For parts of nine decades Tony Colobro has been an integral part of football in Southern West Virginia. A player at Welch High School in the late 1930s and early ‘40s, Colobro played at Concord after World War II, then coached at Iaeger High School, Welch High School, Bluefield State College and Concord College. “Chief,” as he is known to friends and former players, is no longer coaching, but he remains a source of information and assistance to many gridiron coaches throughout the two Virginias.
Born in Kimball in 1923, Colobro was the son of Italian immigrants.
“They came over in a boat. Daddy came over in 1907. He went back, married Mama, came back in 1912,” Colobro said. “I had one brother born in Italy, all the rest born in Kimball.”
Colobro played football at Welch under T.K. Tandy for one year and two for Vernon Calloway. After graduating in 1941 he attended Concord before entering the U.S. Army and serving as a medic in the 103rd Infantry Division during World War II in the European theater.
After returning from the War, Colobro was set to go back to school, but a twist of fate changed his plans and his entire life.
“To be honest, I applied for physical therapy school in Richmond, Va., and of course I came back from the service and I was married, and I had a baby on the way and I didn’t have any money and I had to get a job. I got into coaching and I am certainly thankful because believe me, if I had to do it over again, I would do it again,” Colobro noted.
He began coaching at Iaeger High in 1948 and remained there for three years. In 1950 he moved to his alma mater in Welch and took the helm of the Maroon Wave. Colobro made the move to the college ranks in 1963, becoming the first white coach at Bluefield State College. He remained at BSC for 10 years before he moved across Mercer County for the head job at Concord.
“Dr. Allen, the President at Bluefield State, offered me that job in 1961 and also in ‘62 and I took it in ‘63 and I had a fine group of fellows there. They accepted me. Traditionally Bluefield State a black college and that was the first year a lot of those fellows played for a white coach. I couldn’t have asked for a better group of people,” Colobro said.
Bluefield State dropped its football program in the early ‘80s, but Colobro said a decision made in the late 1960s affected BSC sports then and continues to affect it to this day.
“The death of football and athletics at Bluefield State was after they had a bombing and the state of West Virginia decided they were going to do away with dorms,” Colobro pointed out. “When they did away with the dorms and the cafeteria it was almost impossible to get a kid to come to Bluefield State and play. His mother wanted to know where he was going to sleep, where he was going to eat and with their dorms being closed and the cafeteria being closed, football was going to have a hard time surviving, which proved to be true. Now the biggest difference at Concord was I had a dormitory, I had a cafeteria and you were able to recruit kids and kids had a campus life.”
Colobro’s coached his first Concord team in the fall of 1974 and he talked about the first Mountain Lion team he had.
“I was blessed at Concord. Fortunately for me one of my best recruiting years I ever had at Concord was my first year,” according to Colobro. “I had Tony Lipscomb, who is in the Concord Hall of Fame; Jeff Boyles, who is in the Concord Hall of Fame; Ronnie Cowan who is in the Concord Hall of Fame; and then I had several other kids, who are not in the Hall of Fame, but in my opinion deserve to be, who played for me for four years.
“I was fortunate that I had a lot of fine, fine football players. Not only were they fine football players, they were some of the best people you’d want to deal with.”
Colobro led the Mountain Lions to WVIAC football championships in 1976, ‘77, ‘78, ‘80 and ‘81 before retiring. His philosophy to recruiting players at both Bluefield State and Concord was getting local talent.
“I found out my first few years at Bluefield State that if I could get kids within 75 to 100 miles of the school, Mama could come see the game, Mama would bring him a care package. Now if I go to Florida and recruit, they can’t. I am liable to keep a kid for four years if he’s got home folks, his girlfriend, come see him on Saturday,” Colobro said.
“Our philosophy back then was to try to recruit local kids, what I call local kids, 75 to 100 miles. You must remember at that time you had 10 high schools in McDowell County, you had five in Wyoming County, so you had more kids to pick from. They started consolidating, then it was more difficult to stock your team with enough players, because you didn’t have enough of them participating.”
Colobro has seen the game change over his nine decades of involvement.
“The kids are bigger, the game is wide open, it’s more from sideline-to-sideline and line-of-scrimmage to goal line,” Colobro observed. “I think the kids way back then were just as physical, but the kids today have the advantage of more coaches, off-season programs, camps, which our kids didn’t have. But we had plenty of kids, even though they didn’t have those advantages, who were exceptionally good football players.”
Out of coaching now for more than 30 years, Colobro still finds time to share his knowledge with coaches and players. He is a member of three different Hall of Fames, Concord University, NAIA and McDowell County Sports. His 1963 Welch team was inducted into the McDowell Hall this past spring. He is also one of the directors of the annual Coppinger Invitational Baseball Tournament held each spring at Bowen Field.
“I still miss this. What am I doing out here? Most of the time there is a ballgame going on, I’m here,” Colobro said. “Since I’ve retired I’ve helped Princeton kids, I’ve helped Beaver, I’ve helped Graham, I’ve helped Tazewell, I’ve helped Richlands, I’ve helped Gate City. All these coaches are real tight.
“The Princeton coach (Randy Peek) played over at Concord when I was there. Freddy (Simon) played over at Concord. Coach (Greg) Mance at Richlands said, ‘You come down when you want to, you can be on the sidelines.’ I said ‘Hell no, I don’t move like I used to.’ And I’ve gotten knocked down when I could move. Harris Hart played for my son and I helped him.
“I didn’t want Princeton to beat Bluefield, or Bluefield to beat Princeton. All I was trying to do was help the kid, help the kid. If I can help a kid become a better person and a better football player, that’s what I want to do.”
Colobro and his wife Pauline, married in 1944 but together much longer, were the parents of four children. His oldest son Nick followed his father’s steps and coached football at Tazewell and later Gate City High School before retiring. Known by many former players, students and friends as “Chief,” Colobro shared some personal thoughts.
“There’s a lot of memories. I’ll be honest with you. My wife is in assisted living, I miss her so much. Two things that stay in my head all day long, my wife, a lot of memories. Hey, 79 years is a lot of memories and being a good ones too, that helps. The other thing is the kids, being out here and helping them. Those are two things I miss.
“I tell you, life is not sweet at the end. Like I told my son Nick, ‘Damnit, Nick, retire, you and that girl do something, you don’t know when it’s going to stop. You’ve poured in all these years, you’ve labored, now go relax. You don’t know when it’s going to end.’”
— Contact Bob Redd at