Clifford receives deserved kudos from colleagues

COLUMBUS – Kim Clifford has heard from a lot of people this past week.

Since the Red Devils knocked off New Philadelphia last weekend in the Division II regional final in Athens, Clifford’s Blackberry has been ringing with regularity with calls of congratulations.

And deservedly so. In his 21st year at the helm of one of the area’s most successful, and steady, programs, Clifford and his Red Devils broke down barrier after barrier over the course of the past month en route to reaching their first OHSAA Division II Final Four.

Regardless of what happens today when the Devils meet first-time entrant Elida at 2 p.m., Clifford has a lot of time to reflect on his career, which has resulted in 372 career victories.

Long before he was in charge of his own program, he was a member of arguably the finest coaching staff ever put together, working under the late Mark Matz at Bellaire along with Gene Ammirante and Jeff Sabatino, who obviously went on to unquestioned success at Bellaire and Martins Ferry, respectively.

“I’ve reflected a lot over the last week about where we’ve come from,” Clifford said. “It seems like Gene, Sab and I started a hundred years ago. We saw them take the peach baskets down and put up glass.”

The first year Ammirante and Clifford worked under Matz with the Big Reds, Bellaire qualified for the regional tournament in Athens. It’s hard to believe that – until last weekend – was the last time Clifford had sat on the bench, and not in the crowd, at the Convo.

Sabatino and Clifford attended West Liberty State College together and the two became colleagues when Sab was hired as the eighth grade coach.

“Kim and I lived on the same floor for four years (in college) and became about as good of friends as you can become,” Sabatino said.

Before coming to St. Clairsville 21 seasons ago, Clifford was head coach at Cadiz. When he was offered, and accepted, the Red Devils’ post, he immediately drove to Bellaire and informed Sabatino and encouraged him to apply for the Cardinals’ post.

After some arm twisting, Sabatino interviewed for and accepted the job, but held it for just one season when his current position with the Purple Riders came open.

“Kim had a huge hand in me getting my start (as a head coach),” Sabatino said. “I had pretty much became sure that I wasn’t going to be a head coach. He paved the way for me to get the Cadiz job and then I got the Ferry job, which is the best move I’ve ever made.”

Obviously, it’s been moves that worked out for everyone. All three of Clifford’s sons – Ryan, Justin and Kurt – played for him at St. C. and Justin got his head coaching start at, ironically, Harrison Central. Ryan is currently one of his father’s top aides and Kurt is into coaching as well. He’s an assistant at Tallmadge, which is in suburban Akron.

It’s all come full circle for the three. Ammirante won more than 400 games at Bellaire and led the Big Reds to the 2004 Division III state tournament before they dropped a heartbreaker to Versailles. Sabatino has taken multiple Ferry squads to the regional tournament.

Ammirante, who admits he doesn’t stay up as late as he once did, heard the Red Devils had defeated New Philadelphia last Saturday and made it a point to stay awake for the news to see the highlights. He called Clifford for two different reasons this week. First and foremost, he wanted to offer his congratulations, but he also gave him some advice on handling the entire experience.

“I am really happy that Kim’s getting the chance (to coach in the state tournament),” Ammirante said. “A lot of guys don’t get the chance to see the fruits of their labor.”

Sabatino listened to the regional final on the radio and as soon as the buzzer sounded he was on the phone to Clifford.

“I did the same thing after he won the OVAC,” Sabatino said. “I just told him how proud I was of him and how much I loved him. He’s always been a great coach and he didn’t need a state tournament trip to validate what he’s done. He does it his way and his teams are always tough to play against.”

As much respect, admiration and love that the trio has for each other, when it came gametime, all three wanted to win in the worst way.

“Kim may have put it the best one day when he said, ‘we’re like brothers, but when brothers compete, they’ll bloody the others’ noses to win,'” Ammirante said.

Clifford fought back emotion as he got a little misty-eyed when asked how difficult it was at times to coach against two of his best friends.

“It bothered me when I lost and it bothered me when I won,” Clifford explained. “Those guys are really good friends of mine. It was just a terrible situation, but we’ve stayed friends through it all.”

Sabatino will be one of the first people in the Schott today when the doors open. Ammirante – who is currently the assistant recreation director with the city of Wheeling – was efforting to get the day off to make the trip to Columbus.

However, you’d expect nothing less from your friends, would you?

Staskey can be reached at