person in the world like Dick Bittner, and in every conceivable way. Anyone who knew him can tell you stories, lots of them; because he lived his life all the way. He didn’t get cheated.

Dick Bittner was larger than life in so many ways, including physically. He was strict, he was tough, he was demanding, he was intelligent, he commanded the room and he was a whole lot of fun.

Having grown up in the neighborhood and gone to school with his son Dave, I knew Coach Bittner for most of my life. From the time I was a kid, Coach Bittner was just always part of it, as a father, as a neighbor, as a teacher and as a coach.

What I will remember the most about him, though, is 40 years ago, when Fort Hill’s football program was struggling (for likely the first time), Coach Bittner came back to coaching to help the team and the program that had provided so much to him when he was growing up.

Not only did he stop the bleeding, he restored order and direction to Fort Hill football as a first-time head coach, because he was that devoted to Fort Hill High School.

It can be said, from the first day he walked into the school as a student, Richard F. Bittner took his Fort Hill Student’s Creed to heart.

He certainly carried out his pledge.

Mike Burke writes about sports and other stuff for Allegany Communications. He began covering sports for the Prince George’s Sentinel in 1981 and joined the Cumberland Times-News sports staff in 1984, serving as sports editor for over 30 years. Contact him at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @MikeBurkeMDT