In August, Richard Smith of Glendale-Peoria Today and westvalleypreps.com sat down with local high school football coaching legends Doug Clapp (Peoria), Larry Fetkenhier (Cactus) and Richard Taylor (Centennial) for a question-and-answer session about their careers. After last week’s history lesson, we now take a look at the state of the game:
Part 2 of 2
Q: What allows the Peoria Unified School District to be so consistently successful at football?
Fetkenhier: It’s not the facilities. I used to say to Clapp, “If you combined Cactus and Peoria, we could play with any school in the state.” That would have put us at about 3,600 kids. Go through the talent that has come through these three schools. It’s unbelievable. I’d like to think that we’re that great of coaches but that’s not true. Talent makes you really smart.
Clapp: Had we combined schools, they could have forgotten the 5A powers. I think some of it has to do with being at the right spot at the right time, with the right people. People like Rick Johnson — you see what he’s done for Liberty. We’ve been fortunate to have athletic directors and principals like that. It’s a team of teachers, it’s a team of the administration, it’s a team of the community. That’s where you get that pride and tradition.
Taylor: We’ve been fortunate to keep the same staff together for a long time. We like each other, we get along. Those assistant coaches we have do a great job.
Q: The flip side of this success is these teams are expected to play — and beat — the best every week. How much pressure is on these programs?
Fetkenhier: I don’t think people realize the pressure on the three of us. We’re almost not playing to win any more. We play not to lose. Playing tough games, even if you win them, you’re going to get beat up. It takes its toll physically and mentally.
Taylor: Expectations get so high. People at church, people back in Ohio follow you. Then, all of a sudden, people want you to play Hamilton, Mesa Mountain View, Brophy ... people want you to play them all in the same year.
Clapp: We’ve spoiled them. Anything less than the best, and it’s ‘you’re not working hard enough.’ They’re not realistic at times. Sometimes, your best coaching is with a team that’s not that talented.
Q: What is different about the culture of high school football, and how fans follow it?
Fetkenhier: I think the biggest difference is the Internet. It used to be people could say things in the stands, and that was cool. Now, people can get on the Internet and say things and there’s no accountability. You want to rebut them, but you can’t. The Internet and recruiting has gone too far. When high school kids are having press conferences, I think that’s crossed the line.
Taylor: It’s hard enough for a kid once he starts getting letters, interest and offers. And then to see his name, “How does Terry Longbons compare with the great high school backs of Arizona?” And Terry never had a problem with that, he’s a very humble person. But the average high school kid, when they see all that, it can change them. Then on some of these blogs they talk about, “This kid is definitely going to go to the NFL.” He’s a junior in high school, and they’re already talking about him going to the NFL.
Clapp: I don’t like the way (colleges) recruit now. They don’t come to see kids or get to know them. There’s too much people blogging. What do they know, they’re not with the kids. I stay away from it.
Q: With more attention paid to players and, at least on the surface, more at stake, how is the behavior of parents different?
Taylor: We have great parents. I just don’t talk to parents very much. I don’t talk to them about playing time. I think that should be something a kid does. If (the player) doesn’t like his playing time, he should go to his position coach. In a year or so, some of these kids are going to be working. And if they don’t like something at work, is their dad going to go down there? Our parents are really good. There are people that come in. I had this guy last year that came into our weight room and said, “This is my son. We’ve been to Hamilton and Brophy. I want to know what you can do for my son.” I said, “Do for him? I can give him a uniform, give him a chance.” We didn’t see him again.
Fetkenhier: We’ve got super parents. There’s kind of a line that we draw. I think you see more parents shopping their kids now. It’s kind of silly. When a parent says my kid is going to play pro football. I mean, how many great high school players have come out of our schools and they haven’t made it. I understand parents wanting their kids to get a scholarship, because college is so expensive. But, if a kid is playing football for a monetary gain, that’s sad. It’s going to take so much of what the game has to offer away.
Clapp: The Peoria parents have always been very supportive. You hear it once in a while, but for the most part they pretty much leave us alone. I don’t have to deal with it very much.
Q: How much have open enrollment and transfers changed high school football?
Fetkenhier: I’m not a big fan of it. I’m not going to Pop Warner games. If they want to come to our place, we’d love to have them. But I can put my head on my pillow at night and know I didn’t do it. Chandler (district)’s the worst in my opinion, kids jumping from Hamilton to Chandler and vice versa. I don’t think our situation is perfect and pure, but I don’t think we’re anywhere close to that.
Taylor: This has been going on a long time. When we were not winning, we were losing kids like crazy. I understood it. I didn’t like it. If you win, people come. If you lose, people go.
Clapp: When it first started, Larry and I got accused of getting certain kids. Winning has a way of bringing parents to people. I don’t care what they say, there are schools that recruit. I don’t worry about it. If you don’t want to play here, go play someplace else.
Q: What is the most rewarding aspect of coaching high school football?
Fetkenhier: I think the older I get, the more mortal I am, you learn to care about other people more. My coaching peers, you see people getting beat up (by outside pressure from fans and the media) and it really bothers me. You see stuff like that happen to people you know, and that hurts. Do you know how much we make a year? I may still be a grouchy old grump, but it bothers me. I guess I have more passion for my peers. The kids keep me young. Our kids haven’t changed much — they have tats, they have piercings. It’s the best hair generation we’ve had in a long time. I like being around the kids. This is how silly I am: I love a great practice. I’m not sure I don’t get more joy out of a great practice than the damn games. When you see the coaching going on and everything’s like bang, bang, bang. You say “wow, this is really cool.” You’ve got kids that become doctors and cops and coaches. You keep telling yourself when you get these letters, trying to put a financial value on what we do.
Clapp: I really enjoy watching someone change. I’ve always said it’s the largest classroom in school and it’s a behavior modification of attitude and all those kind of things. We have moments where they don’t all shine like they should, but that’s also a teaching moment. You can change things. To see all the success they have, that’s the real payoff.
Taylor: I see kids volunteering at church football clinics or helping coach the mentally disabled football teams. Those are the things that touch my heart. I like seeing kids that come from a disadvantaged background and trying to open their eyes — that they can use football to get a college education that can not only change their life but change their childrens’ lives. I have the greatest job in the world. I get to do something that I love, and I get to have just a tiny bit of a role in young men’s lives. I know how much those kids like football, and I’m going to use that and hopefully direct them in a positive path.
Q: After more than two decades as a head coach, what keeps you going?
Taylor: I’ve been doing this 38 years, and I think that the only reason I’m still doing it is because I enjoy the kids and I enjoy being around the coaches. I like seeing positive growth in them. I think I could be very happy leaving tomorrow. I would find something to do. Football is not the most important thing in my life.
Fetkenhier: I don’t know that if I didn’t coach, what I would do with that void. All these years, I have to be someplace from x time to x time. If that wasn’t there, it scares me. I couldn’t golf every day and I’m a terrible Mr. Fix-It. I love being around the kids. You see some stuff that will never show up on a scoreboard. It’s pretty rewarding. Simple stuff, like teaching a kid how to shake hands. You’re helping them become a man.
Clapp: You see a freshman group come in and you think, when do you quit. Every year is a new, different experience. It’s almost like you’re a sculptor, changing kids.
Q: All of you have been at your school long enough and been successful enough to build up a sense of tradition. What’s that like and what does tradition mean to you?
Fetkenhier: I think that tradition is so huge. I always hated that Centennial got it, because they didn’t have it for a long time. Winning breeds winning, losing breeds losing. Coaches and players know what to expect. You have to work at keeping the family because each group is a new group. They know about the previous one, but each group is a little different family. We have to keep building and nurture this family. I’m proud of our school. It’s more about the kids. Why the hell (else) would you stay at a place that long? I love this place. I try to teach kids to take ownership of their school.
Taylor: Some families can be dysfunctional, and still that family makes it. I think that’s one of the most important lessons that a kid can learn. There’s 65 kids out there. Not all of them like the same kind of music. Some kids are really strict about rules, some want to bend them. Somehow, they’ve got to find a way to make it work. I think great teams are player-driven, not coach driven.
Clapp: It really hit me this summer. We’re in the grocery store, getting groceries for our senior campout and a parent approaches us. He says, “I want to pay for all this.” He was a graduate from here, and he said things like, “We’re just so proud of you guys, you’re the pride of the community.” You’re playing for more than just now. It goes deep. You go to our graduation and you’re hearing somebody say this is the 13th family member to graduate from Peoria.
Q: Fetkenhier and Taylor both coach with their sons. How much fulfillment have you gained from that?
Taylor: It’s been one of the greatest joys of my life. To go to work in the family business and have him there. All those times we were in church, my wife would go, “Make him stop that.” And I’d look over and he was 8, drawing plays on the program. Coaching with him has been even better than having him as a player. We beat an East Valley school, and probably weren’t expected to beat them. When it was over, he had this look on his face like, “yeah, we did it.”
Fetkenhier: It’s special. A lot of dads don’t get to share that. It makes you close.
Q: What is your coaching philosophy?
Fetkenhier: Work hard. I’m going to work hard and I’d like to have that trickle down to our team. I think that’s a great thing, if kids buy into that, to carry into life. You can achieve a lot of things through hard work.
Taylor: Football is a tool that can help us become better people. It doesn’t necessarily have to. We’ve got to look for those teachable moments.
Clapp: I’m a motivator and a dreamer. Our expectations are to win the state championship every year. I can motivate kids that most people can’t — I know that sounds like bragging, and I really don’t mean to do that. But I can get more out of people, that they don’t realize they have.
Q: What do you respect and admire the most about each other?
Fetkenhier: Both of them have made me a better coach. I’ve had to work my butt off to beat them. Doug’s an amazing guy, I’m not in the inner works but I’ve got a coach on my staff that played for Doug. And I think one of Doug’s greatest strengths is what he does between the ears. I’m impressed at what (Taylor) did at that school to take them where they are. To take a brand new school and build it into what it is today, it’s a tribute to the bus driver. They’re one of the top schools in the state and he’s got to have done something right, because his staff stayed with him. They’ve also had imagination offensively. They’ve always done a great job with the tight end.
Taylor: What I respect about Doug, is I think Doug is real good with kids. That is his strong point. I think, as a football mind, I’m not sure Larry has an equal in this state.
Clapp: They care about kids. I don’t care what anyone says, that reflects in wins because kids want to pay you back. I know they genuinely care about kids, you can’t fake that. They genuinely want to do the extra things for them to make them successful.