PDT Sports Editor
After Portsmouth’s 63-0 loss to Chillicothe in the 2012 season finale, long-time Portsmouth football coach Curt Clifford confirmed he would be stepping down from his position.
“I’m very fortunate because I began coaching at the place I always wanted to coach at and finish at the place I have always wanted to coach at,” Clifford said.
A graduate of Portsmouth and originally hired as an assistant coach at Portsmouth in 1977, Clifford has coached some of the best teams and athletes in the program’s extended history.
“I have received 30 or 40 texts from former players wishing me well and letting me know what I meant to them,” Clifford said. “You spend 36 years on the job, 24 years as the head coach and you touch an awful lot of lives.”
After he took over the head coaching position in 1989, Clifford guided the Trojans to seven playoff appearances and one state semifinal appearance in 2000. The 2000 team was voted state champions by the Associated Press.
“This day and age they say that may not matter with the playoffs, but I say lets go ask Ed Miller if it didn’t matter when he won his state championships at Notre Dame in ‘67 and ‘70,” Clifford said. “If it doesn’t mean anything, lets go look on the back side of Tanks Stadium where they have their Associated Press state championships up there. The pressure is on you to win on the field, but that was the first time since 1938 that we have gone 10-0. We thought that was a great accomplishment.”
Clifford, a captain while playing at Portsmouth, was a decorated player at Wilmington College under coach Bill Ramseyer before a brief professional playing career. He returned to Portsmouth and was hired as an assistant 36 seasons ago.
After seeing two head coaches cycle through in two seasons, Clifford’s new boss became Bob Shaffer, who held the position for seven years. The two developed a friendship that has now lasted more than 30 years.
“Those seven years that Bob Shaffer and I were together were probably the most formative years of my coaching career from the simple standpoint that we didn’t know what we were doing,” Clifford said. “I think we had five years of coaching experience between us. Talk about learning on the run and taking some licks. It was a tremendous learning experience.
“You go back to when I was a sophomore at Portsmouth in 1969 and forward, the two guys with the best records are myself and Bob Shaffer.”
After seven seasons under Shaffer and an additional three under Steve Stohla, Clifford finally earned his shot to lead his alma mater on the gridiron in 1989. Clifford was asked to lead after an abrupt departure by Stohla right before practices were set to begin. With 36 players on his initial roster, Clifford’s Trojans won six games that year.
“I have fond memories of the first team I ever coached,” Clifford said. “We were not very good, but boy were those kids tough. Those kids were as tough as any football team I’ve ever put on the field. Those early teams I had were awfully special. We were 30-10 in our first four years and did some special things.”
Clifford steps away with the most wins in program history. His extended tenure has allowed him to make a mark in the oldest football rivalry in southern Ohio, Ironton vs. Portsmouth.
“I take a look back and I don’t know how many times we beat them when I was the head coach,” Clifford said. “Counting back I think we won eight times since 1991 and played them 26 times since then. Winning almost a third of your games against Bob Lutz in that time is a pretty good record against Bob Lutz and Ironton.”
The rivalry between the two schools remains very tight with a 56-54-8 overall record in Ironton’s advantage. Keeping it as close as it has been has been an annual task for Clifford as Lutz, now retired, is the winningest coach in Ohio high school football history.
“You learn from guys like Bob Lutz,” Clifford said. “It’s been a great rivalry for me. I love playing that game. I’d play it every week we could.”
The last winning season Portsmouth experienced under Clifford’s guidance came in 2009 when the team finished 7-3, but missed a playoff appearance.
“We haven’t had this many losing seasons in a row since the 1993 through 1996 seasons. I didn’t get it done and I thought I could and it didn’t work out,” Clifford said. “It’s time to walk away. It’s time to walk away and get some new ideas in there. I’ve talked to other retired coaches and they said you will know. You will know when it’s time to go and now is the time.”
In 2007, the Trojans made the playoffs, but finished 8-3 after a loss to Licking Heights in the first round of the playoffs.
In 2004 the Trojans made the playoffs, but lost to New Albany to finish 7-4. In 2002 Portsmouth made an extended playoff run after finishing the regular season 9-1. They defeated Waverly and Ironton in the playoffs, but lost to West to end the season.
Part of Clifford’s legacy will be the relationships developed with coaches and players. One of the truly special relationships was with assistant coach Chuck Burke, who retired last season after 35 years working alongside Clifford.
“I missed his camaraderie this year,” Clifford said. “He busted his butt for us for a long time and has my appreciation.”
Clifford said he communicates with Minford coach Brent Daniels and Wheelersburg coach Rob Woodward and openly cheers for them to do well.
“Some guys take it too personally,” Clifford said. “Others realize that a win is a win and a loss is a loss and move on.”
Woodward said Clifford and Scioto County football are one and the same.
“I came to know football in this area first attending a passing camp as a player from Gallia Academy at Portsmouth and playing against Portsmouth,” Woodward said. “Then in 2001 I began attending Curt’s coaching clinic that eventually grew to have I believe over 300 coaches in attendance.
“I grew up looking toward Curt as a mentor, but when I became coach of Wheelersburg five years ago I was blessed to have him as peer. He’s synonymous with Scioto County football and he’s always done a great job getting talent recognized outside of Scioto County.”
The retired coach has a long record of players that went on to play collegiately including current Penn State player Nate Cadogan and his older brother, now a former Nittany Lion Gerald Cadogan.
“I think that we always talk about the kids giving it up for the program,” Clifford said. “I think when they are done that, coaches should give it up to them. It doesn’t always work out for them but we always encourage them to stay in school and get their degrees.”
Daniels said Clifford’s longevity is proof of the type of coach he was.
“Anybody that has coached at one place for 36 years has seen the good, bad and the ugly,” Daniels said. “He’s done a lot of good and has been a staple of the community. When I first was hired he sent me a letter of congratulation. That’s just the kind of guy he is.”
Clifford will also be retiring from his physical education position at Portsmouth High School once the school year ends.
“I cannot go back into that building and not be the football coach. I’m going to finish out the year because it wouldn’t be the right thing to do to (Principal) Doug Poage. I’ll train the team in the weight room like I was coming back,” Clifford said. “I told (Assistant Head Coach) Ted (Newsome) the night of the Wheelersburg game that I was retiring and he said to play it by ear. I played it the best way I could and I told (Assistant Superintendent) Tom Walker two days later on Sept. 10 that I was retiring.”
Clifford added that he delayed the announcement to avoid becoming a distraction for his players.
Joe Albrecht, the athletic director at Portsmouth, played for Clifford, was an assistant coach with him for a dozen years and his son just finished his junior season on the squad.
“He’s been great as a coach and great personally,” Albrecht said. “I appreciate all he has done in his time with the team and for the school district.”
The coach will be leaving behind a career’s worth of memories. He said the most enjoyable times were from 1997 to 2004 when the team was very competitive. The only regret is that he did not win a state title with the Trojans.
“I’ve been the coach of the year in the state, the coach of the year in the district, coach of the year in the conference,” Clifford said. “There are two games a coach wants to coach in. One is the state championship, the other is in the North-South game and I got to do the North-South game and we won despite being decided underdogs in 2003. But the state title didn’t work out even though we had our chances.”
Clifford said his parting message to players would be the points he has always preached.
“Just be tough. Because when all else fails. When everything is going wrong, if you are tough, those are the guys that stand tall. That’s the No. 1 thing,” he said. “Life is 10 percent what happens to you and 90 percent how you respond. That and having a positive outlook and attitude are the two most important things you can possess.”
Saying goodbye will be a process for Clifford.
“I love my kids. I have had a love affair with Portsmouth High School football since I was old enough to go to a ball game,” he said. “The appreciation I have for the kids that have played for me, you can’t measure it. I will miss the camaraderie with my staff and I’m very fond of those guys.”
He also provided some perspective during his exit.
“To all the people that have supported me throughout the years. I can’t say thank you enough. Those that have been detractors, get a life. It’s high school football. It’s a game for kids between the ages of 15 and 18,” Clifford said. “There’s so much negativity over high school sports it’s unbelievable. But all the positives far outweigh the negatives. I’ve been very fortunate to do what I have done.”
Clifford said he will still follow the Trojans closely and had nothing but well wishes for his successor.
“To leave my kids is going to be tough, but I’ll get them ready for the next guy and hopefully they turn it around,” he said.
Bob Strickley can be reached at 353-3101, ext. 203, or email@example.com.