A true Pioneer
Hiram Safford turned tiny Austinburg into county basketball power
By Chris Larick
For the Star Beacon
As far as anyone knows, Hiram Safford was the first Ashtabula County coach inducted into the Ohio High School Basketball Coaches Association Hall of Fame when that happened on Oct. 25, 1968.
The late Safford’s widow, Virginia, has a certificate that says so.
A current page on the association’s site maintains that the first year of induction was 1987. Clearly, that is not the case.
“New” rules for induction require a coach to post 300 victories. That may seem fair in this day and age, but the requirement back in 1968 was apparently 100 victories. Safford accomplished that between 1946 and 1957 at Austinburg, winning 105.
Regardless of which measurement is used, considering how many fewer games were played when Safford was coaching, it was quite an accomplishment. The Ashtabula County Basketball Foundation will honor Safford and 14 others by inducting them into its Hall of Fame on April 7.
The son of a Baptist minister, Safford, who died in 1998 at the age of 83, had a long and illustrious career as an educator and coach at Pierpont, Austinburg and West Geauga.
His high school days were spent at Shinglehouse High School in Pennsylvania, where he played basketball, baseball and soccer, graduating in 1933. He played one season of basketball at St. Bonaventure.
AL "RED" SCHUBERT, ON THE LATE HIRAM SAFFORD (shown here): "He was one of the greatest coaches I've ever seen. I never saw him raise his voice or throw a temper tantrum. If he wanted you to do something, he'd show you, then expect you to do it. I saw him mad, but he never took it out on anyone else." Schubert, a former star player at Austinburg High School, will be inducted into the Ashtabula County Basketball Foundation Hall of Fame with his coach April 7.
HIRAM SAFFORD, shown with one of his championship teams at Austinburg, will enter the ACBF Hall of Fame on April 7.
“Then I had to go to work,” Safford told Bob Thompson of the Painesville Telegraph in 1969. “It was during the depression.”
He worked several jobs while getting his college education, one of them at a silk mill in Shinglehouse.
After finishing his degree at St. Bonaventure in English, social studies and language in 1938, Safford had difficulty finding a job. He did janitorial work, substitute teaching and worked at a tannery mill before landing his first full-time teaching job in Pierpont in 1941.
During that time, Saffford played semi-pro baseball in Pennsylvania and New York.
At Pierpont, Safford coached basketball for a short time before being drafted into the U.S Army Air Corps in 1942, where he rose to the rank of captain, working in communication and utilities. He was in England, France, Germany and Belgium, serving close to the front lines near the transportation lines and fighter planes.
When he was discharged from the air force in December 1945, he took a job at Austinburg, teaching English and coaching basketball, baseball and track. While there, he took classes at Slippery Rock State Teachers College and Kent State University, earning a master’s degree in English from Kent in 1951.
“I had been teaching history, government and languages in high school,” he said. “I liked English the best so I decided to get my master’s in that.”
The Austinburg Pioneers won three league championships and one county championship while he was there.
Behind the coaching of Safford and the play of Al (”Red”) Schubert and Dutch Cotton (Cotton was inducted into the ACBF Hall of Fame last year; Schubert will join him on April 7), the Austinburg team won the Ashtabula County championship in 1953 and took the Big Seven crown both in 1952 and 1953. Others on the Pioneers team included Larry Brail (who died on Jan. 7 this year), Norm and Joe Kikel, Harry Foster, Jerry Clemmer and Arnold Burton.
“I scored about 25 points a game and Dutch was close to that, maybe 23 or 24,” Schubert said. “Dutch and I shared the scoring. If they’d put two guys on me, Dutch would score a lot. If they put two guys on Dutch, I would be the main scorer.
Austinburg won four straight games in the 1953 tournament, beating Rock Creek, Rowe, Edgewood and Kingsville before running into Fairport and falling, 66-44 to exit the tourney.
“Fairport and Mentor were always the top-notch teams,” Schubert remembers. “We were a Class B school. They were Class A. I couldn’t understand why we played them.”
According to Schubert, Safford had a big role in the Pioneers’ success.
“He was one of the greatest coaches I’ve ever seen,” Schubert said. “I never saw him raise his voice or throw a temper tantrum. If he wanted you to do something, he’d show you, then expect you to do it. I saw him mad, but he never took it out on anyone else.
“We played zone and once in a while, we played man-to-man,” Cotton said. “(Safford) was a zone coach. We played zone about 90 percent of the time. We caused a lot of turnovers. We had to move fast.”
“Safford was our coach from eighth grade through our senior year,” Cotton said. “He was very nice. He never got blown out of shape. He’d just say we had to go get the win, we had to hustle. I never saw him blow his lid. He was a super guy.”
In 1957, Safford accepted a teaching and coaching job at West Geauga, where he stayed until his retirement in 1979.
He coached juniorvarsity basketball from 1958-1963 for the Wolverines, but was never given the head job.
“It was always a disappointment that I never coached varsity basketball at West Geauga,” he later told Thompson.
He also coached track there, from 1961 to 1969, winning seven championships in nine years, as well as cross country for five years, winning championships in 1966 and 1967. In 1978 he was named head of the English department.
He played slowpitch softball in Painesville with his son, Steve, and Thompson during the 1960s and participated in volleyball in Chesterland.
When he retired in 1979, he and his wife, Virginia, did a lot of traveling. One of Safford’s favorite trips was to Cooperstown, N.Y., to visit the Baseball Hall of Fame. The couple also took several trips to Florida.
“We travel by car, about 300 miles a day,” he said. “My son calls us leisurely travelers.”
Hiram was married to Virginia, whom he met in West Springfield, Pa. when Hiram came into town after graduating from college and Virginia was still in high school, for 55 years before his death. The couple had a son, Steve; daughters Ann and Jane; and four grandchildren.
When he retired, Thompson asked him if he had any regrets.
“I wouldn’t change a thing,” he said.
“It was an exciting time,” Safford’s widow, Virginia, now 90 years old said. “There were so many schools, like Rowe and Fairport. We were married for 55 years before he died, and I still miss him.”
Larick, a retired Star Beacon sports writer, is a freelance writer from Geneva.