The word “family” gets thrown around in sports so much that oftentimes the importance of the word gets diminished and devalued.
That isn’t the case when it comes to the Calaveras High School boys’ basketball team. At every game, there are three members of the Clifton family who have a hand in the program. And each Clifton has a completely different role and perspective, but shares an equal love for the game and one another.
Kraig Clifton is Calaveras’ longtime head coach, and his father, Dale “Old School” Clifton, helps as an assistant coach. And, for the first time, Kraig’s freshman son and Dale’s grandson, Jay, is a starter on the varsity squad.
Three different generations of Cliftons are leading Calaveras into 2020 and beyond.
Although Dale Clifton spent the majority of his life playing and coaching at Sonora High School in Sonora, he has roots at Calaveras that go back to the early 1930s. His father played football and ran track before he graduated from Calaveras in 1933.
Unlike his father, Dale did not graduate from Calaveras; rather, he was a Wildcat. While at Sonora, Dale played football, basketball and baseball, and when he wasn’t too tired, he ran track. After he graduated in 1959, Dale went off to college, but in 1968, he returned to coach at his alma mater, where he stayed until 2001.
Dale coached football, track, softball, baseball and basketball. He was the JV basketball head coach under legendary Wildcat coach Rick Francis.
“We had a great relationship,” Dale said of Francis. “We had faith in each other. When I was done with the JV, I went to the varsity bench and helped him. We had the same thoughts.”
With Dale’s children attending Sonora High School, it only made sense that they would end up playing for their father. Kraig played football and basketball for his dad, but even from a young age, he knew what his dad was like as a coach.
“He was a Little League coach, so he coached me ever since I was a little guy,” Kraig said. “Growing up, he was always a coach in the household, so I was always around it and saw him do it, so it just seemed normal to me.”
As for coaching Kraig, Dale said, “We really never had any problems. He’s very coachable and it wasn’t a big deal.”
Dale’s final game at Sonora came on Feb. 14, 2001. Columbia College head basketball coach Rob Hoyt played in that game, which Sonora won 50-48 in overtime against Tracy.
“He was a disciplinarian and a player’s coach at the same time, which I think is such a unique balance and is something that I’ve tried to take from him moving forward,” Hoyt said of Dale. “When he said, ‘You are going to touch the elbow when you make this cut,’ or, ‘Show your hands on this action,’ you are doing it. You have to do it or there are consequences. Once you’ve proved that you can do what he is asking, he really let you play.”
Growing up, Jay heard stories about his grandfather and the impact he had in the sports world, but now that he’s older, he’s starting to understand just how respected a coach his grandfather truly is.
“The older I got, the more I learned about how much he impacted the community,” Jay said. “But from a young age, I pretty much knew that he was a pretty dang good coach and helped a lot of people.”
After years of being around Sonora athletics, he made the switch to Calaveras High School when Kraig began coaching there. Now, he’s got a new gymnasium to call home.
“We’ve been over here for so long now, this is kind of home,” Dale said. “But there is still some green and gold in me, too. But I would say that home is here now.”
Following the footsteps
When Kraig’s basketball career started to come to an end in college, he wasn’t ready to give up the competition. He made the logical decision to move into coaching. And luckily for Kraig, he had a pretty good example and mentor he could lean on at any time.
After watching his father coach and then playing for him, Kraig knew what aspects of the Clifton coaching style he’d like to incorporate into his own program.
“He was intense and really competitive and got the best out of his players,” Kraig said. “He’s the best I’ve seen at doing that, including better than me. I think sometimes getting the best out of a player is the hardest thing to do, and that’s what he was really good at. I’m trying to get to that level, but I don’t think I’m there yet.”
Kraig has had a successful run at Calaveras and has his current squad primed to do well in Mother Lode League play. And whether it comes from the eyes of a father or the eyes of a coach, Dale has no complaints regarding his son’s coaching career.
“He’s outstanding; he really is,” Dale said. “He can relate to the kids, he knows the game, he can teach the game and he has all the things that make him an outstanding coach.”
Dale’s love for his son was on full display in the winter of 2015. Kraig was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and had to leave the Calaveras program so he could treat and eventually beat the illness. Kraig was diagnosed on a Sunday, and by Thursday, Dale, along with longtime assistant coach Jamie Linneman, took over the team.
“I think my dad did it because he knew how much it meant to me and how much time and effort we put into this program throughout the years,” Kraig said. “He knew I wasn’t comfortable just leaving it to one person, so he and Jamie tag-teamed it. At the time, I didn’t think too much of it because I knew that he would do it for me.”
Kraig beat cancer and has been back coaching full-time for four years. Now he’s experiencing something new and something that his father can relate to: coaching a son.
The third generation
For much of Jay’s life, Calaveras High’s Mike Flock Gym was a second home. He’d go watch his father coach there, and many times would sit right behind the bench. He studied the game from a young age and waited for his time to finally wear a Calaveras uniform.
“When I was younger, I’d come to the games and I’d just get so into the games,” Jay said. “I feel like I’ve been involved with the program for such a long time.”
Now as a freshman, Jay is not only playing Calaveras basketball, but he’s coached by his father, with the assistance of his grandpa. Jay knows that if an older Clifton starts to talk basketball, it’s time to listen.
“Between him (Dale) and my dad, it’s a lot of knowledge coming in through both ears,” Jay said.
And just like when Kraig played for Dale, there haven’t been any issues as Jay has played for Kraig.
“So far, it’s been great,” Kraig said. “He makes it really easy for me. He’s a good listener and very competitive. He understands his strengths and understands what he needs to work on, and he’s not afraid to confront those weaknesses.”
Kraig has no problem coaching his son on the hardwood, but playing a friendly game of one-on-one is a different story. When Jay was in seventh grade, Kraig could see that his time of being the better baller was coming to an end. While playing against his son, Kraig made a lucky behind-the-back shot for the win and, at that moment, he retired from playing his first born.
“The last time we played, I beat him and I said I’d never play him again,” Kraig said with a chuckle.
It’s safe to assume that Dale and Kraig are enjoying this new chapter of coaching Jay on the floor. But for Dale, he’s at the point where he’s OK with just being grandpa and letting Kraig deal with the X’s and O’s.
“It’s easy to just be grandpa, because he’s getting some good coaching from both his dad and also his mother,” Dale said.
And who knows, maybe in a few years Jay will trade in his jersey for a clipboard and one day coach his own son or daughter on the hardwood. If that does happen, there’s a good chance he won’t be the only Clifton there on the bench helping coach the players. After all, it’s the family business.