Chautauqua Star

McElrath Has Left His Mark On Local Athletics

It has been more than four decades since Jim McElrath left coaching basketball full-time, but the Air Jordan sneakers he wears give away the passion he still carries for the sport.

“It doesn’t leave you,” McElrath says of his love of the game. “I still feel I could coach a team and still win.”

Jim McElrath

McElrath’s teams at Panama were powerhouses during the late 1950’s and first part of the 1960’s. His squads posted a 115-31 record and claimed four sectional championships in less than eight years. The Jamestown resident earned the types of accomplishments many coaches strive decades for all by the age of 29.

The place McElrath was destined to make the most impact, though, was as an administrator. He again put his love of sports to good use while principal of Jamestown High School, helping build the sports programs there. He is forever remembered at JHS as the gymnasium where the Red Raiders today play on the court is named in his honor.

But it was his time at Panama that established McElrath as a county sports legend.

An accomplished high school player, McElrath, graduated from Mercer (PA) High with 1,404 career points and two trips to the Pennsylvania state final four. A three-year starter at Grove City College, McElrath took a teaching position as well as an assistant coaching position.. He would quickly take the head coaching reins, succeeding Paul Owens, who left at semester break in 1957 to chase baseball fame, later becoming general manager for the Philadelphia Phillies.

The success for McElrath was instant. He led Panama to its first Section 6 title by defeating Hinsdale at Buffalo’s Memorial Auditorium to cap the ‘58-’59 season. McElrath’s Panthers made the Aud their personal stomping grounds for half a decade, winning the section again the next year, dropping Forestville at the Aud in 1961, and then twice more with victories in ’63 over Chautauqua and ’65 against Sherman. A fifth year, Panama finished as section runner up.

In the days before a New York State championship system, McElrath’s teams were at the top of the heap.

“For our kids at Panama, I don’t know how many of them had ever been out of the county. The Auditorium was the Glens Falls at that time,” McElrath said. “Here our kids are on center stage in this big arena.”

Despite coaching at one of the section’s smallest districts, McElrath developed Panama into a yearly contender, and a basketball-hungry community.

“They packed the gym,” he recalled.

“People there just loved basketball. It’s a small community and it’s tough to win every year, but I expected it. I wanted our kids from Panama to think big time.”

McElrath set his teams apart with innovative and unique game plans. His squads used eight-to-10 offenses against the zone defense, and one game plan in particular stands out across time. In the 1965 sectional championship, McElrath stopped a powerful Sherman team at the Aud by double-teaming Sherman’s two post players, leaving one chaser to defend three players on the floor, using frequent substitutions.

At just 29 years old, McElrath went out on a different career path. He “retired” from coaching, moving toward a dream of working in administration. He went out a winner as his final squad claimed the Class C sectional title for the fourth time in his tenure. Many of the players he coached including three starters, would return to Buffalo and take yet another sectional championship the following season.

After serving as assistant principal at Cassadaga Valley for a year and six years as principal at Jefferson Junior High, he took the principal’s job at JHS and remained there for 18 years until his retirement in 1994.

While at JHS, McElrath left an indelible mark on the district’s sports programs. He helped plan and supervise the construction of the gymnasium which would boast his name, was in charge during the construction of Strider Field, and petitioned the NYS Education Department for membership in the FCIC during the days when Jamestown played in an Erie, Pa. league. Before his retirement, Jamestown students developed the idea to honor their longtime principal for his service to the school by dedicating the new gym as James F. McElrath Gymnasium.

McElrath Gymnasium

"The big thing was it was the students’ idea. That meant more to me than anything,” he said. “I tried to get to know every kid in the school. I still call them my kids. Today they may be 50 years old, but to me they were my kids.”

Including his support of sports programs as a principal, McElrath dedicated 38 professional years to area youth. In recent years, he stepped into a familiar position - guiding young men on the basketball court - by serving as coach for the Chautauqua County Exceptional Seniors game in 2009 and 2010, coaching his grandson, Kevin, a state champion at Maple Grove last year.

It seemed not much had changed with the passing of time – McElrath’s squads won both years.

Though his teams at Panama never had the opportunity to compete against state powers, McElrath never let his teams forget how good he believed they were.

“They could have been the best team in the state. In my mind we could have won maybe four state titles, you never know,” he said. “I would always tell my players they were the best team in the state. I still hear now and then from players. They’ll never forget being the best team in the section.”

A 1994 Mercer County Hall of Fame and 2002 Mercer HS Hall of Fame inductee, McElrath continued serving education and youth sports in his retirement. In eight years on the Jamestown Board of Education, he helped push for the purchase of the land on Martin Road which was developed into the JHS sports complex.

It’s impossible not to wonder how many victories and championships McElrath could have tallied on the sidelines had he not left coaching at a young age. It was his ability to balance both his desire to provide leadership to local youth with his love for the game of basketball that cements his legacy in the community though.

“You always look back and think what could have happened,” he says. “I feel I was able to perhaps help more students by being an administrator. I loved coaching and still love the game of basketball. I loved every minute of it. It’s been a great ride for me.

The additional financial assistance of the community is critical to the success of the Chautauqua Sports Hall of Fame.
We gratefully acknowledge these individuals and organizations for their generous support.