With love of education, Millville man earns athletic honors

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By Laura Walter

For Ron Belinko, a job in school athletics was the greatest career in the world.

“You have such an influence on young people. When you moved into administration, you transfer that influence on to the coaches, principals…” said Belinko, a retired coach, teacher and athletic administrator.

Years later, middle-aged adults still recognize him on the street, decades after he first coached them in Baltimore County, Md.

This winter, he was inducted to the National Interscholastic Athletic Administrators Association (NIAAA) Hall of Fame.

Although he played organized sports in school, city kids played games all year ’round.

“We would just challenge the street next to us, and during baseball season, you were out playing baseball or stickball in the alley,” switching to football each autumn. “It was all done unorganized. Of course, we had some brawls with the other neighborhoods or other alleys,” he joked.

Growing up in a blue-collar area of Baltimore where their parents worked all the time, “School was sort of a haven for us, and you had some positive influences as coaches, so you gravitated and stayed after school. You usually played sports all year ’round.”

He modeled his coaching style off the role models who came before him. Besides coaching football, wrestling and lacrosse, Belinko taught middle- and high school PE before moving into athletic administration and becoming a Certified Master Athletic Administrator (CMAA).

Being the athletic director is a fulltime job. In Belinko’s day, he ordered the buses, lined the fields and locked the doors at night. Now, directors also manage the fields, maintenance and coaches, including the volunteers from outside the building who don’t necessarily have an educational philosophy.

“The role has become so complex. That’s really why the NIAAA established leadership courses” for athletic administrators, said Belinko, a longtime teacher and coordinator.

In fact, along with his induction ceremony at the 48th National Athletic Directors Conference, Belinko also taught yet another leadership course during his six days in Phoenix, Ariz.

His 46-year career included 19 years as athletic coordinator at Baltimore County Public Schools (BCPS), overseeing 50 secondary schools and more than 1,600 coaches.

Belinko proudly helped to start Allied Sports at BCPS in 1994, modeled after Special Olympics, giving students with physical or learning disabilities the same opportunities as their peers in soccer, bowling and softball.

“We made it more inclusive,” and the students celebrated with pep rallies, banquets and letters, just like traditional varsity teams.

“They were so proud of themselves, it was unreal,” Belinko said. “This is the only event when … the parents would come up to you with tears in their eyes and they say, ‘I want to thank you for this program,’” instead of complaining about a referee’s call.

Overall participation rates increased under his watch. And he ensured that every high school had an athletic trainer, a medical staffer who can also wrap ankles before games, and teach athletes about proper stretching, nutrition and more.

“These injuries pop up all the time. It’s very important for an athletic trainer to be there on the spot, diagnose an injury, and they have sole word on whether a youngster should participate” in a game, or go see a doctor.

Belinko has served on a variety of athletic committees (including as former president of the Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association), helping to write rules, run tournaments, improve training and increase participation.

The NIAAA Hall of Fame was created to honor retired athletic administrators who had exemplary careers in the field. The nomination process begins about two years before the actual induction — one year for evaluation and then another 10 months before induction.

He was honored to be recognized — one of six individuals who joined the 72 previous inductees.

“There’s so many emotions. You just say, ‘Wow, I can’t believe this.’ When I was 14 years old, a freshman in high school — all these years later you’re recognized across the country for this honor — it’s really the highest achievement you can achieve” as an athletic administrator, Belinko said.

“You weren’t doing it for self-glory. You were doing it for education and young people, and it just snowballed,” Belinko said. “I had a lot of good mentors. One said, ‘You gotta serve before you can lead.’ … To be a good leader, you have to serve and get the respect. You were in the trenches with everyone else.”

Leadership isn’t about being an expert, he said. It’s about sharing your experience with others. As football coach, he found assistants who could complement his weak spots. Similarly, he hired athletic directors who could step up when he left. He also hired women as directors because 50 percent of the student population was female.

Belinko graduated from the University of Baltimore in 1966 and later earned a master’s degree at Morgan State University.

His other honors include Maryland State Wrestling Hall of Fame, Eastern Technical High School Athletic Hall of Fame, National Wrestling Hall of Fame and MSADA Hall of Fame, the NFHS Citation, NIAAA State Award of Merit and Frank Kovaleski Professional Development Award.

Retired from work with Baltimore County in 2011, he’s still teaching today, for the Delaware Association of Athletic Directors.

He moved to Millville fulltime in 2015 with his wife, Donna, also an educator. Belinko stays active, joking that he can’t be lazy while telling kids to exercise. He hits the golf course and weight room regularly, and introduced his neighborhood to pickleball (a modified version of tennis that is easier on the joints). He also loves watching sports at Indian River High School.

“Best entertainment in town,” he said.