James "Lash" Nesser (2011)

Call him what you will, there has never been a more charismatic character prowling the sidelines in Fayette County sports than the late James "Lash" Nesser.


At tiny Uniontown St. John and later at Uniontown High School Nesser consistently turned out winning basketball squads and had a profound effect on both students and adults.

Nesser was born in Uniontown on August 5, 1921 and attended Uniontown High School. The legend of Lash Nesser started at St. Vincent College where he was a three-sport star who earned his nickname as a baseball player (a catcher, Nesser was said to have a whiplash-like throwing arm). Nesser graduated from St. Vincent in 1946, after completing three years of military service.

He was a salesman for the American Tobacco Co. for a year before returning to St. Vincent in 1947. He was approached by Fr. Edmund, a priest at St. Vincent who told him of a coaching vacancy at a little Catholic high school in Uniontown.

"I really wanted to coach football, after playing three sports at St. Vincent,‰ Nesser recalled in a 1981 interview. "I told this to Fr. Edmund. But he said this friend of his needed a basketball coach, and would I help him out. Well, I was short on cash but long on charity and dedication, so I gave up a selling job that paid me as much a week as I would make in a month of coaching, and that‚s how I ended up at St. John‚s.

"I think it was the idea of a challenge more than anything that got me into the coaching job. You get it into your head to see if you can coach, and I accepted the challenge, becoming a fulltime teacher (7 subjects) and coach. I thought I would give it a try for one year and see what came of it, but it turned out I had a lot of fun and I‚ve been at it ever since.‰

Through some painstaking research I‚ve been able to come up with a pretty accurate coaching mark for Nesser at St. John‚s give or take a couple of games. He compiled a 434-233 mark with the Eagles from 1948-49 until the school closed after the 1975-76 campaign.

His early career at St. John‚s was a source of great pride and great memories for Nesser.

"Those were great years in county basketball,‰ he remembered. "Everybody was building a program, and we played anywhere and everywhere. We played upstairs in one building at Perryopolis, on a dirt floor in Masontown, Immaculate Conception played in the basement of a church with pillars that we had to weave around, and Dunbar Township had a court with a low ceiling at Leisenring where you couldn‚t shoot an arching set shot, but had to fire the ball on a straight line because you would hit the ceiling.

"At Redstone, we played in the old "Glory Barn‰ with a stove on the floor that acted as a post man for both teams, and we always packed plenty of Unguentine. One year we played in the Pittsburgh Catholic League and we played over a meat market. At Point Marion we played in a skating rink and Uniontown played at Lafayette Junior High until 1954. Honestly those were great days in county basketball.‰

Nesser was known for his sideline antics and was one of the more animated scholastic coaches in America. He went after players and officials with a big booming voice. During a game he would gnaw on his knuckles.

"With my big burly voice, a lot of people get the wrong impression,‰ Nesser said in a 1983 Pittsburgh Press profile. "Even when I talk in a normal voice people say, ŒLook at him hollering at those kids.‚‰

His players loved him.

"A lot of it was us and a lot of what happened was Coach Nesser," former St. John‚s star Larry Fisher stated. "He was just the type of coach that might have screamed and hollered and did all that crazy stuff and a lot of people said they went to the games just to watch him, but he motivated us."

"Coach Nesser's record is 25 or 30 years of victory," Phil Wooddy a former Eagle who resides in San Diego offered. "He was bigger than life and he was four feet wide and all muscle and he scared everybody to death. He would chase everybody into the lockeroom screaming and corporal punishment was not unheard of. He was a born leader."

Nesser captured the PCIAA state Catholic Association Championship in 1965 when St. John‚s downed Williamsport St. Joseph 64-62 and he guided the Eagles to a state semi final spot in 1962 and the final in 1976.

"It wasn‚t all coaching, I can assure you,‰ Nesser said in 1981. "Really it was a matter of participation and pride. Even the Nuns got caught up in the spirit of the games, and St. John had tremendous spirit. Their pep rallies were classics and their cheering at games was outstanding, everybody participated. People followed us to other schools and many times we brought more fans with us than the home team had going for them.‰

When St. John‚s closed its doors in 1976 Nesser took over the coaching reins at Uniontown High School where he compiled an 11 year record of 246-64 with a WPIAL championship and a state title in 1981. He is one of the few coaches with a Catholic Championship and a PIAA Championship on his resume. His combined career won-loss total at St. John‚s and Uniontown is 680-297.

Nesser and the Red Raiders defeated Springfield Delco 73-61 to capture the PIAA title in 1981 and they did it without a player taller than 6-foot-2.

"I doubt I‚ll ever have a team like them again,‰ Nesser said following the victory. "We‚ll probably have a decent team next season. But you just don‚t get teams with that size playing the way that they played.‰

Nesser‚s assistant former Uniontown standout Willie Bryant said coaching alongside Nesser was an experience he‚ll never forget.

"All the stories are true," Bryant said. "Let your mind do the imagining. I remember when we won the state title and the governor was in and I had to speak for a few minutes and I sat beside Lash‚s wife Martha and I said I'm the only man that slept with her husband for two days without getting a divorce. He'd go to sleep with that cigar burning in his hand and I'd figure we're going to burn to death before the day is over. He was something; he was a character from the days of coaching at St. John's. During the season my side was one big bruise from him hitting me when he got excited.‰

Nesser passed away on December 2, 1988 at the age of 67.

One of Nesser‚s fiercest coaching rivals was former Geibel Coach Ken Misiak who believes that Nesser was more than just a coach.

"You can look at his record,‰ Misiak said. "But his greatest attribute was molding young men into adults.‰


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