The man affectionately known as “Cheese” was a star football player and basketball player for the Red Raiders from 1964 to 1966.
His athletic exploits are well documented even if the origin of his nickname is a bit hazy.
“I am told that the name comes from a woman named Sarah Curry, who was a good friend of my motherís and she came up with the name and it has lasted a long time. There are still people in Uniontown who refer to me as “Cheese”,” said Gillian.
Gillian played during the “Golden Era” of Uniontown athletics and has fond memories of that era.
“I have great memories of that time,” he said. “From the 1950’s through the 1960’s, Uniontown sort of dominated everything in the area. It was almost a surprise when we lost anything,” he said.
Like many Uniontown athletes, Gillian benefited from the great playground system at that time.
“I think it was a tremendous asset,” he recalled. “We had some great basketball games at East End and I remember traveling to Boyle playground and Lincoln View. In fact, one of my fondest memories of victories occurred through the championships during the summer.
“I talk about Spider Minor and all that he did coaching us. The year after Uniontown won the state championship there was one team that included Stu Lantz, Doc Yates, Ray Parson, Ben Gregory and others - the best of the best. The second team we put together from East End included Chuckie Beckwith, Wil Minor, Gene Huey, Ray Stephens, Phil Tunstall, and myself. At best Phil (Tunstall) would have been a sixth man on the other team, but he was our best player. Yet Spider (Minor) was able to coach us to a victory and that will always stand as one of the greatest victories that I participated in and the most enjoyable one.”
One of Gillian’s disappointments was not being on the Red Raider team that captured the basketball state title in 1964.
“My sophomore year Abe Everhart had me practicing with the varsity a couple of times and then he called me out of class to tell me he was going to move me up to the varsity and on the same day I also got a call from the health center and they were going to put my leg back into a cast because of “Osgood Slaughter” disease. I didn’t tell any of my teammates and I’ve only told a couple since then - that Abe had actually moved me up to the varsity, but before I could actually go on the court, they had me in a cast, and I often have wondered whether the two incidents were related and I finally concluded that they weren’t. It was just a freak accident that both occurred on the same day. Obviously, it was a disappointment to me because that 1964 team went on to win the state championship,” Gillian stated.
Gillian played basketball his junior year and as a senior decided not to play because he was visiting so many colleges to pursue a football scholarship.
“Later that senior year after Wilfred Minor had the accident and had to wear the helmet when he played basketball,” Gillian said. “I went to coach Everhart and asked if I could join the team and see if I could help out in some way, and I finished the season with the team.”
In 1966 Uniontown lost a thrilling double overtime game to Schenley 71-67 in the PIAA Western Finals at the Pitt Fieldhouse.
“It was a thrilling game,” Gillian explained. “I do remember their point guard Pete Gibson and how talented he was and just trying to guard him was difficult. Of course the battle between Parson and Kenny Durrett was something to see.”
It was on the gridiron where Gillian’s star shone brightest.
“I had a real nice career at Uniontown,” Gillian offered. “I think that we tied one game when I was a junior against Johnstown 6-6 in the mud and we went on undefeated after that.”
Gillian is part of one of the most famous plays in Uniontown football history.
In the 1965 Class AA epic at Pitt Stadium, the Red Raiders fell behind Butler and its Saul brothers, Rich and Ron, 7-0 in the first half. With the game tied a 7-7. Uniontown got the ball back on a punt at its own 13-yardline. The Red Raiders started a decisive drive that covered 87 yards in just nine plays.
Gillian scored the winning touchdown. He ran a sweep to the right behind the blocking of fullback Phil Vassar and halfback Trip Radcliffe, cut back and, with Vassar and Radcliffe taking down more than one would-be Butler tacklers, raced in for the winning touchdown.
Gillian scored the winning touchdown on a bum ankle.
“The ankle had a slight fracture,” he recalled. “I’m not sure when it occurred, but it was probably somewhere around the third or fourth quarter and if you see any tapes you can see that there is a slight limp in the gate, but I was able to play and we found out probably about three days after the game that there was a fracture there. I don’t remember a lot about the play. I remember going out wide and cutting up the field and going all the way. It was very late in the game and Butler was a very great opponent, but we had a good group of guys and we just wanted to win that championship.”
Gillian has strong feelings about the great coaching he received in football from Leon Kaltenbach and basketball from Abe Everhart.
“Both coaches were incredibly supportive of me,” Gillian explained. “Both went out of their way to support me as an athlete, but also as a student and as a young man and I’m very appreciative of that. Coach Kaltenbach was probably very influential in my decision to go to Ohio State. I remember he traveled up there with me when I went to visit and I will always appreciate all that he and Abe did. Tony Nunes was our backfield coach and he had a great influence on those of us who were offensive and defense backs.”
Deciding to play football at Ohio State brought Gillian under the wing of the legendary Woody Hayes.
“Incredible man,” Gillian gushed. “While I was there, Woody and I had some challenges and I probably wasn’t his greatest supporter. When I went back for our tenth reunion of our national championship team, all I could think about was now I’m going back and I’m going to see the guys and they knew how I felt about Woody when I was there and now I’m going back, and all I can say is how great this person was and how much he meant to me and how those things he taught us about hard work have paid tremendous dividends in my professional life. All of us who may have had some difficulty with him and may not have been as supportive as players were incredibly supportive as adults. He really did care about the student-athlete and although he was a taskmaster and had his set of issues, I don’t know that you’ve ever read anything that any Ohio State athlete had said negative about him. That’s the sort of influence he’s had on all of us.”
Gillian had a solid career for the Buckeyes - starting at halfback and wingback and sharing time with Larry Zelina on the 1969 national championship team.
He came up big against O.J. Simpson and Southern California in the Rose Bowl his senior season. He scored on a 16-yard touchdown pass from Rex Kern. That touchdown was the capper in a 27-16 win over the Trojans.
“That probably was the best game of my career at Ohio State and was just a very enjoyable experience. We had watched USC because they played late in the day - just sort of wear down teams and O.J. would score a touchdown late in the game and they just wore teams down and they would walk away with a victory,” Gillian explained. “They started off scoring the first 10 points against us and then we got on the board. Late in the game when I scored the touchdown I was so elated because I knew that they would not have time to wear us down and for him to score late in the game to win it. That was part of the excitement of throwing the ball up into the crowd because I was sure our defense could hold on.”
Gillian chose not to try pro football when he graduated from OSU in 1970.
“After I completed my bachelor’s degree, I stayed on and coached the freshman team during my first year in graduate school,” Gillian said. “That was a very good experience. While I had a good career there it just seemed to me sometime around my junior year - I felt like if you weren’t the best on your team that there were no possibilities for professional aspirations. I didn’t have a full appreciation that the guys that were on our team were the absolute best.”
Gillian then took a job at East Stroudsburg University in Pennsylvania, he was director of minority affairs and director of the Center for Educational Opportunity. He then served from 1977 to 1984 as the University of Maryland’s director of special student support services.
Then, he was named assistant to the president at the University of Maryland, where he was for 16 years and was responsible developing, monitoring and implementing the university’s equity and diversity procedures.
Gillian became assistant provost and director of the Office of Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action Programs in April 2000 at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. The office was renamed the Office of Institutional Equity in April 2007 and Gillian was, in turn, named Vice Provost for Institutional Equity. He retired in 2010.
“I often say I am actually living my dream,” Gillian stated. “This is the way I sort of fantasized my life would be post football and I’m very happy with it.”
Gillian,67, is married to his high school sweetheart (Charell Harrison) and has two children, Robin and Malcolm.
The success Gillian has enjoyed in sports and life always comes full circle back to Uniontown.
“That is the foundation of whatever successes we’ve had. The lessons that we learned there, the teamwork, the respect for others and the discipline,” said Gillian.