While George Riley was building a hall of fame coaching career in the Pittsburgh City League coaching track, his son, GL, was struggling with some pretty predictable emotions.
GL was just beginning to blossom as an athlete in Washington, then Trinity, and he wondered why his father spent so much time with the athletes on his team and did not pay more attention to his athletic career.
That’s a common feeling with children whose fathers are successful coaches during the maturation process of life. And it can lead to hurt feelings and damaged relationships.
But this is not a story about the separation that occurred between father and son; rather, it is the story of how a father influenced his son to become not only a better person but also a more caring and compassionate coach.
George Riley was a talented athlete coming out of school, especially in track. The family moved to North Carolina and that’s where George Riley attended high school.
That’s also where his desire to become a coach began to surface.
By the time his more than three-decades long stay in the Pittsburgh City League ended, George Riley had carved out a great coaching career. He won two boys and two girls cross country championships and four boys titles and three relay championships after moving to Schenley High School. Numerous athletes qualified for the state individual championships.
"My English teacher told me I would make a wonderful teacher," George Riley said. "I knew I wanted to be a coach and be in physical education."
George Riley was given a lifetime achievement award by the Tri-State Track Coaches Association in 2009. In 2017, he was inducted into the Pittsburgh City League All-Sports Hall of Fame. In May, he was honored with the Unsung Hero Award at the Pittsburgh-West Virginia Conference of Lay Organizations banquet.
"My dad helps other people as much as he can," said GL Riley. "He's very well loved in his community. He's taken people in and he's taken kids in who were headed down the wrong path and saved them with sports."
George Riley was born in Pittsburgh 74 years ago. The family moved to Statesville, N.C., to take care of ailing family members. He got a degree in physical education and health from Elizabeth City State University in 1969. He landed a job in South Hills High School of the Pittsburgh School District after graduation and it wasn't long before he was coaching cross country and track.
"He became one of the elite coaches in the City League," GL Riley said. "When I was younger, I noticed how my dad had Division I runners, Division II runners, the elite, and I was a little jealous because I didn't understand all the things my dad did. Sometimes, he would get home late for my stuff. I had to figure out a lot of stuff for myself. I would meet these individuals (he coached) and they would tell me about my dad."
Sometimes, GL Riley would skip school at Trinity, where he excelled at football, and make his way to Pittsburgh to watch his father hold practices.
"I would hear the stories from the kids about what my dad meant to them in their life. He was like a dad to them. That really hit home," said GL Riley. "Even though I didn't play (for him), I saw that these were the things that are in your blood that you didn't pay attention to them."
George Riley said it was important to build relationships with not only the athlete but their families.
"I became a friend, a father and a coach," George Riley said. "I would have picnics at the end of the season, where the parents would prepare food. We'd go to South Park and we'd play horseshoes and softball. I'd always call the parents and tell them what's going on."
Each year, the team raised funds to attend camp at California University. It was not unusual for George Riley to buy running shoes for his athletes.
"I had one kid who had to wear cardboard in his shoes," he said. "His toes stuck out. He's a coach now and he calls me every so often to talk to me."
"My dad is a great man. He does a lot of things behind the scenes," said GL Riley. "You don't see people doing things and not want recognized for it. My dad is one of the last ones who would step up and say, 'I did this.' He was strict and I was hard-headed. We battled and I wish I listened a lot earlier to what he told me. He did the things that were important. He doesn't say I love you much; he shows you."
One of those ways is helping GL coach his track club, the Riley Senior Thrivers. GL started it a little more than a year ago and the number of athletes is growing by word of mouth. The number of coaches grew by one when George offered to help. The Rileys admit a motivating factor in establishing the team is the success of GL's son, Brian, who is a nationally ranked youth distance runner who competes in five sports at Washington Elementary.
"I love kids. I'm great with kids," GL Riley said. "I want to see them reach their highest potential. Within the boundaries, I want to see them excel and I want them to carry that through their life."