Thirty-seven years ago Bob Clement had to be coaxed into giving coaching a shot because in his mind sports “was something you played, not something you coached.”
Today he is an iconic figure in the county, a man responsible for 202 of Pittsford High School’s 298 varsity football victories since 1950. While he struggles to wrap his mind around everything that took place the past four decades, he has plenty of stories to tell and comrades to vouch what his presence has meant to the Wildcat community.
From a shop teacher to a JV football coach to the man who led the Wildcats program to its lone state title, whoever tries filling Clement’s shoes better plan on sticking both feet in one boot to get things started.
A hesitant beginning
When a 25-year-old Bob Clement took a job as the school’s first-ever shop teacher in 1973 he accepted the offer not because he wanted to coach athletics, but because he had the opportunity to set up his own work place and enlighten students with his woodworking skills.
But Will Cramer, who was the athletic director for 25 years starting in 1964, had other ideas.
“He was a good athlete in high school for one thing, he was a good football player, and I got to watch him in high school and he was always a hard worker,” he said. “He always wanted to learn all the time and I don’t think anyone ever out-worked him.”
After Cramer kept on him about coaching the JV team a couple of times, Clement took the bait. Three years later, the varsity coach was let go, Clement was urged to apply for the vacancy, and as they say, the rest is history.
A history that was far from predictable, especially to the man whose life wrote it.
“I was down in Hudson (as a teacher) when they had the winning streak and I never coached anything,” Clement said. “Tom Saylor, who is now down at Morenci, still gets after me, because he tried to get me to coach a couple of times and I said I’ve got little kids at home, I’m not interested in that.”
A 12-0 victory over Burr Oak in week one of the 1976 season was his first as a varsity head coach and he didn’t pry himself away from his love affair with the game until after his 62nd birthday.
Losing was not an option
In his first season as the varsity head coach, Clement’s Wildcats went 6-3, but one year later they were belly-up at 3-6.
To current Pittsford fans their head coaches’ passion and commitment has always been assumed as a strength, but early on in his career Clement admits to being a horrible loser —3-6 seasons were certainly unacceptable and every loss was like ripping a band-aid off a fresh cut.
“When I was younger I was an awful, terrible loser. I could not stand it — I was just miserable until we would win our next game and those were some really hard times,” he said.
Bob’s wife Jill, who has been his biggest cheerleader —making scrapbooks, organizing team get-togethers and the whole nine yards for years — said losing was an ugly experience to witness in the early years.
“In the beginning it seemed like he took the losses more personal and harder, but he still doesn’t like to lose right up to the end,” she said. “In the beginning he was very quiet after a loss and toward the end (the coaches) would talk more about some good things that happened (after a loss) instead of just the negatives.”
Bob Clement said he was never used to losing, because it harley ever happened when he played sports at Pittsford, but with the help of Cramer and some other colleagues he finally convinced himself that losing “is a natural thing that happens every now and then.”
Cramer said Clement was just a natural-born competitor and the athletic director took it upon himself to help change the way he looked at wins and losses.
“Thinking back on it, you just had to console a person who was so competitive and get inside of their feelings and calm them down,” he said. “That was my job, to get him calmed down.”
The Bob we will all remember
Once Clement learned to move on from defeats and begin looking at the bigger picture, he quickly developed into the kind of coach whose platform was hard work and whose philosophy was to connect with the kids in as many ways as possible.
One of the reasons Clement finally decided to retire was because he took a buyout and quit teaching five years ago, something that didn’t sit quite right with him in his duties as a coach.
After being the shop teacher for a while, he taught physical education and he did everything from wear the hat of high school principal for several years to earning certification as a counselor at the end of his career.
“I always felt like a coach should be rubbing elbows with his players during the school day, getting to know them as students and people,” Clement said. “That’s why it’s felt kind of weird for me the last few years. Sure the guys knew me, but the girls at the school and some of the other kids kind of just knew my face, but not who I was.”
Senior quarterback Garet Lee said the fact Clement was so much older than the players rarely mattered. Clement was known for making up goofy words when he couldn’t quite think of the perfect way to make a point and on the field it was much of the same.
“We were close on the field, and we always knew what was going on for the most part. Even if he messed up a play or something I would know what he was thinking or talking about, or what he wanted to run,” Lee said. “He helped me and showed me how to be a leader pretty much — how to do it and why to do it.”
Cramer and current AD John Hoeft agree that it is Clement’s communication skills that made him so successful.
“Bob’s a great communicator with kids, and he has always been. He had a captains set-up they always worked with and he had systems in place for dealing with any team issues and he was always very involved with the kids, not just with football,” Hoeft said.
Cramer said what it boils down to is Clement “simply loves kids and the kids love him, which is a pretty good combination.” From his perspective Clement cared less about the game and more about developing “good people, good fathers, and good community leaders.”
And when talking about his coaching legacy, it certainly doesn’t hurt that his teams qualified for the playoffs 16 times.
Good times with the bad
Anytime you do something for 37 years you’re sure to experience trials and Clement’s coaching career was not immune from those.
One of the hardest things he’s ever dealt with was the death of one of his players, when Trevor Smith was killed in an automobile accident during the 1988 season.
“He was killed that week and the kids just did not want to play. They could care less,” Clement said.
Then Trevor’s brother delivered a memorable halftime speech that rallied the troops and the Wildcats were spurred on to a decisive victory.
“I was thinking this game really isn’t very important. I was trying to tell them, you know, life goes on and you’ve got to do your best at whatever you’re doing,” Clement said. “But it wasn’t really registering until his brother came and talked to the kids — it was pretty inspirational.”
Jill Clement said Bob might be remembered as an intense guy who never let up, but she assures there is a softer side of him that comes to life when his headset is off and in situations such as the tragedy in 1988.
“I think he’s very open and friendly to most people, and he’s easy to talk to,” she said. “During football season he’s pretty focused on football, but he’s easy to get along with and I think most people are friendly with him.”
Jill was there for him when he lost a player, but she was also there for him in 1997 when Bob had to fight for his own life.
Bob and Jill have both missed just a single Pittsford game since 1973, but it was the one Bob said he wasn’t in attendance for because “he was dying in St. Joe’s Hospital.”
At practice one day Clement started having trouble walking and by that evening he had turned a greenish color and could barely crawl up the stairs.
Initially doctors just gave him painkillers and figured that would remedy his ailments, but the next day doctors determined he had a bad staph inspection on his spine, coupled with what they think may have been spinal meningitis.
Clement missed an entire week of practice and doctors had to do major surgery on him, unsure of what the final outcome might be.
“At St. Joe’s the guy told Jill that one of three things could happen. I might not make it, I could be paralyzed, or things could come out alright,” he said. “They didn’t give her much hope and they said I’d never be able to do things like shovel or a lot the things I’m doing.”
Despite the serious scare Clement couldn’t stay way from the football field for long.
Just days after his back was sewn up, he was back on the sidelines with his team, albeit in a wheelchair.
“I couldn’t hardly walk, I had been on morphine and I was in a wheelchair and they wheeled me in. I was pretty out of it then, but I did call the offense that night,” he said. “All I remember is we won.”
A trophy to rest his crown on
While the tough times have come and gone for Clement and the Pittsford football program, a 1996 Class DD state title trophy is something no one can ever take away.
Wildcat faithful remember their team putting up a school-record 570 points to only 110 for the opposition that year, and a 47-7 state finals win over Maple City Glen Lake, but there’s more to that story than meets the eye.
That was a significant year in Bob Clement’s personal life too as his father battled with illness, eventually passing away a few weeks before his son would hoist the trophy.
Jill Clement said that whole season was a combination of “hard and fun”, and one thing she remembers most is how she was more nervous than Bob during the stretch run.
“I remember the night before the game when we stayed in a hotel and he was sound asleep snoring, and I was wide awake worrying about the game,” she said. “I got pretty nervous. I always wanted to watch the game, so whoever was sitting by me knew they could talk to me, but my eyes were on the game.”
Maybe the most striking part of the state title journey though was something dating back to the season before, as Bob Clement will recall.
“The year before that we were beaten 62-0 by Mendon (in the playoffs). It’s so funny because that was the year before the state championship, and my wife and I were talking after the game and I said ‘We’ll never win a state championship, will we?’” he said. “And she says, ‘No.’ We laugh about it… it was just a flat out no.”
It was one of the few things the Clements’ were wrong about regarding Pittsford football over the years, but as it is with most of their stories, there are hearty laughs and peaceful smiles at the end.