After 40 years as head football coach, Jim Render has retired from his post at Upper St. Clair High School. With that much tenure, the 76-year-old field general has impacted thousands of lives.
Many reacted after Render announced his retirement on Jan. 3. Here are recollections and stories from former players and coaches regarding Render's impact on the program.
Both sides now
Shawn Morton has been on both sides of a relationship with Jim Render. He played against him when he was setting passing records at Bethel Park High School. The 1980 alum also eventually ended up working with Render in the high school’s physical education and health department and as an assistant coach.
Morton laughs about his initial encounter with Render. It was some 37 years ago when Render was relatively new at USC. Morton noted that the Hawks beat USC in the final regular season game his senior season to advance to the playoffs.
“We knocked them out of the playoffs and he never forgot that,” Morton said with a chuckle.
Render had the last laugh when Morton joined his coaching staff in 1993. He learned immediately who was “in charge” and what “direction” Render had for the program.
As the youngest and newest coach, Morton said that from time to time Render would “verbally rip into him” just like he would do to a player.
“I thought to myself ‘well at least he’s consistent.’ If you make a mistake, he’ll let you know. As the years went by and younger coaches were hired, I would see him do the same thing to them. I would laugh to myself and think ‘your turn,’” Morton said with a laugh.
Morton remembers things were not so funny for Render even though he was coaching the Panthers to a WPIAL title and a runner-up showing in the 1997 PIAA championships.
During equipment handout day, Render lifted a heavy box that resulted in a back injury. According to Morton, he coached every day for 17 weeks in “excruciating pain” but since the Panthers kept on winning Render “had to suck it up” and keep coaching. He postponed surgery until after the season.
“That demonstrated a true dedicated coach. One that put the team first,” Morton said.
Mike Junko, too, has experienced Jim Render from a player’s perspective as well as a coach’s view.
“He was a very demanding coach that expected the very best from his players,” Junko said recalling his career at USC.
Junko quarterbacked the Panthers and played on their 1989 state championship club. He also was a member of USC’s only WPIAL championship baseball team.
The 1992 alum played football at the University of Akron and received a degree in political science. He served as a social studies teacher and an assistant football coach in the Mt. Lebanon School District from 2007-2017 before taking on similar positions at USC.
“My passion is teaching and coaching,” Junko said. “So I am proud to be a member of the USC staff.
Regarding the coaching staff, he added that Render surrounded himself with some of the best in the WPIAL throughout his career. “It was an honor to get a chance to work with those individuals,” Junko said.
Noting that winning the 1989 state championship will always be a special moment and that the players from that team remain close even today, Junko looks forward to continuing his coaching career because he learned important lessons from his mentor.
“Coach Render was an intense competitor that hated to lose,” he said. “He brought a spirit of competition to every aspect of his program.”
Though he put only one player in the NFL, Render coached two other players with ties to professional football.
Doug Whaley was hired Nov. 8, 2018, as the senior vice president of football operations for the XFL. Prior to that, Whaley served as general manager of the Buffalo Bills from 2013-17. He also worked with the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Whaley, who was a defensive back for the University of Pittsburgh, helped USC win two WPIAL titles and one PIAA championship. He is best remembered for his back-to-back 300-yard rushing games against Butler and Hempfield 31 years ago.
Whaley credits Render for his success as well as his work ethic.
“The most valuable lesson I learned from Coach was that working to accomplish a goal should be natural like breathing,” Whaley said.
“Coach held everyone to the same standard whether you were a starter or a backup. His expectations on how you worked or carried yourself on as well as off the field never changed.”
Whaley added that while he is saddened by Render’s departure, he noted that he raised the bar for future generations.
“Coach had a great run,” he said, “and he will be the gold standard for high school head coaches for decades to come.”
Meanwhile, Josh Helmrich met the news of Render’s retirement with mixed emotions.
He is happy for his former coach and his wife, Pam, because they can now “travel the world” and spent more time with their grandchildren. But Helmrich is also saddened because he knows that when he returns to USC, Render won’t be “roaming the sidelines” and Helmrich will have lost a connection to the program.
Long before Helmrich became an executive in the NFL–he serves as director of strategy and business development–the Yale graduate gained his start as a ball boy for Coach Render in 2000. He recalls his first game when USC traveled to Erie to play McDowell. Throughout his training camp days, Helmrich had learned how tough, intelligent and old-school his boss was.
“If you screwed up, you best be prepared for a tongue-lashing and an embarrassing one at that,” added Helmrich. “He didn’t hold anything back.”
So needless to say, Helmrich was astonished when during his halftime speech, Render paused “in mid-yell” to ask the ball boys to step out of the room. “He said we didn’t need to hear that kind of language.”
As his starting quarterback a few year later, Helmrich learned there was a whole different level to Render’s anger when one messed up in a game versus training camp.
“My point,” Helmrich said, “is that Coach Render is a great man who is always thinking of others (even an eighth-grade ball boy), not just a great football coach. His tough exterior is only there to help make others better.”
Helmrich today is still influenced by Render. He acknowledged that he was a guiding force in high school, cementing his philosophy on the importance of friendships and memories, as well as in his current capacity.
“Coach Render understood long before a teenager could appreciate it how important high school football is and would be,” said Helmrich, who recalled his poignant words after USC dismantled arch rival Mt. Lebanon in 2004.
“He told us to pause and appreciate the moment because we were creating memories that would last a lifetime. Now, 15 years removed from wearing an Upper St. Clair uniform, I can definitely say he was right. I cherish those moments 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. He instilled in us principles that have been beneficial in life.”
Perhaps the most profound principle Helmrich credited Render with was the “Do Right” philosophy.
“He always talked about ‘doing right’ in everything we did. If everyone in the world focused on “doing right” I think the world would be a much better place. I am forever grateful to have had Coach Render as an influence in my life.”
Coach Render certainly impacted the lives of the Conwell brothers.
Dane was a member of USC’s 2006 PIAA championship team and earned a scholarship to Indiana University. He transferred to California University of Pennsylvania, where he earned a business degree. For the past five months, he has worked in sales at FedEx after having been employed as a district manager for Verizon in Ohio.
Dakota went to Arizona but ended up playing football at West Liberty, where he also earned a business degree. After working in sales and marketing for the Pittsburgh Pirates this past summer, he now is employed as an outside sales executive for Worldwide Express.
The news of Render’s retirement did not come as a surprise.
“He picked a great time, particularly after getting over 400 victories,” Dane said.
Dakota agreed. "I figured it was coming soon because I had heard rumors but then again I have heard them for the last 10 years. I am happy for him though," he continued, "and I am proud to say that I played for him. It's an end of an era."
Ironically, Dakota noted that his mother, Mary, moved to Upper St. Clair as a junior and that was Coach Render's first year of coaching at the high school.
Dane also pointed out how Render’s Panthers won against schools with higher enrollments than USC. He said that when the Panthers compiled a 16-0 record capped with a state title his senior season, USC’s male enrollment hovered around 300.
“That’s a testament to Coach Render,” Dane said. “He’s left an amazing legacy. He got the most out of his players and against all odds.”
Render certainly got the most out of Dane as he rushed for five touchdowns and 167 yards in that state championship win against Bethlehem Liberty in 2006. The post-game, curiously, not the game itself, afforded Dane his most memorable moment of his mentor.
“After winning the state championship, Coach Render stopped in Pat (McShane) and my room. He had a smile on his face that went from ear to ear. I was flabbergasted to see the joy on his face. I’ll never forget that moment because it was then that I realized all of our hard work had paid off.”
Meanwhile, Dakota will never forget the moment when Render showed him the most compassion. The 2012 graduate had broken his ankle in a semifinal playoff game his senior season. But Coach Render put him in for the first play of the WPIAL championship game the following week at Heinz Field.
"My fondest moments of playing for Coach Render were both a sad one and a happy one. When I told him my ankle was broken, he put his arm around me and told me that he loved me and appreciated all I had done. That was encouraging because Coach cared about me as a player and a young man. When I wasn't supposed to play the next game," Dakota said of the overtime loss to North Allegheny, "he gave me the green light to start. As a young kid to go to Heinz Field and play there was very special. So that meant a lot to me. It was just one play but my happiest memory."
Later in life, both Dane and Dakota realized the importance of Coach Render in their lives.
Dane said at 17 you don’t always understand how one word or one thing can make such a difference. As he looks back and reflects on Coach Render’s influence, he recalled the most vital life lesson.
“Doing the right thing for the right reasons,” Dane said. “I got such great joy out of competing and I carry that, too, into my profession. Whether that is with yourself or among your peers, doing things the right way keeps with me.”
Dakota added, "Coach Render always did right by me. He was always there in my corner, supporting me and helping me out. And the biggest thing he instilled in me was to do right."
According to Dane, that lesson will live on long after Render has departed.
“I think (future players) will benefit from the legacy and foundation he leaves. They may not know where it comes from but it pays dividends. He will have a lot of influence for so many years to come.”
Football, as any team sport, teaches valuable lessons. Steve Tazza, who also played baseball and basketball at USC, acknowledges that there is little original to say regarding the legitimacy of the fact that consistency, persistence and sacrificial preparation are irreplaceable elements in life’s success whether that be regarding faith, family, business or any other venue.
“It provides a mostly untarnishable platform and venue for the discovery of these ideals,” he said. “But, it still requires proper stewardship."
According to Tazza, Coach Render supplied that for many years at USC.
“With proper stewardship, the speed, frequency and depth of discovery of life's higher leaning ideals, literally or as metaphor, becomes entirely possible,” he said.
Tazza also noted that USC football and Coach Render were particularly good at demanding personal accountability from young men during the most formative years in their lives.
“I think he understood–perhaps better than some people think–the very important difference of telling a young man "you are better than that" versus "you are no good." These are delicate lines, and I think much of his success as a coach relates to consistently and unwaveringly being on the right side of those lines.”
Regarding his fondest memory, Tazza noted being on the right side of victory when the Panthers beat Aliquippa in “The Pit” in a “win-or-go-home” game his junior year. The Quips were undefeated before the clash. They would not lose again until they eventually became WPIAL champions.
“We went into that setting–against stiff odds–put our individual wills to the collective and got the job done. It was one of the greatest athletic contests I ever had the privilege of being a part of,” said Tazza, who went on to play at the U.S. Naval Academy. Currently, he serves as the CEO of Veteran Opportunity Partners, LLC and lives in Philadelphia.
Kevin Orie was one of Ron and Eileen’s eight athletic children. Three of his five brothers, Mike, Patrick and Dan also played football for Coach Render but Orie was the lone state champion, having played on the 1989 squad. He was also a member of the 1988 WPIAL club that was not allowed to play in the first PIAA playoffs.
While Patrick and Dan attended Colgate and Dartmouth respectively, Orie excelled at Indiana University at Bloomington and became a professional baseball player with the Chicago Cubs.
While he said that he had so many fond memories and fun stories of winning with Render at the helm, particularly winning the state title, one small incident with his former skipper had a profound impact on him.
After one of the three-a-day training camp practices, he was sitting in a classroom at Fort Couch Middle School and the coaches were having a “pow pow” about positions. Up to that point, Orie had been a cornerback and as a young junior, he was not expecting to “play a ton” yet Coach Render ask him where he felt the Panthers could “utilize” his abilities.
“I’d love to play free safety,” I told him. “I said that I was most comfortable there and if given the opportunity, I thought it would work out well. It was a big decision and a coach’s job is to put all of his athletes in the right positions and he allowed me to do that. I really respected him for that.”
Orie respected also the discipline and standards Coach Render instilled in him. He admitted that he doesn’t know anyone that truly loves discipline.
“But you can’t argue when you see the attention to detail, the focus, the desire and see the results,” he said. “You can’t help but jump on board.
“With Coach Render, he never varied. He never wavered. He didn’t alter his game plan and he knew how to handle people. We were always so prepared for games because of how hard we practiced. We might get beat in practice but that was never going to happen in a game. He had a mindset and he knew how to use his weapons and get the best out of them. His system worked and we’ve carried that on to have successful lives after football.”
Other former player’s thoughts:
“Coach was tough and demanding but what I like was how he made me want to get better.”
Jerry Berteotti, who was a member of the 1988 championship team and went on to play baseball at Pitt and in the Los Angeles Dodgers’ organization.
“When you are 16, you don’t know that he is molding you,” Dallas Cowboys’ linebacker Sean Lee said of Coach Render when he returned to Pittsburgh for the 50-year celebration of USC football back on June 30, 2017. “But, what he is doing is preparing you for the future. He’s grinding you through adversity so every challenge that you face after high school, you are prepared.”
A 2005 USC graduate, Lee also added that Coach Render gave his all.
“What more can you ask of a coach than to build a tradition that a community can share in, and mold his players into people who can succeed after high school.”