It’s probably safe to say that no one has more riding on tomorrow night’s football state playoffs than Mike Morgan.
Morgan is the head football coach at St. Johns High School, a small school located in the White Mountains of northern Arizona. This is his 29th year running the program. And tonight he faces perhaps the biggest, and most important, challenge of his coaching career.
Last week’s 35-7 victory over Arizona Lutheran in the opening round of the 2A state tournament was career win No. 336 – a single win away from becoming the sole owner of the title of winningest coach in the history of Arizona high school football.
And to get that distinction all he has to do is beat Phoenix Christian, the No. 1 team in the 2A conference, in tomorrow night’s quarterfinal game. And, since No. 3 Phoenix Christian is the nigher seed over No. 6 St. Johns, the game will be played at the Phoenix school’s field — which increases the degree of difficulty for Morgan and his boys.
Morgan is now tied at 336 wins with Paul Moro, another White Mountain legend who spent 30 years building the football program at Blue Ridge High School in Lakeside into a small-school power. Moro, who won 13 state titles at Blue Ridge, passed away Jan. 26 following cancer treatment and two close-spaced strokes.
Morgan took eight teams to the state title game and came back with six gold balls. He’s never had a losing season.
The 64-year-old graduate of Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff has spent his entire career as a head coach in that part of the state, beginning with a seven-year stint at Ganado High School before being hired as St. Johns’ head coach in 1989.
One reason this win is so critical is that it could mark the final game of Morgan’s career. He’s made it clear that he isn’t sure if he will return next season.
That really shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone. He’s already walked away once before. Following the 2014 season he announced his resignation and turned the program over to Tony Neubauer, who had been on his staff for four years, serving as JV coach and varsity special-teams coordinator.
Neubauer held the reins for just one season before a better-paying job beckoned in Iowa.
When the school had difficulty finding a suitable replacement for Neubauer, Morgan was talked into returning to his varsity role after he spent a year retreating from the rigors of a high school head-coaching job, working instead with St. Johns’ junior-high program.
His return was supposed to be short-lived. “This is definitely a one-year thing,” he said at the time.
But Morgan’s still on the sidelines at St. Johns. And maybe if he doesn’t get his win tomorrow night, the challenge of passing Moro will bring him back for yet another year.