Clayton became Heritage Hills legend

Herald File Photos
In this 2000 photo, Heritage Hills coach Bob Clayton is seen with some of his players at the RCA Dome. It was then and there the Patriots won the Class 3A State Championship, 27-24, against Zionsville in overtime.

By COREY STOLZENBACH
sports@dcherald.com

Editor's Note: This is the final story in the series on the 50th season of Heritage Hills Football.

So much success has been attained as Heritage Hills kicks off its 50th football season Friday — all the sectional, regional and semi-state championships, plus the 2000 Class 3A State Championship. There have been stretches of undefeated regular seasons and semi-state appearances, and winning has been a lot more common than losing has.

It begs the question — what’s in the water at Heritage Hills?

“For a long time, it was Bob,” laughs Chris Sigler, a 1981 graduate and former longtime assistant. “I think he was the water.”

Bob Clayton came to Heritage Hills in 1977 to become the offensive coordinator for the Patriots. The 1969 Evansville Mater Dei graduate served Bob Ashworth as his offensive coordinator that year, and the Pats went 8-2 that season.

“We knew each other, and he got the head job up there — and I had applied also for the English department situation,” Clayton said. “Different guys in Evansville recommended me to him, and it just kind of worked out that way."

Bob Clayton, circa 1978, his first season as head coach.

But when Ashworth departed for Evansville Reitz after 1977, it was Clayton, in his mid-twenties at the time, who took the coaching mantle from him.

The Pats have only had four coaches through their first 50 seasons — Clayton was the coach for 34 of those seasons, from 1978 through 2011.

When he took over, he was the third head coach in three seasons, and he felt the community needed consistency.

“I said I was not going to use this program as a stepping stone for something better — that I was willing to stay here and give this place some consistency,” he said. “We had a lot of good kids, a lot of talent up here.”

On. Aug. 25, 1978, Heritage Hills took the field against Wood Memorial for the first time under its then-new head coach, who was but 27 years old. The Pats ran away with a 45-0 win in Oakland City and that was the first victory Clayton would accumulate with the program. Heritage Hills has 421 games in its history — with 320 of them coming with Clayton as the head man.

“That’s pretty good,” said Jon Goldsberry, a 2000 graduate and now a coach for Minutemen Football. "He’s in the Hall of Fame for a reason.”

This felt like home to him, he was back in Southern Indiana, having attended Indiana State University, graduating in 1973, and also was an assistant at Indianapolis Tech. He also felt there had to be a point in his life to stop looking for the perfect situation — because there’s no such thing, and he felt he could build his own situation at Heritage Hills.

There was never a goal to win 320 games, just the next game. It was taking it year-by-year, and the years flew by. If somebody told Clayton back in 1978 he’d coach the program until 2011, he’d have hoped that people would’ve put up with him for that long.

“When I got here…it was a basketball community,” Clayton said. “Football was just kind of something that kids did in the fall, and we wanted to change that overall mentality. We wanted to become important to the community and we wanted to get the community involved.

Bob Clayton, circa 1980

“We started the Quarterback Club,” he continued. “And football’s an expensive sport. The athletic department at that time didn’t understand the money that needed to be spent to have a successful program. You don’t blame them, but we needed extra funds."

Through 34 seasons, Clayton had a single losing record — Heritage Hills went 4-6 in 1989. The longtime coach credited his players buying in, and also reverted back to consistency, not wanting to be a flash in the pan one year and go 0-10 the next season.

“Bob never, ever got tired of preparing, and that’s probably the biggest compliment you can give to him as a coach,” Sigler said. "He would prepare and we would prepare and we’d prepare — and he never got tired of it. He enjoyed the task of getting his football team ready to play.

“And he coached his coaches, he coached his players and his preparation was as good as anyone I’ve ever been around,” he added.

There were highs, but before Heritage Hills finally broke through, there were also the tough ones. There was the loss in the 1988 sectional championship game, when the Pats held a 19-14 lead on Evansville Memorial, only for them to fumble and create an opening for the Tigers. They lost, 20-19.

“We just had a lot of talent on that team,” Clayton said. “We were ahead the whole game, it’s third down, where all we want to do is take a snap, run the play and punt. Well, it was pouring down raining, we fumbled the snap, and gave them really good position. They drove in and scored late. But if we would’ve got the punt off, I feel like we would’ve won that game. That was a tough one."

Or there was the 1993 sectional title game, again against Memorial, when the Tigers drove 80 yards, and erased a 13-9 Heritage Hills lead from a Governor Gardner touchdown run. Tigers 16, Patriots 13 – the third straight year, and second time in three years, Memorial denied Heritage Hills in the sectional title game.

Heritage Hills had a new foe, Jasper, meeting the Wildcats in the 1994 sectional championship games. But Jerry Brewer’s Wildcats roared in 1994, 40-17, and edged out Clayton’s Patriots again, 21-17, in 1995. Jasper would go on to a state runner-up finish.

Clayton was nearing 20 seasons as the coach of a program that had never won a sectional championship. There was never any doubt if a sectional would ever come, but he changed the mindset. He convinced his coaches and his players, to stop complaining about the advantage schools like Memorial had — where players could be recruited and move in.

“I think overall, they were probably stronger than we were,” he said. “So, we reestablished our weightroom rules. That was really big that we enforced strict attendance in the weightroom."

"The bottom line is we just worked harder, and found a way to get bigger, stronger, faster down the way to focus on executing plays on the field and keeping things simple,” Goldsberry said.

Heritage Hills, again, met Memorial in the 1996 sectional championship game, but not only was the result different, the margin was emphatic. Jeff Kress ran for five touchdowns, and Heritage Hills was finally a sectional champion, 61-21.

Clayton was in tears.

“We always said we get that first one, it’s for all those teams that came before them that worked so hard, that knocked on that door, so loudly and trying so hard — and laid the foundation for the success that we had that night,” Clayton said. “I said that after the game to the crowd that this was for all those guys in the stands there that worked so hard, maybe came up a little short, but always knew we would get there.”

With the first sectional came the first regional — a 62-14 thumping at Charlestown the very next week. The Pats would come home for their semi-state game against Zionsville, and Lincoln City was hoping to party with a trip to the state championship game on the line.

Tied 12-12, with 14 seconds left, Heritage Hills brought on Andy Fischer for the extra point after scoring the tying touchdown. However, Fischer’s kick missed, and it went to overtime.

Goldsberry said it wasn't Fischer's fault. He said the team didn't do well enough on offense or defense.

The Pats took the lead, 19-12, in overtime, but the Eagles responded with their own touchdown, went for two and won, 20-19.

On the verge of celebration, there was only heartbreak for the home team that night.

“I got overanxious and I wanted to watch the ball go through the uprights and pulled my head,” Fischer said. “I pulled the kick a little bit. It went right over the top of the uprights, but it…was no good. So, I pulled it too much."

Bob Clayton in 1998, his 21st season as the head coach of the Patriots.

Heritage Hills won another sectional in 1997, but fell shy, 6-3, in the 1999 sectional championship against Mt. Vernon. Then came 2000, when the Pats bulldozed just about everybody. They were the No. 1 team in Class 3A, with their defense blanking teams and the offense racking up the points.

Another sectional came with ease, 47-7, against Memorial, but this time, there was more on their mind. They wanted the big prize, the state championship, which Clayton said back then his coaching career would’ve been incomplete without one — a position he reaffirmed to The Herald in 2021.

“The main thing is, we felt like we could do it,” he said. “If I was in a situation or school where it just wasn’t going to happen, you just knew, that’d be different. But we felt like we were coming so close and we could do it. It’s something that’s realistic, it’s not completely out of the question. We just needed to have a little luck and a little skill, and get it done.”

Nov. 25, 2000, Heritage Hills would again meet Zionsville. It was looking good when the Pats led the Eagles, 21-7, in the third quarter, before Zionsville rattled off two touchdowns to tie the game, 21-21. Just like 1996, these two were headed to overtime.

The Eagles took the overtime lead, 24-21, off a Mark Nicolet field goal. But then those words came.

Ace of Spades Right, Quarterback Screen.

Future Pro Bowl quarterback Jay Cutler threw to Cole Seifrig, who then threw it back to Cutler. He held a finger in the air as he dashed into the end zone. Heritage Hills had completed its undefeated season, 15-0, and were the state champions, 27-24.

“That was our ace set, and we had some plays coming off that ace set — a little different pass routes and things like that,” Clayton said. “Well, Jay sprained his ankle pretty badly in the Whiteland game, the regional game. So, coming into the semi-state against Roncalli, we put our ace sets back in, and practiced those pretty much all week. And the quarterback screen was just one of those plays off that ace set.”

Heritage Hills has yet to add another state championship, but the winning hasn’t subsided. The Pats had undefeated regular seasons every year from 1999 through 2004, and the 2000 team was the first of six straight semi-state appearances for the team.

Bob Clayton in 2007, his 30th season at the helm. The Patriots won a regional championship during this year — their seventh of the decade.

Clayton wanted his players to embrace the bullseye, that it was a good thing that other teams thought they could beat them — and they were fired up, set out to prove the opposition wrong every week.

“Use that as your strength, don’t use it as an excuse,” he said. “And every team from then on did that. I was really proud of those kids. We had a lot of teams that were just pretty average that played way better than average.”

"No matter how good of a game you had or a block you had — there was always a way to get better,” said Adam Kress, a 2001 grad. "We took it to heart where it’s not really that he was getting on us, but he truly wanted to make us better.”

Clayton said after the 2000 win that his team might never get back to state, but then again, they might. Enter 2004.

Heritage Hills wasn’t expected to do much, certainly not achieve the heights that it did. But another undefeated regular season turned into another sectional, with a 3-0 win at Batesville for the regional, and Bishop Chatard, who had denied the Pats in each of the previous three years at semi-state, had fallen, 13-10. Heritage Hills was on its way back to the RCA Dome.

The Pats met Andrean, but didn’t have an answer for quarterback Tommy Finn of the 59ers. Finn was 11-of-18 passing for 170 yards, and ran the ball 23 times for 95 yards. Heritage Hills received red medals in its 21-14 loss.

“He was a nightmare,” Clayton said of Finn. “And I tell you, their coaching staff did a great job of running an offense around that guy. He was special, no doubt about that.

“Again, we had had just a bunch of average kids,” he continued. “Our line was pretty small. We were proud of that team. They were a bunch of overachievers.”

Clayton came away with a few more championships — regional titles in 2005 and 2007 and a couple more sectionals in 2008 and 2009.

But when the Pats lost, 13-12, in the 2011 sectional championship game, that was it for him.

“After 34 years, you start thinking about other things in life,” Clayton said. “I never wanted to feel like I was holding the program back. Things were changing, things were getting a little different here and there.

"I just knew that I didn’t have the enthusiasm, the energy for it like I should have,” he continued. “I could’ve kept coaching, I really do believe I could’ve kept coaching, but I want to be fair to the program. And I wanted to make sure that it wasn’t about me — it’s always been about the kids and the program.”

He felt that when it was time to retire, it was important to embrace that, to adjust to it. Clayton demanded so much of his players to be mentally tough, and he felt they expected the same out of him.

Some players who passed through the program made it onto NFL rosters, like Goldsberry and Bruce King. Dilger was a Super Bowl Champion and Cutler spent 12 seasons as a quarterback. He tried coaching up his high caliber players once they were seniors to acclimate them.

“They said, ‘What did you see when they were in high school?’ Hell no, you don’t see that, that's stupid, they were high school boys,” Clayton said. “My job, our job, was to get them to the next level.”

“Coach Clayton has a huge impact on so many people’s lives throughout our community, through all the people he’s coached,” said Kevin Tempel, a 2004 grad and current assistant.

Bob Clayton addresses Heritage Hills for the final time after coaching his last game in 2011.

Clayton told his players that last time that he wouldn’t be coming to the games, not wanting to cast a shadow over the new coaching. He estimated he’s been back to three or four games since his retirement, as he’s tried to stick to that.

“Still today, Bob is part of the program,” Goldsberry said. "He’s an unpaid consultant, so to speak. He’s here, he chimes in a little bit when we want him to. He usually kind of stays away from the program, but he is available if we want some feedback from him.”

What Clayton is proudest of was something he reverted back to earlier — consistency.

“You got a guy like him and he builds a staff like he did, it made a lot of difference in the way we did things and continue to do things,” Goldsberry said.

“I think we truly, truly built a program, and I’m most proud of that, probably,” Clayton said. “The idea that some years we were average, but we still managed to get to the semi-state game or the regional game. We always had a bullseye on our back, and we were able to still be successful.”




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