Kevin Gorman: Jim Render’s retirement requires a victory lap

By: HSSN Staff
Thursday, January 3, 2019 | 7:39 PM

Jim Render could go down as both winningest football coach and sorest loser in WPIAL history, and that would only be half of his story.

Render retired Thursday after 49 seasons — the past 40 at Upper St. Clair — and it’s not just the 406 victories, five WPIAL and two PIAA championships for which he should be remembered.

Render was the dean of WPIAL football coaches, and could be the last of his kind: A man who devoted five decades to coaching high school football, teaching his principles to generations of players that extended beyond the game and benefited them for life.

Not only is Render a legend, but he’s rubbed elbows with coaching greats, from playing for Ara Parseghian at Northwestern to serving as a graduate assistant coach with Bobby Bowden at West Virginia. Render built relationships with Steelers Super-Bowl winning coaches Chuck Noll, Bill Cowher and Mike Tomlin, as well as Penn State’s Joe Paterno and countless other coaches.

A favorite Render story of mine: One year we were talking about Penn State football, as I covered the undefeated 1994 Rose Bowl champions that his son, J.T., played on as a walk-on wide receiver. I shared that I believed Paterno should have retired from coaching after that season, given that he had just turned 68 years old.

Render snapped at me: How old do you think I am?

Never did it cross my mind that Render already was in his 70s or that he wouldn’t retire until he was 76. He always came across as old-school, to the point of talking about throwing the ball as the forward pass, but he never seemed old or, at least, too old to continue coaching.

Render was a quarterback who played for legends in both high school in the late Dick Haines at Dover, Ohio — they are believed to be the first, if not only mentor and protégé to reach 300 victories – and college in Parseghian. Render idolized Woody Hayes and dreamed of becoming the next great Ohio State coach.

Instead, he followed Haines’ advice and chose to coach high school football. Render always preached the importance of the fundamentals of blocking and tackling. He demanded discipline, as players were required to wear white socks with their black cleats. They ate pasta Thursday nights, pancakes immediately before a game and pizza afterward.

“He always expected us to be at our best at each moment of each day, not just game day,” said Peter Habib, a running back on USC’s 1989 WPIAL and PIAA Class AAAA champions who now lives in Tampa. “Every play, every practice — we took that literally.”

Render has a fondness for that ’89 team as the one that kicked off the USC tradition and took great pleasure in its induction into the WPIAL Hall of Fame. He has remained close to the players like Habib, Phil Dunn, Kevin Orie and Doug Whaley, still friends 30 years later.

The Panthers won WPIAL championships in three decades, ranging from ’88 to 2006 and remain a perennial powerhouse program. To the surprise of his own players, USC evolved under Render from a power-I program to a spread offense that featured the shotgun.

“He uses his old-school fundamentals and instills that in the newer offense with the personnel we have,” former USC quarterback Dakota Conwell said before the 2011 WPIAL final. “When we look up at that banner in the gym and see those WPIAL championships, we know Coach put them up there.”

If Render was the biggest winner, as his 406-141-6 career record attests, he also was the worst loser. He was inconsolable after losses and dwelled on defeats to many sleepless nights. You had to wonder at times if he hated losing more than he enjoyed winning, and it tortured him that he lost in more WPIAL finals than he won.

Render also was known for his tongue-lashings, especially for making mistakes — or his perception that players were about to make mistakes.

“He used to bite his knuckles,” Habib said. “You knew if he was biting his knuckles he was about to rip you. That was his trademark. You’d see him biting his knuckles and say, ‘Uh oh, here it comes.’

“He’s probably biting his knuckles now that he’s retiring.”

But Render took as much pride that his players went on to become doctors and lawyers and successful businessmen as he did that USC produced an NFL star in Dallas Cowboys linebacker Sean Lee.

“It’s amazing how you can play in college and the NFL but that’s still one of my favorite seasons — my senior year at Upper St. Clair,” Lee told me three years ago. “Coach Render was fun to play for.”

Yet my lasting memory of Render is not from a high school football game but rather a post-practice moment at summer training camp that resonated because of the respect his players showed their old coach.

The Panthers formed a single-file line that snaked through the weight room, each player waiting his turn to shake Render’s hand and wish him a good day before leaving. And he thanked them for their efforts.

I’ve covered sports for 25 years, from preps to pros, and have never seen anything like it anywhere on any level. USC players understood they were playing for a legend, and treated him as such.

Former USC quarterback Josh Helmrich put it best: Render understood, long before a teenager could appreciate it, how important high school football is (and would be) to their lives.

“He often told us to pause and appreciate the moment because we were creating memories that would last a lifetime,” said Helmrich, a Yale graduate who is the NFL’s director of strategy and business development. “And now that I’m 15 years removed from wearing an Upper St. Clair uniform, I can definitively say he was right.

“I cherish those memories — and think about them more than I probably should. Although high school football is a great experience at lots of schools across Western Pennsylvania, I feel incredibly blessed to have played for Jim Render. He unquestionably helped shape me into the person I am today, and I am better because of it.”

Helmrich is hardly alone among USC players who have Render to thank for their success on the football field and beyond it.

That’s the other half of Jim Render’s story, and his greatest victory.

Kevin Gorman is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Kevin at [email protected] or via Twitter @KGorman_Trib.

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