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Coaching legend Roger Kelly dies at 78

Coaching legend Roger Kelly dies at 78

Kelly was a proven coach at Redwood High School and College of the Sequoias for more than three decades

By Patrick Dillon @PDillon_SGN

VISALIA – One of Tulare County’s toughest coaches passed away on Memorial Day, May 27. Roger Kelly lived a full life to 78 years old and died in Sheridan, Wyoming. 

Roger Kelly COS Head Coach 1989-2004

Roger Kelly
COS Head Coach 1989-2004

In his life Kelly racked up wins, championship and stared down opponents, like he stared down death. 

Perhaps part of his coaching philosophy stemmed from surviving  a plane crash in 1960. During his college football years at Cal Poly, Kelly was one of just 26 survivors while 22 of his teammates died. Tulare County’s legendary coach went on to earn his masters in physical education. And in 1969, Kelly took over the head coaching job at Redwood High School.

He built the Rangers into a Yosemite Division powerhouse. He won three large school section championships. His first came just four years after taking the job in 1973 when his team went 12-0. Then in 1982 and 1983 they won back-to-back titles. His record at the high school level was 161-87-3.

According to College of the Sequoias, Kelly took over the head coaching job in 1989 and remained there until 2004. His 16-year career at COS tied Al Branco for the longest tenure in the program’s history. Kelly led the Giants to a 28-5 mark in his first three seasons. His 1991 squad finished 10-1, and was ranked No. 3 in the nation. His 1998 team holds the last Central Valley Conference Championship.

Redwood’s incoming head coach Kevin Scharton was on Kelly’s last Valley Championship-winning team in ’83.

“He was a player’s coach,” Scharton said. “He would do anything in the world for you, and really made you feel like you were part of the program.”

Scharton accredits Kelly for being the influence behind him wanting to get into coaching high school football. He still runs an identical offense to what he learned from Kelly as a player, and as an assistant coach at COS in the early 1990s.

Scharton has spent the last 18 seasons turning the Dinuba Emperors into a Central Sequoia League power. His record is 153-74. He has won seven league titles and two section championships in 2009 and 2013.

Kelly’s coaching tree continued to grow during his time at COS. Lindsay native and current head coach for the Strathmore Spartans Jeromy Blackwell was a product of Kelly’s coaching career.

“He was the Bear Bryant of Tulare County,” Blackwell said. “He made a huge impact on me. Coach Kelly was hard on us to do things right, but it was the most fun I have ever had.”

Blackwell was bound for La Verne University to play football after he graduated from Lindsay in 1995 when Kelly contacted him. He talked Blackwell out of going to La Verne, and instead went to play for him at COS.

“He told me, ‘If you come to COS, I will get you a scholarship somewhere,’” Blackwell said.

Blackwell ended up winning a championship during his sophomore season with the Giants in 1996. Afterward, he went on to play football at Fresno State, and earned his teaching credential.

Blackwell has been with the Spartans for 19 seasons, and he still runs some of the same schemes Kelly employed. His record at Strathmore is an astounding 137-79, and is the only high school coach in the county to win a state title.

Kelly not only influenced Blackwell’s schooling and coaching choices, but professional choices as well. Blackwell looked to move on in the early 2000s, but Kelly talked him out of it.

“He always told me to be patient, and the right position will come,” Blackwell said.

A memorial service for Kelly will be held on June 29 at 11 a.m. at Gateway Church in Visalia.

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