Vern Friedli won 331 games in his career, with 288 of those earned on the Amphitheater sidelines. It’s hard to fully measure a man who gave 36 years of his life to the young men of Amphitheater. The word “legend” comes to mind, but even that may not be enough.
The football purists will remember him for his “big school” championship with the Panthers in 1979 followed by a runner-up finish in 1990 and another in 1997. But those trophies are still inadequate.
He retired from coaching in 2012 while holding the state record for victories in the back pocket of his legendary coaching shorts. He was a throwback to a simpler time and it took another throwback in the form of Marcos de Niza head coach Paul Moro to come along and break that coaching record, as he did last year.
Records are forever made to be broken but never the spirit, and no one had a spirit like Friedli.
Friedli visited the Panther sidelines one more time before his passing. The Panthers went 0-12 from the end of the 2014 season all through 2015. Things were not looking good but hope came in the form of a 7-2 start to the 2016 season, engineered by the man Friedli openly welcomed, current head coach Jorge Mendivil.
“I’ve known Vern for 25 years and he, without question, is the best coach we have ever had in Tucson,” Mendivil said.
“His passing hit me yesterday when I was told he was in hospice. I know it will fully hit me later but I feel more for his family right now but this is a huge loss for the Amphi family and for Tucson in general.”
Friedli watched from the sidelines last year as Amphitheater beat Pueblo to win the Gila Region championship. The last time Mendivil had a chance to speak to Friedli came on that night, Oct. 28 and, as it turned out, it was the last time I would have a chance to speak to him as well.
I’ve known Vern since the spring of 1990, some 27 plus years ago. I was a teacher and he, of course, was gearing up for another great year at Amphi.
One of his coaching adversaries was former Canyon del Oro head coach Bob Smith. Smith was eventually named superintendent of the Amphitheater School District after his coaching days, and I battled with Smith often as the head of the Amphitheater Education Association. I learned about Friedli’s spirit first-hand in April of 1997 when he sent me a note on his personal stationary that read in part:
“Keep on keepin’ on… you are doing a hell of a job – thank you for your efforts, your dedication and your perseverance…”
Smith would eventually “retire” and I count that as another victory for Friedli.
But Friedli, as many do, changed a bit over the years as he told our own Anthony Gimino in 2008:
“I keep saying I haven’t, but that’s a lie,” Friedli told Gimino.
“You become more humane. You absorb more, and you learn more, and if you’re not learning, then you’re out to lunch.
“You have to be interested enough to see the individual, to see what they’re all about, to see what makes them tick. That’s why you have to be there. That’s the key: Be there.”
Rick Gonzales, past president and current Board member on the Southern Arizona Chapter of the National Football Foundation & College Hall of Fame, remembers meeting Friedli as a young boy:
The first time I saw Vern Friedli, I was 12 years old and getting off the school bus to attend my first football practice at Sunnyside Junior High School. It was the spring of 1962,” Gonzales wrote in a letter.
Coach Friedli was standing with his coaches in the middle of the football field, clip board in hand, wearing canvas football pants, a white t-shirt, white socks, black cleats, and a whistle on a string around his neck. He was the epitome of confidence, character, strength and leadership. Thus, for me, began a 54-year relationship.
For so many of us, Vern Friedli has been much more than a coach. He, at varying times, has been a teacher, mentor, motivator and inspiration. For some, he was the closest they ever got to having a father. For all of us, he became an enduring legacy by which we measured how successful we were at fulfilling our destiny in life.
To be sure, my parents gave me a solid foundation upon which to build my life. However, it was the reinforcement that comes from having someone outside your family confirm what your parents teach you that we forge the will and resolve to succeed. Vern Friedli became that reinforcement for all whom he touched.
Given Coach Friedli’s storied coaching career many would assume that his career was the essence of a life well lived. End of story.
But the truth of the matter is that the wins and losses, the championship teams and seasons, were merely the back drop against which the real game of life was played out. Every school boy who ever played for Coach Friedli, from the third-string player to the star athlete who rose to the highest level of the game, got the same attention, direction and instruction.
Each of us was charged with understanding that football was but a “game” and that the game was played with commitment, discipline and desire. But more significantly, Coach taught us that these same principles, when nurtured with hard work, were the formula for succeeding in life, notwithstanding where we came from or how desperate our personal situation might be.
The football field was merely a laboratory where we would learn the lessons that would carry us through life, and if we worked hard enough and did not quit, it would allow us to make our dreams a reality.
For me, the heart of this experience was manifest when we would “take a knee” at the end of the last practice before each game and Coach Friedli would talk to us about the responsibility, we as football players, owed to our family, our school and our community. He would challenge us to consider how our life could change with an education and committing ourselves to being men of honor. He dared us to consider how hard we had worked to prepare for the next game and to work equally hard in the classroom and in our community to make our lives better.
More responses are coming in and those will be added to this story in the coming days as will any information on public and private services. But, for now, I mentioned Moro breaking Friedli’s career-win record this past year. Marcos de Niza beat Seton Catholic on Oct. 14 to get that win record, two weeks before Friedli witnessed Amphitheater winning the region championship.
With the record in hand, Marcos de Niza paid a visit to Salpointe in the quarterfinal round of the 4A state playoffs. Moro had gained two more victories by then to set his new record at 334. The Lancers would win that game 48-6 with senior standout Trevor Volpe taking the final four carries in the game (21 yards) to run out the clock.
Volpe’s dad is none other than legendary Amphitheater and Stanford running back Jon Volpe. It was as if Friedli’s spirit was on the field telling players to “Keep on keepin’ on.”
My last words to Friedli came in the form of a request. Tired of naming “Players of the Year” and “Coaches of the Year” awards after people who have passed on, I asked Vern if I could name the AllSportsTucson.com Southern Arizona Coach of the Year award after him. Mendivil would later go on to earn the honor.
Vern’s wife, Sharon, emailed me a note about it in December:
“Andy, we just heard about this award. Thank you from Vern and I both! A great honor to have his name associated with the award to outstanding coaches. Again, that is an extremely kind action on your part! He is most honored that you did this! Wonderful gesture! Can’t thank you enough!”
As it turns out, we can’t thank Vern and Sharon enough. Vern was 80 years old.
Andy Morales was recognized by the AIA as the top high school reporter in 2014 and he was awarded the Ray McNally Award in 2017 and he has been a youth, high school and college coach for over 30 years. His own children have won multiple state high school championships and were named to all-state teams. Competing in hockey, basketball, baseball and track & field in high school, his unique perspective can only be found here and on AZPreps365.com. Andy was named a Local Hero by the Tucson Weekly for 2016. Contact Andy Morales at AMoralesMyTucson@yahoo.com