Why Amphi High's Vern Friedli Is A Gridiron Good Guy
By Tom Danehy
IT'S ONE OF the staples of sportswriting, the reverently-told tale of the grizzled football coach sticking to his principles, molding young men into models of discipline and hard work, winning games with style and grit at a double-digit-per-year pace.
If told properly, it's guaranteed to bring a tear to the eye and a lump to the throat. This tale unfolds according to a formula so rigid, just about anyone could tell it. It's like that plug-in-the-hole screenwriting software which, for $40 a pop, can fool just about everyone into believing they can be the next Quentin Tarantino.
Rather than disparaging the familiarity of such stories, we should celebrate the fact these great men exist. It's a puzzle of sorts. It's as though they're The Boys From Miami or Ohio, digitally reproduced from a master tape of a hard-nosed, no-nonsense leader who taught kids how to play, how to win, and still managed to teach them the really important lessons along the way.
These men often have similar backgrounds and philosophies of life which lead to similar results and successes. Early hardship leads to later toughness. Discipline learned translates to discipline easily taught. Hardness begets hardness.
How then does one explain Vern Friedli, the local legend who will be going for his 200th win as Amphi High coach when his undefeated Panthers host Sierra Vista Buena the night of Friday, October 3?
Oh sure, from a distance, Friedli has The Look. He walks briskly through the near-northside campus; if his back were any straighter, he'd be the poster child for anti-scoliosis. But get near him and you'll see the peace in his eyes, the calmness in his demeanor. He's animated in his speech, quick to laugh. And when he smiles, all preconceptions are washed away. He's got this big, right-handed smile that pushes his cheekbones up so high, he squints from the outside of the eye in.
If there are Ten Commandments of Becoming a Grizzled Coaching Stereotype, Friedli breaks them at a Madonna-like pace.
Let's take them one at a time:
1. THE COACH MUST have a tough-as-nails background, preferably with immigrant parents who toiled long and hard.
In most such stories, the coaches' parents came from one of those "-ia" places--Romania, Czechoslovakia, Albania. Their parents came to America, got jobs in the steel mills or coal mines, and were justifiably proud (but maybe inwardly mildly disappointed) when their sons became football coaches.
This is one of the Commandments which Friedli comes close to matching. His parents were indeed immigrants and they worked in the lumber mills of Arcata, California. Located in the far northwest corner of the Golden State, Arcata is California in name only and Oregon in everything else. Humboldt and the surrounding counties have town names like Forks of Salmon, Happy Camp, and Salad Valley. (Of course, there's also Fort Dick, a Southern California name if ever there was one.)
But here Friedli diverges from the norm. For his parents came to America not from an "-ia" place, but from Switzerland!
Look, nobody comes from Switzerland. I always thought it had some one-way osmosis thing where money went in and no people ever came out. Besides, how can toughness be forged in a place where the national motto is "Neutrality at all costs?" Switzerland's national flag is a piece of clear plastic. Maybe with a dollar sign embossed near the bottom corner. People wouldn't even know it existed if Johanna Spyri hadn't smuggled the manuscript for Heidi out.
Young Vern couldn't speak English and kept getting sent home from school with notes attached to his lapel instructing his parents to "teach this kid how to speak English!" Exacerbating the situation is the fact that Switzerland doesn't have its own language (big surprise). As it turns out, his mother, from the south, spoke an Italian-flavored dialect while his northern father spoke mostly German. So Vern was basically bilingual but didn't have a clue about English.
He persevered and became a good student. He also became an athlete, excelling in baseball and playing quarterback for the football team.
2. THE COACH HAD A tough football coach in high school, from whom he learned the discipline he would pass on to so many others.
"I did have some tough coaches along the way," Friedli recalls. "Frank Giannella, who coached me in the Army, taught me a lot. I learned a lot from Shanty Hogan (from Phoenix College). All coaches learn from other coaches. It's like a cafeteria; you take something from this one and something else from that one."
But as for discipline, he adds, "I learned my discipline from my high school choir teacher." Choir?!
"Yeah, it was a small town, small school. Everybody did everything. Choir practice would have a bunch of letterman jackets on the floor. That woman taught all of us discipline. We used to go to San Francisco to compete and did real well. She was something."
3. THE COACH LIVED and breathed football all his life, using the game as motivation and a bridge to higher education.
Vern Friedli went to college on a drama scholarship.
Go back and read that last line again. The greatest football coach in Southern Arizona prep history attended Humboldt State University on a drama scholarship. He played quarterback under the lights and Mercucio in front of the lights.
But he had to leave college after a while, but not because of a deficiency on the field or on stage. "The scholarship was only a partial one," he explains. "So I was working graveyard at the lumber mill. I'd go to school all day, play ball in the afternoon, rehearse plays in the evening, then go to work all night. My grades and my health suffered.
"They were about to end the G.I. Bill, so I joined the Army for three years so they could pay my way through school. I bounced around and ended up at Ft. Huachuca."
It was at a VFW-sponsored dance in Tucson that he met Sharon, now his wife of 40 years. In the Army, he played football and maintained his interest in all things artistic, especially jazz. He remembers seeing blind pianist George Shearing perform in Bisbee, of all places. And one time Stan Kenton's band played San Manuel.
He smiles, "What a fiasco that was. About 10 people showed up and they all thought it was a cowboy act. They must have thought his name was 'Stan Canyon' or something."
After leaving the Army and getting married, he graduated from the University of Arizona and began teaching and coaching. He coached baseball and football at Sunnyside Jr. High (now Sierra Middle School) for four years, before moving to the mining town of Morenci. There he coached baseball for nine years, winning one state title, and football for six years, grabbing two conference championships.
One-year stops at Casa Grande and San Manuel (where his football team upset Canyon Del Oro, 3-2) preceded his settling in at Amphi, where he's been since 1976.
He still loves music, drama, and writes poetry.
4. THE COACH HAS TO weather the up-and-down nature of sport, occasionally suffering through a rebuilding year.
Under Vern Friedli, Amphi has won 16 of the last 21 Class 5A-South football championships.
The lowest any Friedli-coached Amphi team has ever finished is third, and that's only happened twice in the past 21 years.
Most of the kids in the Amphi football program weren't even born the last time Amphi failed to make the state playoffs. In 1980 the Panthers finished with a (for them) disappointing 7-3 record.
Friedli's teams went 54-6 his first five years at Amphi, capped by a state championship in 1979.
Amphi won seven straight 5A-South titles in the '80s and has never gone more than two years without winning a conference title. They're currently on a three-year streak and are heavily favored to make it four.
His record at Amphi is 199-53-1 (.787) and 242-90-2 overall (.725). His Amphi teams have won one state title, one state runner-up spot, reached the state semi-finals seven times (including last year), and the state quarter-finals four other times.
5. A WINNING FOOTBALL coach has to scream and shout to stay in control.
"I don't remember him raising his voice very much," says Mark Hewson, the 1990 quarterback who took the team to the state championship behind the running of Mario Bates, who's now with the New Orleans Saints.
"I mean, he'd yell every now and then, but only if we made a mental mistake. He likes things done in a precise way. Lots of repetition. Seriously, I've had English teachers who yelled more."
Hewson's older brother Kim captained the 1979 state championship team. The two are the sons of Dr. George "Kim" Hewson, the orthopedic surgeon who repaired Steve Kerr's knee. Both have similar memories of Friedli, likening him to a friend and teacher.
For his part, Friedli admits to yelling occasionally. "I yell, but not very often. If a coach has to yell all the time to get his message across, there's something wrong with the coach or his message. Or both. I thought about retiring recently when I found myself yelling during a game. That made me think it might be time to get out."
6. THE COACH SHOULD stick around for six more years to get 300 career victories.
This isn't actually one of the commandments. Just wishful thinking from a writer who has a football-crazed son who's only in the sixth grade.
6a. A SUCCESSFUL COACH must always be trying to out-think his opposition with complex systems.
Friedli laughs at that suggestion. "I'm not smart enough to out-think people. Besides, coaching isn't that hard. People try to make more of it than there really is. Success comes from hard work, dedication, teamwork, discipline. There's no big secret."
7. A COACH IS ALWAYS prepared and nothing surprises him.
Earlier this season, South Mountain was kicking off short to keep the ball away from Antrel Bates, who leads the city with 14 touchdowns in four games. The kickoffs were going to "up" players, who would catch them and immediately fall to the ground.
When asked why they did that, Friedli shrugged, "I have no idea. I guess we didn't tell them they could run with those."
8. IF A SCHOOL WANTS to roll along at a 10-win-per-season pace, it must schedule a cream puff or two each year.
The last three years, Amphi has opened its season with home-and-home games against the two-time big-school state champion from New Mexico, and this year against the top big school in Utah. Las Cruces Mayfield's only losses in two years came at the hands of the Panthers. This year, Orem is still Utah's top-ranked team despite losing to Amphi in a rain-soaked thriller. The Panthers open next season at Orem.
Most Tucson teams try to stay in the area for early-season games, with 4A teams playing 5A squads in non-league battles. This year, only one 4A team--Sahuaro--was willing to meet Amphi. The Cougars, a perennial 4A power, were victim Number 199 last week.
Amphi also played two 5A teams from Phoenix along with Orem. In the meantime, the one matchup which most local prep football fans long for went unplayed for the eighth straight year. This other 4A power is the darling of the local sports media and a program so over hyped that some yokels have suggested its coach be named Dick Tomey's successor at the UA. Just about every season this high-profile team is playing out-of-state somewhere, but--mysteriously--never has room on its schedule for Amphi.
The two teams used to play each other. The last time they met, Amphi limped into the other guy's place, its two star running backs both on the sidelines with ankle injuries. The Panthers quieted the hostile crowd with a convincing 14-0 win and the two teams haven't faced each other since. Apparently, as long as there's a 2A team in Indiana willing to take a whuppin', they never will.
Ironically, this 4A school has more students than Amphi, which has been "playing up" in the 5A ranks for six straight years.
Friedli and the other coach even appeared on a local sports talk show this past summer. A caller asked the two coaches why they didn't play each other every year, noting that it would be the game of the year. The other coach danced around the question like he was Deney Terrio. When it was his turn, Friedli said simply, "Any time, any place."
When asked to elaborate on that, Friedli said, "We'd like to play them. It would be great for both teams, great for Tucson football. We don't back down from anyone. We'd play at their place 10 years in a row if they want."
They don't want.
9. A COACH HAS TO BE constantly focused on winning it all.
It's coming up on two decades since a Tucson team won the big-school state football championship. This is neither shocking nor terribly disappointing. The largest school in Tucson has around 2,500 students. The smallest school in the Mesa school district has over 3,000 students--in three grades!
Because of the way things are set up in Arizona, the odds are long against any Tucson public school winning a state title in anything. Besides the aforementioned Mesa mega-schools, Arizona's Catholic schools have carte blanche to recruit any kid in the county in which they're located. This explains how Phoenix Brophy Prep and St. Mary's can compete at the top level with enrollments in the few hundreds.
"I want to win all the time. Our goal every season is to win the state championship," Friedli says, sitting in his claustrophobic weight room under the eastside bleachers of the Panthers' stadium. He's surrounded by pictures of former Panthers who've gone on to play in college and the pros. Mario Bates' brother, Michael, won a medal in the 1992 Olympics and played in the NFL Pro Bowl last year.
"You don't play unless you want to win. But if you do your best and you lose, you can't beat yourself up over it."
He goes into a couple stories of true successes in his program. There's the one about the 300-pound kid who showed up the first day and couldn't run 10 yards without stopping. By the time he was a senior he weighed 215 and was All-City. He just completed a career playing for Northern Arizona. Or the one about the lawyer's kid from the foothills (before Catalina Foothills High opened a few years ago, most of the foothills kids went to Amphi or Catalina in TUSD). The kid wasn't the most talented player, but he got a summer job doing street construction to toughen himself up. He too made All-City.
Watching an Amphi team take the field can be a shock. This year's squad has 38 players, making it perhaps the smallest team in Southern Arizona. By comparison, Orem brought 79 players from Utah. When asked why there are so few players, Friedli says, "Those are the only ones willing to do what's necessary."
Furthermore, Amphi may be the smallest team in town in another way. Last year in the second round of the state playoffs, Amphi met Mesa, which had steamrolled Salpointe Catholic the week before. Amphi's line was literally a head shorter and 35 pounds lighter per man, yet the Panthers dominated the line of scrimmage and won the game easily.
When told that some people have suggested that Amphi players take shortcuts, Friedli laughs. "Boy, if our kids are on steroids, we got a bad batch."
This year's linebackers average 5-foot-9-inches and 180 pounds. The Panthers are 4-0 and ranked second in the state.
10. A COACH HAS TO change with the times.
Two weeks ago, the Panthers got back to town at 1:30 a.m. after a tough 17-13 win at Mesa Westwood. Yet there they were on the practice field in full pads and helmets, at 8 o'clock Saturday morning. Thus it has been for the past 20 years. Play the game Friday night, get something to eat, stay away from the inevitable Friday-night parties, and fall into bed when you get home 'cause you've got to have your butt back there early in the morning.
There's no secret. You just have to put in the work.
Sahuaro basketball coach Dick McConnell, himself with more than 500 coaching victories, puts it this way: "If a kid ever questions the system, I just tell him, 'Son, this is how we did it before you were here and this is how we'll do it after you're gone. If you want to play while you're here, better get used to it.'"
Friedli shrugs, "I see no reason to change things. It's been shown to be successful. You put in the time, you lift the weights, you do the running, you learn the discipline, you're going to be successful. There is no short cut, no magic formula. As long as I have 11 kids wanting to play, I'll be there and we'll do things the way we've always done them."
But haven't kids changed over the past 20 years?
"No!" he snaps. "Parents have. The big difference is that parents used to work real hard so that their kids could have a better life than they had. Nowadays parents work real hard so that they can have a better life than their parents had. That's selfish and petty and kids are paying the price for it.
"But as for kids changing, no, they haven't. They still want to win, they still want discipline in their lives, they still want someone to care about them.
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