Vargo Returns as Madonna Boys Basketball Coach
Racked up more than 300 wins in first go-around
WEIRTON — Second chances come in a lot of different forms. For George Vargo, his comes as another opportunity to coach the Madonna boys’ basketball team after surviving a major health scare.
“It’s like a second life to me,” Vargo said. “It’s a second chance, and like I’m starting all over again. It is going to be like my first season.”
Vargo, 67, will re-take the controls of the Blue Dons this coming season after Chris Blair — who played and coached at Madonna under Vargo — stepped down after four seasons to spend more time with his family.
Vargo racked up more than 300 wins in his first go-around at Madonna, a 21-year stint that left him as the school’s all-time wins leader. He left the program in 2015 to coach the men’s program at Franciscan University of Steubenville for one season.
In the time since, he had a major heart attack but has made a full recovery and was cleared by his doctors to coach again.
“That’s all over with and in the past,” he said.
“I got a clear physical, and the doctor said live life to the fullest and do what I enjoy. He said, ‘Go for it.’ He gave me a clean bill of health and wished me good luck.”
The experience is something that changed Vargo’s perspective.
“After you go through something like I went through, you really realize what life is all about, what family is all about and what God is all about,” he said. “You realize at any second you can leave this earth without any notice. That is what happened to me.
“I’m just fortunate that the good Lord let me stay a little longer, and I hope to do some good while I’m still here.”
Even while he’s been away from the Madonna bench, the Blue Dons have still held a special place in Vargo’s heart.
“I bleed blue and white. It’s in my blood. I’m a graduate of Madonna, I sent all my children to Madonna and my wife graduated from Madonna,” he said. “When I got a chance to come back and coach at Madonna, I was so happy to be able to come back and do something for my school that I love.”
That opportunity to come back started by simply offering an opinion on the coaching search.
“(Athletic Director) Mike Arlia called me and asked me some questions about who they should hire and my opinions,” Vargo said. “About a month later he called me back and said, ‘Hey, there’s been a few people at Madonna that think you would be a good candidate. Would you be interested?’ I thought about for a couple weeks and told him yes. Here we are today.”
Though not the coach, he’s been watching the team he’s about to take over and likes what he’s seen. He also is going to have a different approach this time around.
“I have been watching them and have been able to come in the gym and watch Coach Blair and his team practice,” he said. “I’ve been to numerous games the past couple years. I’m familiar with the team and the players. I know we’re going to be very young and inexperienced, but the future is bright. We have a good foundation with three lettermen coming back.
“I’m going to rely a lot on what I learned not to do. I think that’s important to learn from and move forward. I think I’m going to be calmer on the bench and not quite as vocal to the referees as I have been in the past. Maybe do more mental coaching instead of so much verbal coaching.”
His mindset is that of a new coach starting from the beginning, rather than an old coach making a comeback.
“I’m an older coach, but in my heart I’m a young coach. I’m going to treat this like Year 1, the past is over with,” he said. “I’ve got to build for the present and the future now. I’m looking forward to the energy these young people bring. They’ll teach me a few things. I know being around them will keep me young.
“Being around young people is special. They bring a lot of life, energy and they don’t have a lot of worries.”
For Arlia, the chance to bring back a coach with the pedigree of Vargo was a dream scenario.
“It’s very exciting because he has been part of our fabric since 1970 when he graduated,” Arlia said. “When the time came, I approached him and I thought we had a good staff in place — most of them are his old staff — and I thought, ‘What a great way to tie this all together and bring Coach Vargo back into the fold.’ It really has come full circle. As long as he was healthy, I wanted him back.”
The aspect of continued alumni involvement is part of the excitement for Arlia.
“The more I am around, the more I realize how important having alumni involved is at a small school,” he said. “Chris was an alumni and he put a lot of hours, work, effort and love into the program. I know Coach Vargo is going to step right in and do the same thing like he has in the past. As an A.D., and as an alumni, I feel like we are not missing a beat. We went from one alumni that did a great job, right back to an alumni that’s an experienced coach.
“Seeing alumni want to come back makes me feel like, when they were here, they got something out of being at Madonna more than just an education. They want to come here, be involved and be back at Madonna. It means that we did something right.”
As excited as he was to have a coach like Vargo come back, it was equally as tough to see Blair go.
“He’s hard-working and a great guy,” Arlia said of Blair. “He’s still going to be around. Chris was an excellent coach. It was just a different faze of his life now. It broke his heart to leave.”
Blair echoed Arlia’s sentiments.
“It was a hard decision, and an easy decision at the same time, because it was basically about family,” Blair said. “When I took this job, I wasn’t a husband, I wasn’t a father and I wasn’t a partner in a law firm. In the last four years, I have become all those things. Those carry with them a lot of responsibility and at this point in time I just couldn’t devote the amount of time being the head coach at Madonna requires and the kids deserve.
“You only have so many years to be around your kids, especially at such a young age, I didn’t want to miss anything. It came down to a family decision. I still anticipate popping my head in and helping them in any way I can, I just can’t do it on a 24/7 basis at this point in my life.”
Being an alumni and involved with the program for so long made it hard.
“We always talk about the Madonna family. I’ve been there for the last 20 years. From 1999-2003 as a player, when I played on the collegiate level (at West Liberty) from 2003-2007 I came back in the summers and volunteered to help coach the summer league team,” he said. “After that I was an assistant coach while I was in law school at Duquense and we were fortunate enough to win a state championship there and make it to the state semifinals. I was an assistant coach all the way to 2015 when I took over for Coach Vargo.
“As a player or a coach, I’ve been directly involved with Madonna basketball. It spent over half my life being a part of it. Madonna is an extremely special place. The kids are terrific.”
Having his old coach able to come back makes him feel good about the future for the Blue Dons.
“I feel extremely blessed he is able to come back,” Blair said. “He has been associated with Madonna and carried the program on his back for so long. He is such a special person to the Madonna family.”
As far as he’s concerned, the sky is the limit for this group of Blue Dons, which he told them.
“I told them that I loved them and they mean a lot to me,” he said. “It was an emotional goodbye. I’m still going to be around and they still have my phone number. I’m always going to support them. I believe this group is going to end their careers in Charleston. There is no reason they still can’t accomplish their goals. They have a good nucleus coming back and I’m excited to see where the program goes.”
He also noted that being a head coach again is not something he would rule out for the future and thanked all of his assistant coaches.