By Paul Augeri
A lifetime of teaching and coaching football has led Clay Hillyer to Old Saybrook, where he has taken the reins as the new head coach of the Old Saybrook/Westbrook co-op program.
The 65-year-old Hillyer’s latest stop on a well-traveled resume comes with the Rams needing a program reset. They haven’t won a game since 2019 and opened last season with just 29 rostered players.
“It will be a challenge,” said Hillyer, who has a 30-year career as a marketing professor at American International College. “It’s a chance to kind of restart the program. Being in the college classroom or on the high school football field, it’s still teaching, still the same stuff. I view the coach’s job is to really empower the players to make it that they want to be there and they want to get better.
“It will be a lot of fun. It’s really exciting and rewarding to be with people who want to get better, no matter what field you’re in. You have to make practices and the games meaningful.”
Hillyer replaces Mike Marone, who left the program with one game remaining on last season’s schedule.
“Clay has been around the block a little bit,” Old Saybrook athletic director Brendan Saunders said. “He’s got a ton of experience, he’s a great guy and he’s actually moving to Old Saybrook, so he’ll become part of the community, which I love. He relates to kids and he has a kids-first attitude. Sports are important, but a lot of things are more important, and he’s a guy that really understands that and puts that first — what’s best for young adults.”
Hillyer got his first taste of coaching high school players at Newington working with both the offensive and defensive lines for the 2006 and ’07 seasons. He took over as head coach for the 2008-2010 seasons, with Newington reaching the Class L championship game in his final season.
While running that program, Hillyer said he increased participation at all levels from 65 to 95 players. Having a stronger turnout and encouraging kids to stick with the sport is a priority for him with Old Saybrook/Westbrook.
“There’s talent there,” Hillyer said, noting that, pre-COVID, the Rams had consecutive 8-2 seasons in 2016-17. “There are 11 seniors (this fall) who can help build a new foundation and make that their legacy. This is a chance to kind of restart the program. I think they’re excited to do that.”
After Newington, Hillyer spent three seasons at Manchester, where he was interim head coach in 2013, and spent the next three seasons at Avon overseeing the offense and both lines during for the Falcons’ short spell as a Pequot member.
From there, he spent the 2017-2019 seasons at Wethersfield, the first two as OC and his final season as coach of the offensive and defensive lines. The Eagles had winning records in 2017-18 and reached the Class L playoffs in 2019 behind an offense that rushed for more than 2,000 yards.
Hillyer spent last fall as offensive coordinator at fellow Pequot Conference member Civic Leadership of Enfield, coaching quarterbacks and receivers as well as the linebackers. The team beat the Rams for their first win in a 3-7 season.
“They played hard in the game,” he said, referring to his new team. “I’ve watched all their film and my main concern would be numbers. In certain towns, how many kids are playing football? If you go down to Fairfield County, there are no issues with numbers. Just recently coming on board, there seems to be a lot of interest in football. It looks like our numbers will be up.”
“The players are hungry to do well,” Hillyer added. “The parents I’ve met, nobody has ill will toward the previous coach, they just want to do better. You’ve got to do what every team has to do when you don’t have a good year, and that’s get better. You have to build the right culture to get better.”
Hillyer said he’d like to see the shoreline’s youth program become a stronger feeder system for his program and those at Morgan and Valley Regional/Old Lyme.
“It’s a huge thing because you want kids coming to high school identifying as ‘I’m a football player,’” he said. “And you want them to have experience.”
Hillyer was a three-year starter on the offensive line at Wesleyan University for coach Bill McDermott. While finishing an English degree, he coached the linemen for two seasons. He also has worked on the staffs at UMass-Lowell, where he earned his MBA, and AIC.
He will commute from South Windsor to Old Saybrook, where he recently bought a home, and will retire from teaching at some point. Lights will be installed next month at Old Saybrook’s turf field, where the Rams expect to host Haddam-Killingworth the weekend of the season.
“I’ve really enjoyed coaching high school football because of my Division III experience,” Hillyer said. “High school football is more meaningful. Those Friday night lights — more people care.”