Windsor, N.J. -- They came from as far north as northern New
York, as far south as Florida and as far west as California
to pay tribute to a coach they continue to respect and cherish
25 years after his retirement from Mercer County Community
College in 1987. It was Howie Landa's day on Sept. 15 when
the college unveiled his name on the basketball court in the
West Windsor campus gym.
As several speakers noted, when future Mercer students ask
about the name on the court, they will learn the storied history
of Mercer's basketball program under Coach Landa -- when the
Vikings went to the national tournament six times and won
the national title twice (1973 and 1974).
a resident of Henderson, Nevada, who attended the event with
his daughter and son-in-law, Davida and Beau Mentley, teared
up at many points in the emotion-packed ceremony.
"It isn't about Howie Landa. It's about all of you,"
he told the packed house. "I was only as good as the
players who played for me. You are the ones who put my name
on this court. I am in 12 Halls of Fame, but this is the greatest
honor of all."
Master of Ceremonies George O'Gorman, a long-time Trentonian
sportswriter who served on the Landa Tribute Committee, started
off the lively program. "Of the people who have made
a difference around Trenton, Howie Landa is at the top of
the list," O'Gorman observed. "This is a fitting
testimony, a legacy for future generations. He was an iconic
coach and he put Mercer on the map. He was a coach who coaches
came to see."
of the approximately 200 guests in attendance are now coaches
themselves - in men's and women's basketball at the college
level, high school level, and in youth basketball leagues,
as well as in other sports.
Landa Committee Chair Al Leister, who served as MCCC athletics
director during much of the Landa era, also addressed the
audience, acknowledging the many current and retired staffers
who have helped to make the athletics program strong, including
retired administrative assistant Carol Gibilisco and equipment
manager Zinna Kusnirik, now 96 years old.
"Carol was the rudder on the Vikings ship and Zinna kept
us humble," he said. Leister thanked Landa for supporting
his own candidacy at Mercer. "I planned to stay three
years. That lasted over 40," Leister said, who still
teaches math as an adjunct professor.
Leister noted that Landa's standards for excellence are ones
the college continues to strive for today. "But excellence
costs. So we truly appreciate your support and for showing
your respect and love for Howie Landa." Approximately
$25,000 has been raised towards the $50,000 goal for the Howie
Landa Tribute Fund to benefit student athletes.
Physical Education Professor Bob Pugh, a Landa assistant for
six seasons in the 1970s, recalled the joys and the pressures
that came with national fame. "When we returned to the
national championships in 1974, our emotions were in overdrive.
We had a target on our back. But we repeated as champs. You
never realize you are making history while you are part of
it," he said.
Current Athletics Director John Simone read a letter from
the college's first president, Dr. Richard Greenfield, who
was unable to attend but sent his words of congratulations.
"Thank you so much for the seeds you planted," Simone
read from Greenfield's letter. He added that the MCCC athletics
program has never been stronger, with nine intercollegiate
teams and 153 participating athletes this year.
Other committee members include Bob DiFalco of the MCCC Board
of Trustees, who presented proclamations from the New Jersey
Legislature and the Mercer County Board of Chosen Freeholders,
and Landa assistants Charles Smith and Bill Panella. Also
on the committee are current Basketball Coach Howard Levy
and Academic Counselor Fred Weiner. College representatives
include Erin Cahill, Charlene Edwards, Wendy Humphrey, Edyta
Kuciapa, Amy Frangione and Mellissia Zanjani. Rosanne Zarrili
and Jeremy Parry have also provided valuable assistance.
President Patricia Donohue noted that the event celebrated
what is best about Mercer - coaches, faculty and staff all
working together to mentor and guide students to better futures.
"We have a deep and lasting commitment to our student
athletes. We understand the role of athletics in molding young
people into responsible, take-charge adults
how to manage their priorities, work as a team and pursue
their goals with determination," Donohue said.
Three players shared their recollections of the Landa era.
Mel Weldon, a First Team All-American and MVP of the 1973
championship team, recalled Landa as a coach who became like
his dad. "He did this not just for me, but for every
kid who came across his path." After graduating from
MCCC, Weldon transferred to Boston College and continued his
highly successful basketball career. He returned to central
New Jersey in the late 1970s, where he has served as a long-time
manager for the Trenton Housing Authority. He is also a well-known
Alumna Deitra Primas-Johnson, who played for the women's team
from 1978-1980, recalled Landa's role in promoting women's
sports back when Title IV was in its infancy. Now the sports
editor of the Atlanta Daily World, Johnson spoke of Landa's
intensity as a coach and his profound impact as a mentor.
"He helped me grow up," she said. Johnson also read
heartfelt comments from Ann Meyers-Drysdale, who played for
the New Jersey Gems under Coach Landa in the Women's Basketball
Association, the predecessor of the WNBA. Today Meyers Drysdale
is president/general manager of the WNBA's Phoenix Mercury
and vice president of the NBA's Phoenix Sun.
Rich Freda, another player on the championship team, recalled
Landa's goals for that stellar 1972-73 season. "He told
us he wanted to get to the national championship game. He
never stated that winning it was one of his goals. When we
got there, he said, 'You brought me here. Now win it for yourselves.'"
And they did.
Yet another highlight was the unveiling of two paintings by
MCCC Fine Arts Professor Mel Leipzig, Landa's long-time colleague
and friend. In a homage to Landa's impact on the next generation
of coaches, Leipzig created a large-scale painting depicting
three current young MCCC coaches: Erin Cahill (women's cross
country), Miles Smith (assistant men's basketball coach),
and Jane Berlinger (assistant women's basketball coach). A
second painting that Leipzig presented as a gift to Landa
captured a famous photo of Landa himself as a young coach
with the current young coaches in the background.
In his presentation, Leipzig observed, "There is a lot
in common between careers in sports and in art. You have to
be committed to it. You have to have a passion for it."
He thanked his young models and Landa for all that he has
done for Mercer.
festivities continued into the evening at the MCCC Conference
Center, where guests enjoyed dinner and more opportunities
to share stories from the past and express their appreciation
for one of the all-time greats to coach the game.
The Landa Tribute Fund continues to accept donations. For
more information, visit the MCCC Foundation website here
or call the Foundation Office at 609-570-3659. Donations
by check may be made payable to the MCCC Foundation and mailed
to: MCCC Foundation c/o Finance and Accounting, P.O. Box B,
Trenton, NJ 08690. (Those contributing by check should indicate
that the funds are for the Landa Tribute.)
basketball coach Howard Levy with Coach Landa. Levy, who
serves on the Landa Tribute Committee, attended one of
Landa's youth basketball camps. He went on to play at
Princeton University and serve as an assistant coach there
before coming to Mercer in 2008.
Kusnirik, now 96 years old, worked in the Athletics office
for 20 years while Landa coached at Mercer. She says Landa
was "respected by the players. He was known all over,
everywhere we went." She is pictured with George
from Phildadelphia, Landa is pictured with a "Philly
connection," Jim Lynam, former coach of the Philadelphia
daughter, Davida, expressed her appreciation to the college
for making the event possible.
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