Upper St. Clair’s Jim Render retires after 49 seasons as WPIAL’s winningest football coach
By: Chris Harlan
Thursday, January 3, 2019 | 12:57 PM
In 49 football seasons, Jim Render filed away more than enough memories to fill a book or two.
Now, Render said, maybe he’ll find the time to actually write one.
The winningest football coach in WPIAL history announced his retirement Thursday after nearly five decades and more than 400 victories. He coached the past 40 seasons at Upper St. Clair, where he won five WPIAL titles, two state championships and compiled a career record that’s unmatched in Western Pennsylvania.
He’d already jotted down a list of potential topics for a book. If he wanted, it could contain first-hand tales of legends Vince Lombardi, Chuck Noll and the many others he’s crossed paths with during his decades of coaching.
“I’ve been doing this a long time,” said Render, 76. “Fifty-five years of going to football practice. I’ve been very blessed, coached a lot of great kids, and I just think it’s time to explore other things in this world.”
Render’s first win came Sept. 11, 1970, when the first-year coach led Carrollton, Ohio, to a 12-7 victory at East Palestine in the season opener. After two years at Carrollton and seven at Uniontown, he arrived at Upper St. Clair in 1979.
His career record is 406-141-6.
“Incredible career, incredible coach, but an even better man and leader,” said former player Doug Whaley, a senior on USC’s undefeated state championship team in 1989.
“His accomplishments and the wins, they speak for themselves,” said Kevin Orie, another star senior on that year’s championship roster. “I don’t know if they can be touched by anybody.”
Render said his decision to retire now was influenced at least in part by seeing how Aliquippa forced out longtime football coach Mike Zmijanac last winter. Render wanted to make sure his retirement date was his decision alone.
“The Mike Zmijanac deal at Aliquippa really bothered me,” Render said. “They tried to do that at Upper St. Clair at one point (in the past). A couple of guys wanted to fire me and (boys basketball coach) Danny Holzer. I don’t know, just a lot of things have played on my mind, and I thought now would be a good time to leave on my terms.”
While gathered for the holidays, his family also encouraged him to retire.
“They want me to see what else is out in the world besides first-and-10,” he said of his wife, Pam, and sons J.T. and Eric.
The school announced that it would begin a search for his replacement.
Upper St. Clair went 8-3 this past season including a win over Peters Township in Week 2 that earned Render his 400th career victory. Only two other coaches in WPIAL history reached 300: Joe Hamilton (342) and George Novak (306).
Upper St. Clair reached the playoffs 38 times in Render’s 40 seasons and earned 23 conference titles. They won WPIAL titles in 1988, ’89, ’92, ’97 and 2006 and added state titles in 1989 and 2006.
Render still keeps in contact with many former players and some reached out as news of his retirement spread. He attended a small get-together a few days before Christmas with former players from the 1989 championship.
“It’s stuff like that that pleases me,” Render said. “So when you ask, ‘How do I want to be remembered?’ as long as a lot of those guys still remember the old coach, that’s good enough for me.”
In four decades at Upper St. Clair, Render sent dozens of his players on to play college football including former Penn State star Sean Lee, now a linebacker for the Dallas Cowboys.
Render was inducted into the Pennsylvania Scholastic Football Coaches Hall of Fame in 1998 and the Western Pennsylvania Sports Hall of Fame in 2005. The Dover, Ohio, native received the Lou Holtz Upper Ohio Valley Hall of Fame Lifetime Achievement Award in 2013.
The Pittsburgh Steelers in December nominated Render for the Don Shula NFL High School Coach of the Year Award. Each NFL team chooses one nominee and all 32 are invited to attend this year’s Pro Bowl in Orlando.
Whaley, a former NFL general manager, was recently named senior vice president for football operations in the XFL. He credited Render for teaching his players hard work and discipline. A running back, Whaley recalled the time he celebrated a touchdown against rival Mt. Lebanon.
“I showboated a little bit and pointed at a guy as I was going in for a touchdown,” Whaley said. “He kindly took me over, looked me in the eye and said, ‘We don’t do that. We’re better than that.’ That’s the last time I did it. For me, he was never a yeller or a screamer, but his poignant statements just stick with you.”
“He’s a good-hearted man who really cared about his players,” said former player Peter Habib, another standout from that 1989 roster. “We didn’t always agree but we respected him.”
Former USC lineman Ian Park, a 2012 graduate, remembers two Coach Renders. There’s the intimidating one he feared as a young waterboy and the caring one he admired as a player.
“I thought he was a scary guy,” Park said with a laugh. “But by the time I was a senior, I got to know him. I don’t want to say he got soft over the years, but I don’t think he’s as scary as he used to be.”
A Wittenberg College graduate, Render started his coaching career as a graduate assistant at West Virginia. It was there as a Mountaineers assistant that Render first met Lombardi.
“I was standing between he and the door he wanted to go through,” Render said. “He took a step forward and I got the (heck) out of the way.”
Render isn’t sure what his future holds. He likes to write and has done some work for an Upper St. Clair magazine. That has him pondering a book.
“I did put some topics on a legal pad,” Render said, “things I would definitely want to talk about in a book. I’ve had a lot of interesting experiences with a lot of different people.”
Chris Harlan is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Chris at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @CHarlan_Trib.
Tags: Upper St. Clair