In the summer before the 2014 high school football season, USA Today ran an article that included musings about what a Mount Rushmore of Arizona coaching legends might look like.
Vern Friedli was right up there with some of the most recognizable names in the sport. The fantasy grouping included Jesse Parker, who won a state title at Camelback High and then four more at Mesa’s Mountain View High School; Karl Kiefer, who won three state championships at McClintock High before leaving to start the football program at Mountain Pointe High School; and Ed Doherty, whose St. Mary’s football program was on the verge of becoming a dynasty during the late ’60s when that small Catholic school in downtown Phoenix won back-to-back titles in 1967 and 1968 and played for the title again in 1969.
All are respected icons in Arizona high school football circles. Mountain Pointe named its football stadium after Kiefer and Doherty’s name was put on the award given each year to the state’s top football player.
Friedli, too, has his name on a football field, the one at Amphitheater High School in Tucson. But Friedli did what none of the others was able to accomplish. He won 331 games during his career, which made him the winningest high school coach in state history.
That record stood until last season when it was finally broken by the legendary Paul Moro in his first season at Tempe’s Marcos de Niza High School.
Friedli was 80 years old when he passed away early Friday morning, five years after failing health forced him to retire. A stroke suffered shortly after the 2011 season was what it took to finally sideline one of the toughest competitors the sport has ever seen.
When, at age 74, he became the career wins leader by beating Marana High in August of 2009, passing Parker on the all-time wins list, he told friends he had no plans to retire anytime soon. Had he been able to log another 10 years, like he envisioned at the time, he would have likely established a mark that no coach following him could ever erase.
He started as a high school coach, putting in a year each as head coach at Casa Grande High and San Manuel High, but found his life-long home at Amphitheater in 1976, where he paced the Panther sidelines for the next 35 years.
Friedli was a life-long fixture on the southern Arizona sports landscape. He graduated from University of Arizona and never left the area, also taking coaching jobs at Morenci High and Sunnyside High as he moved up the ladder before his hire at Amphi.
One other distinction belongs to the fiery old-school coach who relied on the old Wing T offense or wishbone setup to run over opponents. He is still the last coach to lead a Tucson team to a championship in the state’s top classification. That was in 1979 when his Amphi team went 13-0 to earn Friedli his lone state title. (He likely would have won more titles had he agreed to step down to a lower classification that put his teams up against programs of similar size and resources.)
In so many ways, there will never be another coach like Friedli. From the way he won games with under-sized players and thin rosters to the way he built disadvantaged boys into high-achieving adults, he was unique.
He leaves behind a legacy that includes honors like the scholarship fund that was started by the UofA College of Education in his name, and his coaching acumen will be remembered in the book he wrote on offenses and defenses and his DVD that teaches football skills to our youth.
Yeah…inclusion on a Mount Rushmore of high school coaches would, indeed, be a fitting tribute to a man who has attained legendary status in his profession. Vern Friedli has earned that honor.
(Photo: Heidi Friedli Brooks)