STRATTANVILLE, Pa. – Sitting at his desk at Delta Contractors & Design, a company he founded nearly 40 years ago, with pictures of his grandchildren adoring the wall behind him, Joe Ferguson sat down and reflected on the last 17 years.
Seventeen years that he never thought would become 17 years.
Seventeen years as the head boys’ basketball coach at Clarion-Limestone, where he became the winningest coach in school history with 284 victories including a pair of District 9 titles.
C-L had won one District 9 championship before Ferguson took over the program for the 2006-07 season from Rogers Laugand, and that came way back in 1961.
The Lions that Ferguson was inheriting weren’t known as a basketball juggernaut. In fact, the 1961 season that saw the D9 title come with a win over Sheffield was one of just two 20-win seasons in school history from 1945 through 2006 with the other coming in 1976.
C-L won 20 or more games seven times under Ferguson, who recently announced his retirement as the head coach, with two District 9 titles and seven KSAC titles, including last season’s 25-3 campaign that ended with a D9 Class 2A crown and a KSAC crown.
Before stepping down, Ferguson was the third-longest active boys coach in District 9 behind only two legends, Aaron Straub of Elk County Catholic and Greg Heath of Keystone.
“I didn’t even know that until you told me,” Ferguson said. “Three years. I told the board I’ll try to get the program solidified and on solid ground after three years. I told my wife that. And every year it was like I will go back for another year. Looking back, I can hardly believe it to be honest.”
Ferguson said the decision to walk away right now, especially with a lot of key pieces back from last year’s title team, was anything but an easy one.
“It is one of the most difficult decisions I’ve had to make in regard to something that doesn’t matter,” Ferguson said. “Because, in a sense, it’s a selfish decision that I made in that I still had people wanting me to continue to coach. The factors that go into the decision to resign, there are too many. My grandchildren were a big factor. That is a kind of selfish on the side of family, yet it is not.”
Ferguson said he was coming off one of the “funner” seasons he has ever coached taking a team that was coming off an 11-12 record in 2022 with very few people having high expectations only to tie the school record with 25 wins.
“(It) was a team that wasn’t expected to maybe be a .500 team,” Ferguson said. “Because the kids bought into what coach Pat (Craig) and I and Ross (Munsee) felt we had to do to win, they did well.”
While winning was certainly fun and a big part of what the C-L basketball team is now known for, it alone is far from what Ferguson is most proud of when it comes to the program he guided for nearly two decades.
“It isn’t wins and losses by any means,” Ferguson said. “I would say (it’s) back to the relationships I’ve had with coaches, referees, players. My relationships with people. I believe because of the foundation I have in my faith, I believe that has set the groundwork for just having good relationships. I can pretty much face anybody in the league right now, any coach, any referee, or any player, and feel like though I may not be the best coach basketball-wise, I treated people fairly. And, really, that’s what life comes down to. You are not always going to be the best in your job and so forth, but if you work hard good things will happen. I believe I was blessed because of that. The wins and losses came because I had good parent support and players who were good players. It was the combination of both that put us with seven KSAC championships and a couple of District titles.”
Ferguson’s faith was something that was front and center in his program, something he credits with being the driving force for what the C-L program has become.
“To me, ministry, meaning steering kids towards Christ, was one of my main objectives when I took the job,” Ferguson said. “I let the (school) board know that. (I told them), you think I am a good basketball coach, I don’t know if I am or not. I did well in junior high school for 10 or 12 years, we did very well. They (the school board) had confidence in me. But I said it isn’t the basketball that I am concerned about. I am concerned that I can steer kids toward a walk with Christ. Life is about relationships with people but the most important relationship is with Christ. If you don’t have that, the rest of the relationships will fall apart. That has been my highest motivation as a coach.”
Along those lines, Ferguson always wanted to make sure his teams looked and dressed appropriately, something that didn’t always sit well in the early days with some of the players who ended up not coming out for the team, but something Ferguson said he would do all over again.
“We are going to be dressed up,” Ferguson said. “We might not be any good, but we are at least going to look respectful. If you don’t like it … I have pretty much stayed the same throughout the years.”
Ferguson said he has been blessed to have many really good assistant coaches over the years including Ryan Smith, JJ Ferguson (his son), Scott Fox, BJ Wrhen, and Patrick Craig as junior varsity coaches, Munsee, Billy Kelley, Eric Hesdon, Pete Beksid, Brandon Bell, and Josh Kahle as volunteer coaches, and David Ferguson (his other son) and Randy Callen as junior high coaches.
“I’ve had both of my boys involved,” Ferguson said. “Coach Pat has been with me on and off since he left Redbank (where he had been the head coach for a few seasons).
“Randy Callen and David Ferguson have been there (in junior high) I think 15 years now. When you have a feeder program where the kids are doing the same thing and I don’t have to work on the fundamentals, it’s huge. Coach Pat has been here with the younger program for a long time. I don’t care how you cut it, it’s a program. It isn’t Joe Ferguson. It’s a program, C-L has been competitive for years because it is a program.”
Craig is Ferguson’s hope for the next head coach, and he has applied for the job and been interviewed.
“He is great for the game, great for the community,” Ferguson said of Craig, the Karns City graduate who is married to the former Jessica Smith (Ryan’s sister), a C-L graduate whose grandfather, Gene, is one of the pillars in the C-L community. “He is a solid individual and knows the game inside out. Handing it over to a solid person was big for me. I thought that person was going to be BJ Wrhen. BJ is as solid as it gets, too. But, for BJ family became more important, and the COVID season kind of finished him off. But Coach Pat came in, and he has a Type A personality. He was the first coach I had that really took over the team. He was willing to take over and run practices. I basically always ran practices. Last year, we split practices.”
Ferguson also pointed to people like Callen, who had four sons come through the program including Jack, who is still playing, along with Laugand, the former coach, and Joe Deas. Laugand and Deas run the Rising Stars AAU program, which C-L has definitely benefited from, and both had sons who were stars for the Lions as well
“They were great supporters,” Ferguson said. “They were as good as it gets through the years. Without the support of parents like that, we don’t win what we win. Kids became good players, great players because they had great teams. When your team wins, you become a great player.”
Ferguson said he would be remiss if he didn’t give a lot of credit to his wife, Bonnie, for him being able to do what he did for the program for 17 years.
“Bonnie should probably get the most credit,” Ferguson said. “Every year it was like next year (would be the last year) or next year. After the third year, it ended up 17. It was mostly my wife who had to put up with me, the kids were out of school. It’s literally pretty much six days a week, seven sometimes.”
Ferguson summed things up by saying he believes he is leaving the Lions’ program on solid ground for the next coach.
“Absolutely,” Ferguson said. “That was one of my concerns when I would decide to give it up, to make sure the program continues on. I believe winning breeds winning. I see us competitive for a while. That’s all you can ask for. You want to be competitive. You want to win championships, but you want to be competitive. I see that staying there for quite a while at this point.”
FERGUSON THROUGH THE YEARS
2007 – 8-15
2008 – 12-12 (D9 playoffs)
2009 – 15-7 (D9 playoffs)
2010 – 10-12 (D9 playoffs)
2011 – 16-7 (D9 playoffs)
2012 – 20-7 (KSAC Champions; D9 playoffs)
2013 – 12-11 (D9 playoffs)
2014 – 22-5 (KSAC Champions; D9 playoffs)
2015 – 25-4 (D9 1A Champions, KSAC Champions; PIAA Quarterfinals)
2016 – 21-3 (KSAC Champions; D9 playoffs)
2017 – 18-8 (KSAC Runner-up; D9 playoffs)
2018 – 17-7 (KSAC Champions; D9 playoffs)
2019 – 23-5 (KSAC Champions; D9 playoffs; PIAA 2nd round)
2020 – 21-6 (KSAC Runner-uo; D9 Playoffs; PIAA 1sr round)
2021 – 8-12 (D9 playoffs)
2022 – 11-12 (D9 playoffs)
2023 – 25-3 (D9 2A Champions; KSAC Champions; PIAA 1st round)
TOTALS – 284-136 (2 D9 titles; 7 KSAC Championships; 16 D9 playoff appearances, 4 PIAA playoff appearances; 7 20- win seasons)
ALL-TIME C-L COACHES BY WINS
1. Joe Ferguson (2007-23) 284-136 (2 D9 titles)
2. Rich Stanczak (1965-78) 186-27
3. Todd Smith (1997-2003) 113-87
4. Ed Metcalf (1957-64) 110-70 (1 D9 title)
5. Randy Leadbetter (1985-90) 75-66
6. Dean Logan (1951-53) 41-22
7. Joe Knowles (1954-56) 39-31
8. Fred Karl (1947-50) 27-58
9. Tom Lewis (1981-84; 1995) 26-90
10. Bill Kahle (1945-46) 22-16
11. Rogers Laugand (2004-06) 21-49
12. Pat Aaron (1991-92) 18-29
13. Mark Rummell (1993-94) 15-28
14. Rick Beggs (1979-80) 3-45
15. Steve Young (1996) 0-23