I realize that Arizona had a Republican primary, and that the Tucson City Council managed to anger the entire West University Neighborhood with its vote in favor of the urban-overlay district, but by far, the most-significant news event last week was the retirement of longtime Amphitheater High School football coach Vern Friedli.
In a city and state increasingly known for cranks and crooks and freaks and morons, Vern Friedli was a towering figure, a living testament to what could be accomplished through hard work and discipline.
I only had to see a Vern Friedli team play once, and I was hooked. They played football the way it's supposed to be played—with purpose, precision and passion.
I have followed his teams for more than 30 years, watching the marvelous Bates brothers—Marion, Michael and Mario—and Jon Volpe, who later starred at Stanford University and in the Canadian Football League, and who now owns Nova Home Loans. During that stretch, several Amphi teams made good runs at state, but, most disconcertingly, the 1979 Panthers team remains the last local squad to win a big-school state title.
So dominant were Friedli's teams that Amphi once went to state in football 20 consecutive years. That's an entire generation. Then, things began to change. Catalina Foothills High School opened, and foothills-area kids who had gone to Amphi or Catalina or Sabino now had their own school to attend. Later, as demographics began to shift, the white-flight trickle toward Canyon del Oro High farther north in the Amphitheater School District turned into a torrent when snazzy new Ironwood Ridge High opened.
My wife and I sent our daughter to Amphi, mostly because of the Honors Academy, a University High-like school-within-a-school for high academic achievers. While there, she also became the only kid in Arizona history (that I know of) to letter in five varsity sports. Later, our son also went to the Honors Academy, but he had the added benefit of getting to play football for Vern Friedli. I believe in my soul that my son is a better person for having done so.
Friedli never spoke about winning, which puts him on a higher plane of consciousness than just about every other coach on the face of the earth. (While I consider myself to be relatively level-headed as a coach, I talk about winning all the damn time.) Perhaps the fact that his teams won so often allowed him to break free of the mere-mortal constraints. He retires with 331 coaching victories, far and away the most in Arizona history, and an average of nine per season. (A high school regular season consists of 10 games.) His teams went to state 28 times in 36 years, and a third of his squads won 10 or more games in a season. Those are scary numbers.
Starting in the late 1990s, Amphi High's enrollment numbers began to plummet, as did the number of kids going out for Friedli's football team. Yet, his squads continued to win. (His 1997 team reached the state championship game.) However, several years ago, it got so bad that Amphi went 0-10 one season, and everyone thought that Friedli was done. But he kept at it, doing things the way he always had, and suddenly, Amphi was back in the playoffs. Two years ago, the Panthers went 11-2.
Then came the stroke.
Friedli, rail-thin and wiry, had always been a fitness nut, running bleachers in the gym and lifting weights. But he was in his mid-70s, and I guess a stroke can hit anyone. He rehabbed as best he could, but last season, he was confined to a scooter on the sidelines. It wasn't the same, not being able to stand on his feet and demonstrate techniques, and he knew it. Last week, he retired, as did defensive coordinator Ed Roman, who had spent every one of the past 36 years working with Friedli.
I was a Vern Friedli fan for nearly 20 years before I got to meet the man. He turned out to be even cooler than I had imagined—plain-spoken, quick-witted and sarcastic as all hell. He's a voracious reader of nonfiction; I gave him a copy of my all-time favorite book, The Making of the Atomic Bomb, and he loved it.
A few years ago, the Amphi Athletic Hall of Fame finally got around to inducting Friedli and Roman. My daughter was inducted that same night. Instead of being thrilled with being the first-ever female athlete in the hall, she gushed, "I'm in the same Hall of Fame with Vern Friedli. That's the coolest thing ever!"
For the past 15 years, I've been spending five or more autumn evenings a season in the sweltering press box overlooking Amphi's Friedli Field, running the scoreboard for Panthers varsity games. And believe me, I don't do it for the $9 an hour that it pays. I've done it so that I could be a tiny part of something great, something pure and positive, something enduring. (I'll keep doing it, but it won't be the same.)
I guess I knew it wouldn't last forever. I had once hoped that Matt Johnson (who played for and coached with Friedli) would take over, but Johnson is safely ensconced at Ironwood Ridge, with its gaudy facilities and rabid booster club. Besides, who wants to follow a legend?