While shoveling snow, Jack Mehl invited his next door neighbor — who happened to be nearby performing the same chilly chore — to an upcoming basketball game.
This wasn’t just some neighborly gesture.
At the time, Mehl served as the Frederick Community College women’s basketball team’s head coach and wanted his shovel-wielding neighbor, former FCC men’s basketball head coach Al Pansa, to watch the Cougars play and provide evaluation.
Before taking in a game, though, Pansa wanted to check out one of Mehl’s practices. So, armed with a notepad, Pansa parked himself in the bleachers and observed as Mehl ran the Cougars through drills and plays.
“I thought we had a good practice, we had been pretty successful, I thought I was doing a pretty good job,” Mehl said. “And afterwards, Al sat down with me and had like three pages of notes of all the things I could do better, all of the things that we should work on and all of the suggestions that he offered.
“I went, ‘OK, so when can you start?,’” he said.
Pansa joined Mehl’s coaching staff as an assistant. And once again, Pansa’s basketball knowledge helped produce wins, just like it did when he helmed the St. John’s boys and FCC men’s programs, and just like it would when he later returned to the Cougars’ men’s program as Dave Miller’s assistant.
Pansa, who once told The Frederick News-Post that coaching basketball gave him “a purpose in life,” died on June 5 at the age of 87 after a long battle with Alzheimer’s.
Pansa’s career as a basketball coach in Frederick County, which started at St. John’s Literary Institute (which is now St. John’s Catholic Prep) in 1962 and ended when he stepped down as an FCC men’s assistant in 2013, garnered plenty of recognition. He was enshrined in four Hall of Fames — the YMCA of Frederick County’s Alvin G. Quinn Sports Hall of Fame, the NJCAA Region XX Hall of Fame, the St. John’s Hall of Fame and the FCC Hall of Fame.
While Pansa routinely enjoyed winning seasons at St. John’s, the telltale sign of his coaching acumen came after he was hired to helm the FCC men’s program. Taking over a team that won just three games the previous season, Pansa guided the Cougars to a 16-8 record during his first season in 1972-73.
“He built it up from nothing into a very strong program,” said Miller, who ran that same program from 1993 to 2013 and coaxed Pansa out of a brief retirement to help him.
Monte Hill, a point guard from Frederick High School who was one of the first players Pansa recruited to play at FCC, said Pansa wanted no-nonsense guys who loved, not merely liked, playing basketball.
“Coach Pansa was probably one of the best coaches I ever played under,” Hill said. “Defense was first. He wanted you to play hard. And if you played defense and gave the effort, you were going to get a chance to show your skills.”
Pansa compiled a 192-97 record during his tenure as FCC’s men’s coach, stepping down after the 1982-83 season. And when he assisted Mehl from 1995 to 2003, the FCC women went to the nationals five times, had a 30-win season and never had a losing record.
Pansa’s winning records and Hall of Fame inductions are undoubtedly noteworthy. But he apparently thought there was a better gauge of a coach’s impact.
“I always felt that if you want to see the real value of a program, look at who graduated and see what they became,” Pansa told The Frederick News-Post in 2005. “Then, you know if the coach did the job.”
A couple of his former players became lawyers. One was a bank president. Several others went on to coach basketball themselves, both at the high school and collegiate levels.
Pansa, a native of Vandergrift, Pennsylvania, said 56 players he had as a head coach went on to four-year schools. One of them was James Veres, who got a full-ride to Division II University of Steubenville after playing for Pansa at FCC from 1978 to 1980.
Veres and his brother, Richard, both played for Pansa. They also happened to hail from Ohio.
“He was a good guy, personable,” Veres said. “We had a chance to meet Coach, we liked him, we met some of the others guys that were going to be on the team and decided to come play JuCo basketball in Frederick, Maryland, from Akron, Ohio.”
Compared to powers like Community of College of Baltimore and Allegany, FCC was undersized during the era when Veres played there. Pansa counteracted that disadvantage by having players take good shots, play strong defense, take care of the ball and rebound.
“Fundamental basketball,” Veres said. “And we had reasonable success.”
Veres re-connected with Pansa when his son, Jeremy Veres, played for the Cougars from 2009 to 2011, when Pansa assisted Miller.
“He had a connection with my dad and uncle,” said Jeremy, who is a Linganore High School grad. “Always the nicest guy, always willing to help with everything. Always supportive, giving words of encouragement.”
Pansa often gave players more than just words.
“That was a great man,” Hill said. “If I needed something, he always found a way.”
Pansa’s hoops career included coaching three years for a United States Air Force base team. After becoming the St. John’s boys junior varsity basketball coach in 1962, Pansa was named the school’s varsity head coach in 1965 and compiled a 247-91 record there before leaving to helm the FCC men.
While he was a basketball fixture in Frederick County, Pansa’s coaching résumé included other endeavors. At St. John’s, he coached the baseball team. Also, he was heavily involved in Special Olympics, melding his knowledge of sports with his work with kids who had disabilities. Pansa was as a special education teacher at Harmony Grove School and Rock Creek School, where he spent the bulk of his career as an educator.
When Mehl stepped down as the FCC women’s coach in 2003, Pansa planned to retire as a basketball coach. But by the next season, he was an assistant with the school’s men’s team under Miller.
“I said I wanted to go south and play some golf,” Pansa told The Frederick News-Post. “[Miller] said I didn’t have to come out all the time.”
Pansa rarely missed a practice. And despite worries that the game had passed him by, players seemed faster and more athletic, Pansa fit right in with the men’s program he had guided decades earlier.
“He was a very knowledgeable coach, he understood the game of basketball,” Miller said. “He understood the type of players we needed to recruit, he was very good at pregame planning and very good at in-game decisions.”
Such traits, and others, were demonstrated wherever Pansa coached.
“Not that I’m a wild guy, but he was kind of a calming influence, and he was able to pull kids aside in a game and talk to them,” said Mehl, who is going into his 12th season as Hood College’s women’s basketball coach. “We really had a good run, and it’s something I thoroughly enjoyed.”
Their relationship wasn’t just professional, though, especially since they were longtime neighbors.
“We became and stayed close friends through everything, and we had lots of fun,” Mehl said. “Super Bowl evenings were always fun. We’d always go over to Fran [Pansa’s wife] and Al’s for Super Bowl evening, and we’d go out and get pizza. I just have a lot of pleasant memories.”