Living Legends: Still coaching them up after all these years

There’s a notice in the local sports section of the Daily Times. It reads: “High School Coach Wanted.”

A particular coach may have a full-time job somewhere outside the school district and has to transfer to another location. He can no longer commit the long hours that’s required to run a program.

Perhaps a coach is a teacher at a particular school district, but finds a better opportunity in another county and has to do what’s best for his family.

Coaching turnover is all too commonplace at the scholastic level.

Many have left, but few others have stuck around for 34 years at one location. There’s no sole reason why Kevin Clancy at Strath Haven, Steve Lennox at Interboro and Mike Ricci at Garnet Valley — the three winningest football coaches in Delco football — are at the same high schools after decades.

Joe Gallagher at Haverford, Rich Gentile at Upper Darby and Ray Gionta at Sun Valley, three other Delco coaching legends that have enjoyed success for a long period of time at one school, also fit the mold.

“You’re waking up 365 days of year and thinking football,” Clancy said. “I bet if you talk to some of those other guys, like Joe and Steve, every given day of the year, you might not be interacting with kids, but something about football is rolling around in your head. That’s the way it is. It becomes such a big part of your life.”

But to be a viable football coach for this long, adjustments have to be made along the way. Coaching pigskin, they’ll say, hasn’t changed all too often over the course of their careers. What was relevant in 1985 still works in 2015. But it’s not always that simple.


Kevin Clancy, the winningest coach in Delco high school history, runs practice at Strath Haven recently. Clancy’s teams have fallen off since the days when Strath Haven won 11 District One and two PIAA championships, but he feels like he’s risen to the challenge of keeping up with the changes in the game. (Times Staff/Robert J. Gurecki)
Kevin Clancy, the winningest coach in Delco high school history, runs practice at Strath Haven recently. Clancy’s teams have fallen off since the days when Strath Haven won 11 District One and two PIAA championships, but he feels like he’s risen to the challenge of keeping up with the changes in the game. (Times Staff/Robert J. Gurecki)

Clancy is the model of coaching success in the state of Pennsylvania. Eleven-time District One champion. Two-time state champion. Eleven-time Central League champion. Most wins in Delco history. It’s hard to argue with the best, but over the past few years Clancy admits that he has wrestled with the idea of change.

The Wing-T has been a staple at Strath Haven since Clancy’s arrival from Archbishop Carroll in the early-1990s, but Clancy acknowledges that more dynamic offensive schemes have come to the forefront. At the risk of being obsolete, Clancy realizes that change, to a certain degree, is necessary.

“I’m in a battle with that all the time,” he said. “I really believe that things we have done for a long time and I think there’s value in what we do, but it’s important to recognize that you do have to adapt to modern schemes. We’re trying to integrate some of the newer stuff into what we’re doing. It’s a constant battle. After you invest all those years in doing what’s worked for so long, you don’t want to just throw everything away you’ve learned and go to something entirely new. What else can I do to enhance a certain play to make it better? It’s a constant change. That’s the fun of it.”

When Ricci was named head coach of the Jaguars in 1986 (he left for one year to test the college ranks), Garnet Valley, hard as it may seem, was a little school with small turnouts come football season. By the mid-1990s, Garnet Valley became a fledgling school district, and Ricci’s program was growing at a rapid pace. To achieve success, he sought inspiration from his peers.

Ricci, in his 29th year at the helm, has led the Jaguars to four Central League titles, two District One championships and one Eastern Pennsylvania crown.

“When we started to grow as a school district and we decided we wanted to look at how we handled our football program to help it succeed, I went to see what Coach Lennox and Coach Clancy were doing,” Ricci said. “The thing that they were doing consistently was they had an offense that they believed in, that they worked on and executed. They didn’t go to the flavor of the month … they did what they did and they did it well. The kids knew what to do, and because of that, they were able to execute and to be successful. So one of the things we wanted to incorporate into our program was that. We wanted to incorporate something simple and something that was fundamentally sound and something that we could execute against any team, no matter who we were playing against and what they were doing. I don’t think that’s changed at all. The teams that do well are the teams that do those kinds of things consistently.”

Ridley coach Dennis Decker became the fifth coach at Ridley 2009. When he was an All-Delco quarterback in 1990, becoming the county’s all-time single-season passing champion, Decker learned the ropes under legendary Ridley coach Joe McNicholas, who accrued 226 victories in 24 years before retiring in 1996.

“I think you learn to appreciate guys like him who are around for so long and have so much success,” Decker said.
It’s a sentiment Decker expressed for the current core of Delco’s football rat pack.

“When you have guys like Kevin Clancy, Steve Lennox, Joe Gallagher and Mike Ricci, who have been around the same school for 20, 25 and 30 years, I think it’s just a testament to their character and their ability to relate to the youth,” Decker said. “There’s a reason why they’ve been successful for so long. They just know how to connect to their kids. You really appreciate those guys and what they’ve been able to all these years.”

Lennox was a successful coach in Delaware before taking over at Interboro, where he reeled off 12 consecutive Del Val League titles. Gentile has spent 21 years overseeing an Upper Darby team that is always tough to beat. Gallagher has guided Haverford for 24 mostly winning seasons. Gionta had success in 11 years at Marple Newtown, and years before at St. James. Gionta is a Delco Athletes Hall of Fame alongside Clancy, Gallagher and Lennox, all of whom were enshrined over the last six years.

Another reason for success is the teaching aspect of the job, which can sometimes go overlooked, but continuously drives the old guard to keep moving forward and building their programs.

“We love the game. We love the actual strategies of the game, but what we really like is working with kids who are learning the game,” Clancy said. “In my case, I think it makes your career as a teacher more meaningful. When you’re a coach, it allows you to get to know the kids more and you see more energy in the classroom. It ties very nicely. I see it as a dual role, the teacher-coach.”

Trust and Structure

Ray Gionta is in his second season as the Sun Valley coach, but he has been around the county for years as the head coach at Marple Newtown and at St. James before that. (Times Staff/Robert J. Gurecki
Ray Gionta is in his second season as the Sun Valley coach, but he has been around the county for years as the head coach at Marple Newtown and at St. James before that. (Times Staff/Robert J. Gurecki

Garnet Valley will have as many as 115 to 120 players on its roster this season. One of Ricci’s favorite times of the year is when he gets the opportunity to meet with all of them, and their families, on an individual basis.

It’s labor of love for Ricci, a vital exercise that goes a long way in establishing a trusting relationship with every player and parent that comes through the program.

“I don’t just want to get to know the kid, I want to get to know the parent as well,” Ricci said. “The first thing I tell the parents in the meeting is, I want you to know that I want to do everything I can to work with you so that, together, we can put your son in a position where he’s going to be successful. … You want to be on the same page. This is a developing kid and he needs all the help he can get.”

Furthermore, Garnet Valley has a mentoring program that entails Ricci assigning his assistant coaches to groups of two or three senior players. The assistants teach the senior players valuable lessons in leadership and setting good examples for the underclassmen. And if there’s a concern, Ricci will hear about it at staff meetings and trust that his coaches will handle the situation with care.

“We try to build senior leaders through our program,” he said. “We have a structured system of communication so that we can get to the people who need to be talked to.”

Haverford has a tradition. After every game, win or loss, Gallagher invites the families of his players down to the field to take pictures and socialize. You’ll usually see Gallagher sticking around for a half hour after the game, saying hello to familiar faces.

“It’s gives you that instant connection with the parents of these kids,” Gallagher said. “This is something we have done for a long time and we’re proud of. It’s a great thing. For us, it’s a tradition. I think the parents appreciate it and there is something to say about trust. That’s a big part of the job as coach, having the chance to connect with the families.”

Success and trust reaches to the administration level. These coaches have earned the unwavering support of the superintendent and school board, and their track records speak for themselves.

In some instances, the trusting relationship extends beyond the classroom and the field. When Ricci took a leave of absence for personal reasons in the middle of the 2014 season, he never doubted his support system at Garnet Valley.

“I don’t think that’s by accident,” Ricci said. “It’s because of what we’ve worked so hard to build here. People know what we do and they know that we care and they know that our entire purpose is to help grow boys into young men. The support that I have here is fantastic and it never wavered from one second.”


Delco’s greatest football coaches have successfully changed with the times. Whether it’s adapting to new schemes or handling the growing issue of player safety, they have shown they can handle any problem that arises. And they’ll admit, there’s always something new to learn.

Best of all, these legends believe they have an obligation to the development of young men. It’s why Ricci returned Garnet Valley all those years ago after a one-year college stint. And it’s why Clancy, Lennox, Gallagher, Gentile and Gionta never really left at all.

Lennox says it every year in summer camp: He’s still doing what he does because of his players, who keep him motivated and feeling young. That part of the job never changes.

This story appears in the Delco Times Football Preview, available on newsstands Friday.

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