“Nobody hits in town like these two teams. It was a good hitting ball game.”
— Amphi coach Vern Friedli after an anticipated showdown with Sunnyside in 1979, won 15-0 by the Panthers.
In the late 1970’s and through the 1980’s, the most competitive high school football rivalry in Tucson was between Amphi and Sunnyside. No other matchup came close.
It was a classic north side vs. south side battle each time Amphi coach Vern Friedli and Sunnyside coach Paul Petty brought their teams out on the turf. Terry Seward later coached against Friedli after Petty’s retirement when the rivalry was still going strong.
Friedli, who coached at Amphi for 36 years until 2012, passed away Friday at the age of 80. A good barometer for how much Friedli was revered as a coach and person is the endearing response about his death from some former Sunnyside players who wanted to beat him badly during their playing days.
“When you think of Tucson football this is the man,” mentioned Thom Ortiz, who was also a standout wrestler at Sunnyside before competing at ASU. ” May God rest his soul.”
David Adams, who went on to star at Arizona following his career at Sunnyside, called Friedli a friend after his football playing days were over.
“He was a good man that I respected as a man and coach,” Adams said. “I will miss him. I loved the battles between Sunnyside and Amphi.
“They were always well-coached and ready.”
Ortiz mentioned that Friedli’s teams took on their coach’s toughness, particularly former burly running back Jon Volpe.
“Punishing teams,” Ortiz said. “Volpe hurt me when I tried to tackle him. Very disciplined and well conditioned.”
An example of Friedli’s preparation is when Amphi limited Oklahoma-bound running back Fred Sims to only 37 yards in the first half in that classic 15-0 win over Sunnyside in 1979. Amphi was ranked fourth in the state and Sunnyside fifth. More than 9,000 people attended that game.’
Sims didn’t return to the game in the second half because of an ankle injury, but the Panthers had already established dominance. Amphi’s running backs Arlen Bethay and Joey Canizales — operating out of Friedli’s renowned wishbone offense — combined for 227 yards rushing in that game.
“This (victory) was very satisfying,” Friedli was quoted as saying by the Arizona Daily Star after the game. “It was as good as any I’ve had.”
Jerry Beasley, a linebacker who graduated from Sunnyside in 1983 and later excelled at Arizona, recalls how difficult it was to play against Friedli’s teams.
“Sunnyside and Amphibians always had great battles in the trenches,” Beasley said. “The games were always physical and competitive. My senior year was no different. … It was a defensive battle.”
Amphi was ranked No. 3 in the state and Sunnyside No. 5 in the 1982 opener at Sunnyside. The Panthers won 7-0, scoring on a freakish play in the second quarter. Amphi quarterback Kevin Boyle was hit as he tried to pitch the ball to halfback Bernie Wharton and the ball came loose.
The Sunnyside crowd cheered loudly thinking the Blue Devils would get the turnover but the ball bounced into Wharton’s hands and he went 80 yards for the decisive score.
“Coach Friedli always had tough physical teams,” Beasley said. “They won the game on what I know for a fact was a fluke play but it says a lot about him as a coach teaching his players not never give up. He walked up to me after the game shaking his head.
“He reached out and shook my hand. ‘Now where did they find you from?’ (Friedli said). At the time, I was grieving the loss but it is kind of funny now. He was a great coach and developed a lot of great football players at Amphi. He will be missed.”
The series dates to 1969. The year prior to Amphi’s 15-0 win in 1979, Sunnyside beat the Panthers 39-0. That type of swing was common in the rivalry.
The common theme from some of the Blue Devils I reached today was how much Amphi’s teams played with class.
In a 1984 interview with the Arizona Daily Star, Friedli commented, “We tell our kids to be the best they can be with class. And we emphasize the ‘class.'”
Former Sunnyside linebacker Joe Domanico provided a story that exemplified Friedli’s class.
“I had three sacks in the 1984 opener when we lost to them,” Domanico mentioned to me today. “(Friedli) approached me after the game and told me it was the best game he had seen from a Sunnyside linebacker since Mark Cutright.”
Cutright was an all-metro linebacker selection as a senior in 1982. Cutright was all of 5’7″ and 157 pounds. To Friedli, the size did not matter. What mattered to Friedli was the heart that drove Cutright and what he saw from Domanico in that 1984 game, won by Amphi 31-25 at Sunnyside after the Panthers led 17-0 at halftime.
Amphi beat Sunnyside 21-10 at home in the first round of the state playoffs later that season.
“I saw (Friedli) at a U of A game back in 1989 when I got out of the military,” Domanico said. “We talked that night. That was the last time I saw him. But he worked at a football camp I went to when I was in school at the U of A.
“He always had well prepared teams that played the game with class. And he always respected his opponents. I would have played for him in a heartbeat.”
Friedli came a long way from when he lost his first game as Amphi’s coach in 1976, a season after which the Panthers won the state title under Jerry Loper.
“I didn’t endear myself to anything,” Friedli said with a chuckle about that opening loss in an interview with the Star. “They were out building gallows, and the wives were weaving the ropes.”
Winning turned the tide immediately.
“They stopped letting the air out of my tires,” he said with a laugh. “We’re the good guys now.”
Tucson lost more than a good guy on Friday. It lost a legend.
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ALLSPORTSTUCSON.com publisher, writer and editor Javier Morales is a former Arizona Press Club award winner. He is a former Arizona Daily Star beat reporter for the Arizona basketball team, including when the Wildcats won the 1996-97 NCAA title. He has also written articles for CollegeAD.com, Bleacher Report, Lindy’s Sports, TucsonCitizen.com, The Arizona Republic, Sporting News and Baseball America, among many other publications. He has also authored the book “The Highest Form of Living”, which is available at Amazon.