Class Act

Vern Friedli of the Amphi High Panthers approaches legendary status.

Vern Friedli is one of my favorite people, and I was mightily bummed when his Amphi High Panthers ended their football season with a loss a couple weeks back. Certainly, I was disappointed for my son, Alexander, who played on the offensive line for Amphi, but I also felt bad for Friedli. Obviously, most players and coaches end each season with a loss, either on the regular schedule or in the playoffs, so it's not like some Greek tragedy. But, while it may be commonplace, it's never easy.

This is only the fourth time in 27 years that his season ended short of the state playoffs. In his career at Amphi, he has averaged 10 wins a season for more than a quarter-century. He holds the Arizona record for victories by a football coach at one school, and next year, he should win his 300th game, something no one in Arizona has ever done.

But as he stood on the field at Catalina Foothills that night, the lights of the valley twinkling in the distance, you could see it in his eyes: It wasn't supposed to be this way. It's never supposed to be this way.

Amphi had gone into the Foothills game knowing that a win over the Falcons would almost certainly mean another trip to state, not in the accustomed role of conference champion, but as a second-place finisher in a brutally tough conference.

The Panthers had opened the year with a win over Marana and then a stunning, come-from-behind victory at long-time arch-rival Canyon Del Oro, which has about 1,000 more students than Amphi.

Then the wheels came off. The Panthers opened conference play with a shocking upset loss to Pueblo, a loss that would linger like a dark cloud over the rest of the year.

In big-school football in Arizona, every loss is like a dagger to the heart. The Arizona Interscholastic Association uses an arcane Power Points system to determine which teams go to state. While most states generally allow about half of their teams to advance to the playoffs, Arizona (despite booming growth) stubbornly and stingily sticks to a system wherein only 16 teams (less than one-third of the total) go to state.

After the Pueblo loss, Amphi battled back with four wins, including one over a 7-1 Cienega squad, to put the Panthers in position to nab a playoff spot. (In the Power Points system, Class 4A Amphi's win over Class 5A CDO doesn't count, because CDO is so much bigger! Only in a bureaucracy could a victory come back to haunt you.) But it wasn't to be.

The Foothills players, giddy with their hard-fought victory, didn't want to leave the field on that Senior Night. They shook hands with the Amphi players, then lined up to shake hands with Friedli. One by one, they approached the Amphi coach and told them how much they admired him and his program. One kid apologized for having knocked Amphi out of the state tournament, to which Friedli responded with, "Well, I hope you get in."

(Foothills finished an agonizing 17th in the Power Points, while Amphi was 20th. Foothills missed making the state playoffs by a half-point.)

Another kid said simply, "You're a legend." Friedli managed a smile and said, "Yeah, of Sleepy Hollow."

A big kid, Number 77, walked up and unashamedly enveloped Friedli in a bearhug. "You're my idol," the kid said. "I always dreamed that I could play for you."

Friedli congratulated the kid on having played a whale of a game, then added, "Ten years ago, you would have played for me."

Before Foothills opened in the 1990s and quickly became THE athletic powerhouse in town (leaving Salpointe Catholic, Amphi, and all the rest in the dust), most of the kids in that district attended Amphi High. (Some went to Sabino or Catalina in the Tucson Unified District and a handful went to CDO.)

Amphi used to be the Monster of Midtown. But after all the foothills kids went to the new school, Amphi football became the scrappy underdog, always outnumbered, always out-gunned--yet somehow the program didn't skip a beat. They won seven more titles in the next decade and reached the state championship game again in 1997. Despite having a Class 4A enrollment, the past several years (having been eaten away first by Foothills, then by Ironwood Ridge and finally by the bad jokes that are Arizona's charter schools), Amphi stayed in 5A for a few years. The Panthers won their last 5A-South title just two years ago.

Over the years, Friedli has turned down numerous offers to coach elsewhere. The boosters club at Sierra Vista Buena High offered him $50,000 a year just to coach football, but he turned it down. But it looks like his loyalty is pretty much a one-way deal. After he retired from teaching, he was re-hired at a starting teacher's salary to teach a couple weight-training classes each day. Amphi soon did away with the classes, so he started showing up at 7 a.m. for free, so that his kids could lift, but the school somehow found a way to eliminate that as well.

Still, he soldiers on, knowing that he's right and loving what he does. After the loss, almost all of the kids (including the seniors whose careers were suddenly over) still showed up the next morning to watch the game film. The kids turned in their gear on Monday and Tuesday, and Friedli opened the weight room so the guys could start working toward next year.

Amphi remains the blue-collar favorite in town. Other programs have surged forward, but everybody has at least one reason to hate Salpointe; the Sunnyside program, while successful, has a certain stench about it. Sabino, under a new coach, won the Kino region this year, but it will be a while before the program can escape the Ghosts of Steroids Past.

Bear Bryant once said that if you have class, everything else will just sorta fall into place. If you know Vern Friedli, you know that saying is true.

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