SLIPPERY ROCK, Pa. (EYT/D9) — Clyde Conti had just turned 22, was fresh out of Clarion University and was looking for an opportunity.
He found one at Clarion-Limestone.
(Above, Clyde Conti, far right, stands on the sideline with, from left, Tim Corbett, Don Miller, Greg Wolf, Mike Shaffer and Jim Drayer, during the 1976 Little 12 championship game/photo courtest of Mike Shaffer)
Not far away from that tiny high school in Strattanville, Conti played collegiate football for Al Jacks at Clarion University.
Conti caught the coaching bug when he was a standout tailback at Freeport High School, playing for legendary coaches Bob King and Don Earley.
Always enamored in the Xs and Os, Conti also had a personality that endeared him to his teammates — and later, his players.
In 1973, C-L was looking for a football coach to take over a fledgling program in just its third year of existence. The first season, the Lions went 0-4; the second, 0-7-2.
Conti emerged as just the right man to take over the program.
“It’s not like people were beating the doors down for that job,” Conti said. “That’s probably why I got it. I’m 22 years old and I only have one assistant with me, and this is a tough one because we just lost him, Jim Williamson. He passed away recently. He was two years older than I was.”
Four weeks into the 1973 season, Clarion-Limestone won its first game. The Lions won two more that season and finished 3-5-1.
“That first year we got blown out by Clarion and Union on the road,” Conti said. “Then we tied Brockway. Brockway was the Little 12 runner-up. Don’t laugh about this, but we played a goal-line defense every play. We played a 6-5 on every play. The game ended nothing-nothing.”
Conti can recall details of games played 50 years ago as if they happened yesterday.
He effortlessly rattles off the names of players, some legends in their own right.
“If you asked me something about yesterday, I have no clue. But this stuff I can remember,” Conti deadpanned. “We come out and beat Keystone at home, 6-0. We ran a play, ‘Slot right 18 quarterback keep.’ I had a quarterback who was athletic as heck. Jay Shofestall. He was the first player I met when I got the job.”
Fortunes continued to change in 1974.
Conti led the Lions to the Little 12 Conference title with a 24-0 win over East Brady.
“We had everything back the next year,” Conti said. “We lost 14-8 to East Brady in the regular season and then we beat them 24-0 for the Little 12 championship. To me, that’s the story, the guys who did that. It wasn’t us. It’s the kids that we had. We were fortunate to have them. They would have won with whoever was at the helm. I just happened to be the guy on the sideline with them.”
Conti was blessed with a plethora of great players and lots of successful teams during the 22 years he spent as the C-L football coach, covering two stints.
Something of a football dynasty at Clarion-Limestone was born in those early years.
In 1975, C-L went 7-2 and beat East Brady again, this time 12-10. That Bulldog team was quarterbacked by a sophomore named Jim Kelly.
With Bobby Smith rumbling for yardage at tailback in 1976 for the Lions, Clarion-Limestone once again faced Kelly-led East Brady in the Little 12 Conference championship game. The two teams played to a 13-13 draw.
To this day, Kelly considers Conti one of the best coaches he’s ever played against.
An NFL Hall of Famer after his playing days with the Buffalo Bills, Kelly considers that tie against Conti and C-L in 1976 as one of his most humbling games.
“Every time we played against a Clyde Conti team, we knew it was going to be a battle,” Kelly said. “And it really was. He was a great coach. I always respected him. He coached at my football camp and I knew what kind of coach he was. I knew he was a no nonsense type of coach, him and Terry Henry (Kelly’s high school coach at East Brady). Those were the two best coaches in high school back in the day.”
The magic started to wane in 1978 with a 2-7 season — but one of those wins came against undefeated East Brady on the road.
In 1979, C-L couldn’t complete the season because of a lack of players. Conti stepped down, but returned in 1987 and coached the Lions for 15 more seasons — and led the Lions on another run of dominance.
C-L won the District 9 Class A championship in 1990 and 1993 and claimed Keystone Shortway Athletic Conference crowns in 1991, 1992 and 1993.
Todd Smith, who coached with Conti for 10 years at Clarion-Limestone before taking over the job there when Conti left for Slippery Rock and who will enter his first season as the football coach at Keystone this year, was on that 1990 championship team.
Conti meant more to Smith than just a coach.
“He coached me at a crucial time,” Smith said. “My dad passed away from cancer when I was in the ninth grade, so high school football for me was really important, and Clyde played a big role in my life. That was one of the reasons why I wanted to coach with him.”
Conti also got the Lions to D9 title games in ’91, ’92 and ’98, but C-L came up short in each game.
“Believe me, when we didn’t get wins, I laid that on my shoulders,” Conti said. “That’s tough. It’s tough to take everything. But sometimes you can’t match up in football, so you have to try one way or another.”
Throughout his coaching career, Conti had a knack of analyzing an opponent, dissecting it and identifying flaws, no matter how small, to exploit.
His teams also had a penchant for pulling off upsets.
One came in 1990 when Clarion-Limestone beat rival Clarion, 21-14, in overtime.
“We beat them on a waggle throwback,” Conti said. “Todd Smith threw the ball.”
Smith got an up-close view of how Conti prepared for each opponent.
“We were known to be smaller teams that were just tough,” Smith said. “One thing about Clyde is he never took any opponent for granted. It seemed like he even coached harder for the games that we were supposed to win because he knew that every little thing matters. I think that’s a sign of a good coach. A good coach coaches the same regardless of who you’re playing.
“It was special to play for Clyde,” Smith added. “It meant something.”
When Conti moved on to Slippery Rock, his Rocket teams won District 10 championships in 2002 and 2003.
In ’03, the Rockets made it to the state semifinals where they faced Aliquippa and future NFL star cornerback Darrelle Revis, who was the quarterback for the Quips — an overwhelming favorite to beat Slippery Rock.
But the Rockets led by a point in the fourth quarter before a pair of long TD runs by Revis sent Aliquippa on.
So impressed with his opponent, Revis went to the Slippery Rock locker room after the game to congratulate Conti and his team on a game well-played.
“I’ve only had two athletes ever from the opposing team come over and say anything,” Conti said. “One was when Darrelle Revis came into our locker room. He came in and was complimentary. I said to one of our coaches, ‘Well, we knew he was a good football player. I didn’t realize what a good kid he was.’
“The other was in ’90 and we beat Clarion 21-14 in overtime. Pat Wiltanger, who was a big-time wrestler — he wrestled at Pitt — stayed out on the field to congratulate us.”
Conti spent seven seasons in Slippery Rock. His next high school coaching job came at Butler. He coached for three years there, leading the Golden Tornado to their first District 7 playoff berth in 14 years in 2012.
Following the 2013 season, Conti’s position was opened.
He then landed at Slippery Rock University, spending five years as a quality control coach/academic advisor for The Rock.
Conti’s role as academic advisor came after he observed several players struggling academically.
“I came back to (then SRU head football coach) George Mihalik and said, ‘We got guys — they need help. Some guys really need help.’ They turned that over to me and that’s what I did for five years up there. They gave me six student tutors from the university and I’m very proud of what we were able to do.”
Conti said he relished that role and helped players on the football team improve their academic standing. It also helped with recruiting, as Conti appealed to the parents.
“It resonates with the parents when you talk about the next 40 years, not just the next four,” he said. “I felt strongly about that.”
Conti spent 46 years in coaching. Between Clarion-Limestone, Slippery Rock and Butler, his teams won 188 games. He won a coach of the year award seven times between 1974 and 2012.
He’s inducted in three halls of fame: the Pennsylvania Scholastic Coaches Association Hall of Fame; the AK Valley Hall of Fame; and the Armstrong County Hall of Fame.
But Conti doesn’t consider himself a legend.
“When I think of a legend, I think of Richard Vidunas at Union,” Conti said. “I think of a big rival of ours at C-L, Larry Wiser at Clarion. In basketball, who I would think of is Greg Heath.”
Conti, 71, lives in Slippery Rock with his wife, Ursula. The couple have three children – Crystal, Chad and Chase. Conti was an educator for 38 years and also coached track and field at just about every level.
Conti is hoping there will be a reunion for that 1974 team in a couple of years to mark the 50th anniversary of the first C-L conference championship.
Of course, there will be no more titles to chase for Clarion-Limestone football. In 2019, the Lions played their final game, joining a consolidation with Clarion.
But C-L did more with tiny rosters than most teams — with Conti and others as the head coach.
“I’d love to be able to see all those guys (from the 1974 team) again,” Conti said. “You meet people and you have camaraderie with people. That’s the thing you share and remember. Jim Williamson meant an awful lot to me. His recent passing was difficult, and I want to drive up sometime this summer and look at that practice field and just try to take it all in. I just hope we’ll get the chance to all get together and celebrate that ’74 team again. The credit goes to all those people and I’m certainly very indebted to those people who put trust in me to give me an opportunity. That’s for sure.”