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Saying goodbye to Vern Friedli: championship coach, molder of men

Early last Friday morning, one of the greatest Tucsonans of all time passed away. Long-time Amphi High School football coach Vern Friedli died from complications from a series of strokes at the age of 80.

For those who would turn a nose up at the accomplishments of a football coach, I ask how many lives are touched by a politician or a banker. Not nudged in one direction or another and/or made worse, but truly touched. Vern Friedli molded men—so many men over the years—and did so with an unmatched combination of self-deprecating humor and steely determination. He knew that his way was the right way and he wanted nothing more than to share his knowledge and outlook on life with those who were willing to walk through the doors of his weight room.

When the media look back at the career of Vern Friedli, it will be de rigueur to touch on the stud athletes that came through his legendary program. There was Michael Bates, who went from being the best high-school running back in the country to winning a medal in track at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics and then becoming a multi-year All-Pro in the NFL. And Jon Volpe, who was basically homeless during his time at Amphi, but went on to lead the Pac-10 in rushing at Stanford before tearing up the Canadian Football League. He eventually returned to Tucson, where he is now the owner of the mega-successful Nova Home Loans. Or Riki Ellison, who starred at USC before playing on four Super Bowl champion teams with the San Francisco 49ers.

But talking to Friedli over the years, he was far more likely to bring up the no-name kid who slogged in the trenches as an undersized lineman before going off to college and earning a master's degree in computer engineering. Or the kid whom everyone thought was going to drop out of high school but is now managing an auto-parts store here in town. Those were his true success stories—the too-slow, too-small kids who bought into an archaic system based on discipline, hard work and sportsmanship and came out so much better for having done so.

The numbers, of course, are staggering. Over a career that spanned four decades, his teams won 331 games, a state record that stood for quite a while before it was broken this past season by a guy who built a football powerhouse at a school in the White Mountains and feasted on lesser competition. His Panther squads won 288 games in his 36 years at Amphi. My favorite stat: Despite qualifications for reaching post-season that shifted every couple years (sometimes only the conference champion, other times a ranking on a bogus poll), his Amphi teams went to State 20 years in a row. The odds against that are astronomically high because, over an entire generation, there is bound to be a clunker class (or five or six) of athletes that will send a rattle through an entire program. Friedli's teams never missed a beat.

Part of the ongoing success was that nothing ever changed for him. His 2010 team ran the same plays his 1979 State championship team had. His words sound eerily like those spoken by Denzel Washington in "Remember The Titans." He only ran five or six plays. It's like Novocaine; just give it time and it'll work. Saying that Friedli eschewed the forward pass is like saying that vegans eschew pork chops. After a win over Sahuaro in which his Panthers had 60 running plays and one pass, Friedli deadpanned, "We tried that passing thing once; it didn't work. So we went back to what did work."

As with everyone else at the campus that is now in the middle of town, Friedli had to deal with a shifting demographic. In his early years, he got kids from the surrounding northwest side, as well as a lot of kids from the Catalina Foothills. (The captain of his State championship team was Kim Hewson, the son of famed surgeon Dr. George Hewson, who fixed Steve Kerr's knee.) Enrollment dropped off after Catalina Foothills High was built and then took a nose-dive after Ironwood Ridge opened up in the Amphi District. Where there used to be 2,500 kids, there were now under 1,400, and they were less affluent.

This coincided with the Texas-ization of high-school football in the Valley of the Sun, where schools in snazzy parts of the Phoenix area built gaudy new stadiums, installed artificial-turf fields, and turned Friday nights into orgies of vicarious living by adults who probably should have known better. The guidelines of the Arizona Interscholastic Association (AIA) would have allowed Amphi, with its dwindling enrollment, to move down a couple levels where it could compete with schools of similar sizes, but Friedli would have none of it. He insisted on playing against the biggest and the best.

His 1997 team made it to the State title game, a match-up against perennial powerhouse Mesa Mountain View on a chilly night at Sun Devil Stadium. Friedli's Panthers were probably a four-touchdown underdog that night against a school that had a separate freshman campus of more than 1,000 students. A great photo, taken from the end zone behind the Amphi offense, shows the Panther offensive line ready to run a play. Facing them across the line of scrimmage, the members of the Mountain View D-line are each a head taller than the Panthers with whom they are matched up. Somehow, Amphi took the lead and held onto it for more than three-and-a-half quarters. A questionable turn of events allowed Mountain View to take the lead with a couple minutes left in the game. Even then, Amphi found the grit to drive the length of the field, only to run out of time near the goal line.

Friedli's insistence on "playing up" probably cost his teams another 20 or 30 wins in his later years, but he just shrugged it off. One might think that Friedli's stance would cause other coaches on the campus to bristle at having to play schools two or three times as large as Amphi. But such was the universal respect for the man that the prevailing attitude was, "Hey, if Coach Friedli can do, so can we."

It is a cliché that the truly great coaches don't talk about winning and losing. (I'm a coach and I talk about winning all the damn time. If they're keeping score, I wanna win. This puts me several strata removed from Next-To-Godliness.) Friedli talked about family and hard work.

Ironwood Ridge Coach Matt Johnson, whose teams challenge for the State championship every year, played on the offensive line for Friedli.

"After a game," recalls Johnson, "he wouldn't talk about what had just happened (on the field). He'd talk about staying away from drugs and alcohol. He'd ask us if we were able to look ourselves in the mirror and know that we had done everything possible to be the best that we could be."

Friedli was from the Really Olde School sub-group of Old School. His players' off-season regimen was running and lifting weights. Period. The legendary Amphi weight room (all free weights, no machines) was under the eastside bleachers of the stadium. It was like 140 degrees and smelled like butt. But his players showed up religiously and put in the work. The weight room was open on Christmas and New Year's Eve.

He was a voracious reader. He'd sit at his desk in the weight room and read for hours while the kids lifted. I'd give him books every now and then. He'd go through them in a day or two and then want to talk about them. I bought him a copy of my favorite book, the Pulitzer Prize-winning "The Making of the Atomic Bomb," which is a gripping history of physics in the 20th century. He accepted the nearly 900-page book and looked at me sideways. A few days later, he gave me a hand-written thank-you card that read "Richard Rhodes (the author) kicks ass! This may be the greatest book I've ever read." I still have that note; as a matter of fact, I carry it around with some books in the trunk of my car.

In the 2000s, he had this one really awful team that went 0-10. And while there weren't any whispers, a germ of a whisper probably formed somewhere in somebody's head. But a couple years later, Amphi came roaring back with a monster team that won the conference title and made a nice run at State. Friedli was always a health nut. He seemed truly indestructible, but then he had a major stroke. And then others followed. He actually coached for a while sitting in a scooter, but it eventually became too much for him and he retired. He would show up at Amphi games every now and then. Amphi, under new coach Jorge Mendivil, won the Conference championship last season and is loaded heading into the 2017 campaign. They will play all of their home games on Friedli Field. It is an honor that is not nearly big enough to match the stature of the 5'7", 145-pound man for whom it is named.

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