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Tradition can be a blessing, but as first-year Lackawanna basketball coach Tim Foley is finding out, it can also be a curse.

For the first time since Richard Nixon was re-elected president of the United States in 1972, the Steelers won't be champions of one of the four divisions of the Erie County Interscholastic Conference.

In fact, they have yet to win a game this season in nine overall starts. They are 0-6 in the ECIC's Division IV.

Expectations are high for the boys basketball program at Lackawanna every year -- twenty-six consecutive division crowns will do that.

So what's wrong with Lackawanna this year?

"When you're winning all the time, people get accustomed to it," said legendary Lackawanna coach Bill Bilowus, who ran the program from 1969 through 1986 and started the streak by winning division titles his last 17 years. He finished his career with a 329-54 record.

"I think Tim is doing a good job and I think over the second half of the season, they'll look like a different team," Bilowus said.

"It's been a tough first couple of months, no question about it," said Foley, who turned 27 last month.

"If we had everybody coming back from last year's team, it might be a different story, but we just about had to start over from scratch, so I'm not discouraged with the way things have gone. But I'd be lying if I said I wouldn't enjoy winning a lot more."

Bilowus, a member of the Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame and now the school's principal, says any heat being put on Foley is misdirected.

"This isn't a one-year thing," Bilowus said of the Steelers' slide, "it has been building as the program has become weaker.

"The success you see at the varsity level comes as a result of having a strong program in place, from top to bottom," he said. "We just reinstituted the modified team this year after not having one for a couple of years. If kids aren't given the opportunity to learn the game in the younger grades, it makes things so much more difficult at the top."

"I'm convinced Tim is one of the brighter young basketball minds in the area," praised Lackawanna athletic director Bill Moore. "If he sticks with the things he's doing, he'll do just fine."

Foley replaced Nick Dlugosz, a Lackawanna police officer who coached the Steelers for the past five seasons.

State rules dictate that a teacher within the district must be hired before a teacher from outside the district. If no such person is available to take the job, a non-teacher, such as Dlugosz, may be hired.

Foley, a graduate of Frontier who played collegiately at Daemen, coached Frontier's modified team last year while serving as a full-time substitute teacher at Lackawanna. He was hired as a full-time business teacher at Lackawanna this school year.

"I knew there could be problems this year because there wasn't a strong program in place, without any star players coming back and with no modified team recently," Foley said. "But I would have been a fool not to have taken this job. I know the winning tradition at Lackawanna, but I'd have been a coward if I hadn't taken the job because I was afraid to lose."

Foley got a first-hand look at much of the Steelers' past success as his father, Joe, coached the Lackawanna junior varsity under Bilowus for 15 years.

"My dad and Mr. Bilowus and Mr. Moore are always telling me to hang in there, always encouraging me, and it is a big help to have their support," Foley said. "They know the situation we're in and they think we're on the right track. It might take a year or two, but we'll get there."

The right track, according to Foley, is a highly disciplined approach, which extends beyond the lines of the basketball court. Players are required to wear shirts and ties to school on game days. Discipline problems are handled swiftly.

"I told the kids the first day of practice that wins and losses were not the most important thing," Foley said. "I told them I expected them to be good students, good citizens and good athletes."

Moore and Bilowus both spoke of the need for a coach inside the school building to promote discipline on the team.

"It is just so much easier to keep a handle on things as a coach when you're in the building every day," Bilowus said. "If a kid isn't in school, you know it right away. If he gets into trouble in school, you know it right away. The lines of communication between the coach and the teachers and the coach and the kids is stronger if you're together all day."

Bilowus said back when he was coaching, the first thing he'd do at school in the morning was check the attendance report. If any of his players were absent, he'd call the youngster's home, and if necessary, go to the player's house and drive him to school.

"That didn't have to happen too often because they knew I'd be over the get them," Bilowus said. "And if a kid wasn't getting his homework done on time, he'd sit in the bleachers at practice that day and get it done then."

"The type of kids we're dealing with now, they need the discipline in school because a lot of them come from single-parent homes, where there might not be a lot of structure," Moore said. "Once they get that structure, they can use their talents better."

The recent success of the school's football team, winning back-to-back state Class B championships the past two years, has made the early part of the basketball season more difficult.

"Some of the football players, like Wade Turner, were a little banged up after football and we had to take it easy with them early on," Foley said. "In fact, Wade didn't play the first couple of games, and Robert Sireika, another great football player, came out late and didn't play the first four games for us."

The school's past basketball success also has played a role in how opponents approach the Steelers.

"Teams can't wait to come in here and play us now," Foley said. "Lackawanna has been on top for a while and a lot of teams are trying to get even now.

"They can enjoy it now, but we'll be back."

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