Kent Middleton paced back and forth, shouted encouragement and gave the referees a piece of his mind.
Coach Middleton, he thought to himself, could make a difference.
This was when he was 10 in 1974. In his living room. Listening to legendary Arizona broadcaster Ray McNally calling the Wildcats’ play-by-play on the radio.
“Ever since I was a kid, I used to pretend I was a football coach,” Middleton said. “I walked up and down my living room like I was on the sidelines. I reacted to everything I heard, including arguing with the referees.
Middleton, laughing, then said, “That’s probably a little more than you needed to know.”
His success, dating to his famed Arizona Icecats days, makes us wanting more.
Coach Middleton is a head coach for the first time this season, 32 seasons after his long journey as a high school assistant started under Wayne Jones at Mountain View in 1989.
An assistant at Pusch Ridge Christian Academy the previous two seasons, Middleton was promoted to his first head coaching position after Jerry Harris stepped down following last season to concentrate on his personal work responsibilities.
“It was an unbelievable experience when I was hired for the job,” Middleton said. “I knew the situation I was stepping into and everything was positive.”
With the most veteran coaching staff in Southern Arizona, Middleton has Pusch Ridge (6-1) believing another state title is in reach after the Lions captured one in 2015 and played for another in 2017.
The Lions are scheduled to host Gilbert Christian (4-2) in a 3A state playoff play-in game Friday at 7 p.m.
After Thursday’s practice, Middleton looked at his coaches, who include two former head coaches in Southern Arizona (Anthony Coronado at Marana and Gary Minor at Ironwood Ridge). He mentioned that “I kind of just walk around sometimes” because of his seasoned staff that “has been around since the Lincoln Administration.”
Lamar Lovett, the former Arizona receiver, has been an assistant coach at the school since it changed from Palo Verde Christian to Pusch Ridge in 2000. Pusch Ridge athletic director Lonnie Tvrdy was the head coach at that time. Lovett’s son Evan Lovett is a senior running back who has established himself as one of the top players in the state.
Bob Ingram has been part of staffs in the last quarter century at Sabino, Tucson, Sunnyside, Catalina Foothills, Mountain View and Pusch Ridge. He was the offensive coordinator with the Lions when they won the state title in 2015 under former coach Troy Kropp.
Brent Bartz, the offensive coordinator, has a coaching background at Ironwood Ridge (under Minor), Marana and Mountain View.
Coronado, the defensive coordinator, served in the same capacity at Sahuarita the previous two seasons after having two stints as Marana’s head coach.
Minor started the Ironwood Ridge program in 2001 after coaching for two decades as an assistant and junior varsity coach at CDO. He coached the Nighthawks to a 10-3 record and trip to the state semifinals in his last season in 2008.
Calvin Knox works with the offense and is also the boys track and field coach at Pusch Ridge.
Tommy Steele, a local assistant coach for more than 30 years, most notably as the offensive line and strength and conditioning coach at CDO, was set to join Middleton’s staff, but he decided against it because of COVID-19 health concerns.
“Coach Middleton presented to us to be kind of a package deal and we were excited about that,” Minor said of the new hires to the staff, including himself, Coronado, Bartz and Steele. “We couldn’t turn that down.”
Combined, Middleton’s staff has more than 170 years of experience coaching football. When told that level of expertise is unmatched in Southern Arizona, Minor said, “That means we’re old.”
They are definitely not a crusty old group, but a fun-loving one instead that could be cast in “Grumpy Old Men.” That unique bond of veterans expressing their love for football in a jovial way to their players has definitely made an impact on the young Lions, who are heavy with talented juniors and sophomores.
The schooling of the game sophomore starters such as athlete Bryce Jewell, tight end/defensive end Will Way and linebacker Tyler Mustain — all soon to be household names in Tucson — are receiving from this coaching staff will pay dividends for their future.
“I just let them do their thing,” Middleton said of his coaches. “They do it well.”
Middleton, who did not play football in high school or college, has built a wealth of knowledge about the game beginning with his association with Jones and longtime defensive coordinator Paul Schmidt at Mountain View.
A former baseball player at CDO under coach Roger Werbylo, Middleton received his football coaching break when he was coaching a baseball team. He coached a Dorados’ 14U baseball team in a tournament at Mountain View in 1989 when he came upon Jones.
“I went up to Wayne and asked him if there is any way I can become a coach with him,” Middleton said. “He welcomed me and that was an important development because I learned a ton about football coaching with him and Paul Schmidt.”
At that point, Middleton had just completed his accomplished hockey career with the Arizona Icecats. He gained popularity in Tucson with the Icecats as a wing under coach Leo Golembieski. He often shared front-page space in the sports section with Sean Elliott in the mid-1980s.
The Icecats were a phenomenon in Tucson as an unlikely successful hockey team in the desert and Middleton was the figurehead.
“We were kind of like an NCAA independent team because we were playing a lot of NCAA Division I teams,” Middleton said. “We took our lumps some times but we also won some. We had eight to 10 guys who were legitimate D1 players.
“It was a blast. We used to draw big crowds at the TCC. It was a big deal.”
Middleton’s dad, Barry, a Canadian from Calgary, Alberta, played at Denver University, a Division I hockey powerhouse. He later was part of the Chicago Blackhawks’ farm system. Kent’s parents started an amateur hockey team in Phoenix when he was a preschooler in 1968.
Kent attended every Phoenix Roadrunners game growing up because his dad was an official. “They averaged about 8,000 to 9,000 fans a game at the (Veterans Memorial) Coliseum, so as a little kid running around the Coliseum, I know every ounce of that place,” he said.
This happened after he was born in Tucson following his father’s hire to manage a ball-bearings manufacturing plant here. The family compiled hundreds of trips back and forth to Phoenix on I-10.
He and CDO classmate Dave Dougall would often travel to Phoenix to compete in youth hockey leagues. They played in Phoenix through their high school days. Upon graduation, they played in the United States Hockey League, a significant feeder program attended by NHL scouts and college recruiters, before starring with the Icecats.
“I played three years in the USHL. That was was a lot of fun, but then I saw the handwriting on the wall,” Middleton said. “You know, born in Tucson and living out of Tucson, my exposure wasn’t what I needed it to be to make it.
“But I had a great time with the Icecats. I love hockey.”
Although he did not play the game, football remained closest to Middleton’s heart.
He was enamored with Tom Landry and the Dallas Cowboys in their dynasty years of the 1970s, but what really drew him to football was when his grandfather took him to his first Arizona game at Arizona Stadium when he was 9 years old. Middleton remembers that experience as if it was yesterday.
“We watched them play BYU. Bruce Hill was the quarterback and the U of A scored on the first play of the game on a big bomb from Bruce Hill to ‘T’ Bell,” Middleton said.
At such a young age, he developed an infatuation for coaching football because he and his grandfather sat in proximity of Arizona’s bench. His eyes were fixated on how the coaches related to the players, most notably the interactions head coach Jim Young had with them.
It was Young whom Middleton tried to imitate in his living room when he listened to McNally call the action of the Wildcats’ road games.
“For some reason, when we went to the U of A games, I was watching Jim Young more than the football game,” Middleton said. “After that, my love for football, particularly how players were coached, just stuck with me.
“Looking back at that, to finally have a chance to be a head coach is a surreal experience. This is like a dream. I love it.”
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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.