CONVERSATION WITH COACH – Jim Roth, Southern Columbia
Written by: Phil Myers on Wednesday, September 11th, 2019
The Southern Columbia Tigers were in the midst of a 27 game losing streak, 14 of which came during Coach Jim Roth’s first two years there as an assistant coach. Fast forward to today and Coach Roth’s Southern Tigers are one of the most successful teams ever in the state of Pennsylvania. They are currently riding a 74 game regular season win streak. What led to that amazing turnaround?
I talked with Jim Roth, head coach of the Southern Columbia Tigers, the week between their games with Mount Carmel and Selinsgrove. He is also now the Athletic Director at Southern. My promised 15 to 20 minute interview turned into an hour and Coach Roth did not seem to mind. He had a plethora of interesting information. He came across as genuine and thoughtful. We had a good laugh about a few things and I thoroughly enjoyed the time he set aside for me. He has a love for coaching football that probably only a few can equal.
Mr. Roth graduated in 1975 from Shikellamy High School. He went to Lock Haven University and played football there. “I was really into athletics and especially football and had a desire to eventually coach, so I went there as a health and phys ed major,” he stated.
Coach Roth started coaching in 1980 at Southern. He was the defensive coordinator for four years before becoming head coach in 1984. The 2019 football season starts his 36th year leading the S.C. Tiger program. After his win over Selinsgrove, Roth’s record at Southern is 431-63-2. That puts him as the 7th winningest active high school football coach in the United States and the 15th winningest coach all-time. He has the third most wins all-time in Pennsylvania behind George Curry’s 454 and Jack Henzes Jr. with 444.
Coach Roth’s wife, Kenda, runs a competitive cheerleading program and he says she has had lots of success, winning the district title three of the past four years. They were blessed with triplets, two daughters and a son. Kami is a school teacher and is married to one of Coach Roth’s assistants. They have three boys, ages 5, 3, and 1. Roth proudly asserted, “They have a whole backfield coming up.” Kyleigh, a sports management major in college, owns a gym in New Jersey. His son, Kale, is an internal medicine doctor in North Carolina.
PM: “How did you get into coaching at Southern?”
Roth: “I got out of college, was looking for a teaching job and the first semester I was out I actually substitute taught at Line Mountain High School quite a bit. I helped coach junior high football the year I was subbing. I thought since there was an opening for a Health and Phys Ed teacher that I was sure I was going to get the job there, but it never happened. Wasn’t even going to put my name in at Southern for an opening they had.” Luckily for Southern Columbia he decided to apply because he got hired. But the story doesn’t end there. What follows is simply amazing.
“They were very bad in most of the male sports at that time. My first year there we lost every game. We were oh and ten. Then my second year we lost our first four and at that point we were at 27 losses in a row and the school was considering dropping the program. Then we broke it (the losing streak). We won a game in the middle of the season. This still blows my mind when I think about it today. So, we win a game after going 0-27 over three years and we had off school! They cancelled school because we won a game! We ended up doing okay that year winning four games. The next year we won nine and the next year we won twelve.”
From 1982 on, Southern Columbia’s football team has had a winning record every year. Only four of those years did they not win at least ten games. Under Roth only three times have they won less than ten, and two of those they won nine. After the Selinsgrove game they have now won 35 in a row and 66 of their last 67. The Tigers have won 74 straight regular season games tying the state record. Presumably, they will break that record this week. Coach Roth has led his Southern Columbia team to the state finals 17 times winning 9. Both are PIAA state records.
PM: “How do you measure success?”
Roth: “Like everybody you’re going to look at wins and losses and its obviously important to us, winning football games. We evolved over time to the point where we just try to do the right things on a daily basis and then the wins and losses take care of themselves. So, it’s been an evolution in the way you look at things and the way you coach. Success now for us is probably how well we maximize a particular team’s potential, how well that team comes together and we get the most out of them. Some people say it’s all about helping kids develop and turning them into young men and teaching them proper values. That’s something that’s just part of the overall picture when I say about trying to do the right things.”
PM: “How does coaching enter into it?”
Roth: “We demand certain things. There’s a lot of discipline in the program. There’s a lot of respect. We don’t use foul language. We’re not real loud and harsh with the players. Things are different today, but if you take the old-fashioned approach of hard work, discipline, and treating kids with respect and try to treat them fairly, that is a recipe for success. Big thing for us too, is I’ve had a couple of my coaches with me for the entire time I’ve been here.” Coach Roth has four varsity assistant coaches with him for 24 years or more and three volunteer varsity coaches with him for 20 or more years.
PM: What’s the toughest thing about coaching?”
Roth: “Well, I don’t look at any part of just coaching as being tough. I would say that all the management stuff, I still have to do all the administrative stuff, do all the stuff with equipment, and details in the program, is the worst part of the job. I don’t know if I’d call it the toughest.”
“In the pure sense of coaching I think the toughest thing today is motivating the players and working with the players today is tougher because of kids being different today like I said earlier. We’re still more of a positive environment in our district than a lot of other districts and I think we’re lucky in that sense cause we’re rural and we probably still get more kids that have the same traditional old school values and they were brought up that way. Loyalty, hard work, discipline, those things aren’t as common today.”
PM: “What are the most important concepts you try to teach the players?”
Roth: “Teach team concept! One of my favorite teams of my 35 years coaching is without question the 2015 team. We won the last three games and mercy ruled Aliquippa in the finals and I don’t think we had any business beating any of the three. All three of them were more talented than we were. That team had the best team chemistry of any team I think I have ever coached. This team now has more of the team concept than maybe two years ago and that’s why we’re playing so well right now. When I reflect on this year, I’m going to look at this group of players as one of the most successful groups that I’ve ever worked with.”
PM: “How were you able to build a winning tradition at Southern Columbia?”
Roth: “We’ve always had the goal of achieving the highest level you could achieve. Before state championships began, the goal was to win the Eastern Conference title.” (Southern won a couple of those under Coach Roth before the PIAA went to the state championship format.) “Today we coach players as though they still have something to prove. And again, same staff together over a long period of time, so there’s a lot of continuity and consistency that way. Also, I’ve never been one who thinks he has all the answers. So, we’re always changing things and tweaking things. So, if there’s something that will make us better, we’re going to do it.”
PM: “How does it make you feel with all the community support?”
Roth: “Yeah, that’s another positive, especially to have a community spread out like we have. And see them come together to support the program. That’s a great feeling! When we went to South Carolina, I never expected over 500 fans to make to make that trip! That’s a ten hour trip and a lot of people flew. That shows a level of dedication and commitment the fans have to the program.”
PM: “What motivates you to keep coaching?”
Roth: “I think I would miss it.” (If he stopped coaching.) “I don’t feel like I’m ready to step down or that there’s anything else I want to do with my time. I enjoy most aspects of it. As long as I feel I’m doing a quality job, I’m going to continue.”
PM: “Let’s do a few ‘fun’ questions. What do you do with your free time?”
Roth: “Don’t have much. Watching football later in the evenings, like the NFL Network or college stuff. Now, I have three grandkids locally, so I spend some time with them. I would have to add the A.D. job takes up a lot of the extra time.”
PM: “If you could go back in time, who would you like to meet?”
Roth: “Johnny Unitas.”
PM: “What does your favorite meal consist of?”
Roth: “Don’t really have one.”
PM: “What would be your favorite dessert?”
Roth: “Anything with chocolate or peanut butter.” Maybe that explains why he usually takes his Southern Columbia football team to Hershey each year.
PM: “What is your favorite movie?”
Roth: “What I would throw out there, because I was in college at the time and I really enjoyed it, was the first ‘Rocky’ movie.”
PM: “What do you want your legacy to be?”
Roth: “I don’t really care about my legacy to be honest. My philosophy has always been, ‘the only thing that matters to me is what I’ve done, the way I’ve conducted myself, and how I’ve treated the players and the coaches.’ And so, I guess my legacy to myself is the only thing that really matters.”
After a brief pause, Coach Roth went on to say, “Being a football coach at a successful program, there are so many negative things that you hear about the program and about yourself. There are so many haters out there, for lack of a better term. I just feel there are very few people that know what I do or what we do in the program and how we treat the kids and what we do for them.”
PM: “Is there anything people might not know about you?”
Roth: “That I have more of a sense of humor than a lot of people think.”
Coach Roth also said that years ago he had the thought and desire to coach at the college level, but he’d been in high school so long and with a family, to start over again became very difficult.
Jim Roth was very pleasant and at the end of our conversation asked a few questions about me. Our conversation drifted back to PA high school football and he then pointed out that Brett Veach (Mt. Carmel) is the GM for the Chiefs, while Matt Nagy (Manheim Central) and Mike Pettine (coached at North Penn) were coaching at the NFL level for the Bears and the Packers respectively. He thought that was great.
Coach Roth has built a program that is the envy of almost all Pennsylvania high school football programs. The kids devote themselves to the program even though they play other sports. As proof, this writer heard a Southern player who was an underclassman say a few years ago, “tomorrow we hit the weights,” immediately after winning the state championship. Coach Roth has no plans to step down from coaching and that is not good news for any of Southern’s future opponents.
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