I am pleased that Don Ketchum, one of the longtime respected voices of Arizona sports, would take the time to give some context to the passing of two iconic Arizona high school football coaches over the last couple of days. Thanks Ketch!!
By Don Ketchum
What are the odds?
The odds Arizona would lose two of its high school football coaching legends on the same day?
It happened on Friday (July 21) with the deaths of Vern Friedli in Tucson at age 80 and Jesse Parker in the Valley at 77.
Simply put, they were tougher than most of the players they coached, Friedli at Amphitheater, Morenci, Casa Grande and San Manuel, Parker at Phoenix Camelback, Mesa Mountain View and Gilbert. Friedli won 331 career games, which stood as tops in the state until recently, and Parker won 309.
As a long-time sports reporter for The Arizona Republic and The Phoenix Gazette, I was fortunate to cover both men. I chronicled the magical unbeaten run (13-0) when Friedli’s Amphi Panthers defeated Mesa High for the big-school title in 1979 and one of Mountain View’s four titles under Parker in 1983, a win over rival Tempe McClintock to finish 14-0.
Friedli would call me on occasion, checking up on what was going on with the teams in the Phoenix area – Parker’s Toros, Kiefer’s Chargers, Pat Lavin’s and Pat Farrell’s Phoenix St. Mary’s Knights and the Mesa Westwood Warriors, led by Friedli’s predecessor at Amphi, Jerry Loper.
Friedli coached several players who starred in college, Riki Gray (Ellison) and the Bates brothers and a few who went on to play in the NFL. He probably did his best job of coaching later in his career, when attendance numbers at Amphi were shrinking almost faster than an ice cube in the desert sun.
Parker began as an assistant coach in the Phoenix Union High School District for his long-time mentor, Bill Saunders, and got his first varsity head coaching gig at Camelback. The Spartans finished as state runner-up in 1973 and came back to win it all next year against Lavin and St. Mary’s. Parker’s top player during that title run was quarterback Mark Whipple, who went on to play in college and later became a college and NFL coach.
Mountain View rarely had a player weigh more than 200 pounds. Parker’s team did it with a will to win and it all started with Parker. The Toros would swarm to the football and hog-tie the running back before he knew what hit him.
Friedli and Parker were tough on their players, but the discipline paid dividends. Their players genuinely loved them – they would run through a brick wall for them and often would reconnect with their former leaders.
Friedli grew up in northern California, Parker in Oklahoma. Friedli dealt with a series of strokes in the last decade and Parker was the recipient of a kidney transplant in 2005. His wife, Latsy, was the donor. The Parkers invited me to their home and after a lengthy conversation, I told Parker that my wife and I were considering a move. He generously said that I could call on him and Latsy if we ever needed assistance.
An important aspect of the two coaches’ careers was the support they received from their wives.
Both Latsy Parker and Sharon Friedli did not waver in their support for their husbands.
Parker was an award-winning history teacher. He expected his students to be disciplined, but was willing to work with them to make sure they survived the rough educational waters. I often spoke to him about that and other events of the day, and found that as intriguing as his football expertise.
For me, one of the stories that best illustrates Parker occurred in 1983.
There once was an organization called the Phoenix Press Box Association, that held weekly meetings in downtown Phoenix and would offer sports teams an opportunity to address the media about big events coming up. This included high school coaches.
It was the week that Mountain View, then in the same region as McClintock, would play the Chargers in a battle of unbeatens (7-0). Parker and Kiefer were invited to speak at the PPBA luncheon, and I had done a combination feature on both men that same day.
In the story, I mentioned that Parker was expected to wear his red and blue, horizontal-striped shirt, that he had a habit of running down the sidelines when one of his player broke free, escorting them into the end zone.
As we got ready to walk to our cars, I said goodbye to Parker and told him I would see him on Friday night.
With a stone face, Parker turned to me and said, “Don’t be standing on the sideline because I’m gonna run over your (backside).’’
He followed that up with a wry smile.
And a wink.