A reader asked this week if I had mixed feelings about tonight’s football game between Show Low and Payson because I had been head coach at both schools.
No way, I replied. I’m a Longhorn — I bleed PHS purple.
As supportive as I try to be to PHS sports, I do have some great memories of coaching in Show Low in the 1970s and ’80s.
Particularly memorable is 1983 — my first year as head coach of the Cougars.
But those memories include some gloomy recollections of losing a friend.
I was named head football coach to replace Joe Girardi, who died on Dec. 7, 1982 in an auto accident in Winslow.
I met Joe, who was from Pennsylvania, when we both attended Eastern Arizona College in the early 1960s.
After his playing days at EA and in Oklahoma, Joe took up coaching and in the 1970s laid the foundation for the Blue Ridge High School dynasty that still reigns today.
After leading the Yellow Jackets to winning seasons, region titles and state crowns, Joe left Pinetop to coach at Baker University in Kansas.
During those years, Show Low High football was miserable. The school, which didn’t even exist until the early 1970s, had never had a winning season, never been state ranked and never qualified for a postseason tournament.
Some in town considered Cougar football teams an embarrassment.
Townspeople eventually grew tired of losing games by double-digit margins and set out to recruit Joe to return to the White Mountains and build the SLHS program.
Eventually Joe decided to leave Baker and take the job offer to coach and be a counselor at SLHS. But not even Joe could immediately reverse the Cougars’ losing fortunes.
He once told me he realized building a winning program, like he had a Blue Ridge, was going to take time. But time wasn’t something Joe had.
Before he could weave his gridiron magic into the Show Low football program, he was killed in the accident.
Months later, I was encouraged to throw my hat into the coaching ring.
I didn’t think I had a chance with so many veteran coaches interested, since I had no head coaching experience.
But due to of an unusual set of circumstances, I was named Joe’s replacement.
It was an honor I took very seriously and I vowed to honor Joe’s memory.
I have strong feelings about the way some administrators and board members treated Joe after he failed to immediately turn the football program around. But that was a long time ago and it’s best to let bygones be bygones.
That season, the players wore black wristbands in memory of their former coach.
During pre-game prayers, Joe was always reverently remembered. We also honored him at pep assemblies and hung a picture of him in the school’s hallway for every student to see.
In down time, coaches and players often shared their favorite memories of him and the team often talked about what he would be expecting of us once the season began.
Players also often asked me what he was like during our playing time at Eastern Arizona.
Some tales I tell, others were best left untold for obvious reasons — we were mischievous teenagers on our own for the first times in our lives.
Weeks before the season kicked off, we resolved to play and coach with the same tenacity and resolve he had shown us.
It didn’t take long for me to realize that I had inherited a great group of dedicated and talented kids that had learned their fundamentals from Joe.
All the kids were smart students from good homes willing to make the sacrifices necessary to succeed.
What occurred that year was nothing short of a miracle and I remain convinced to this day that Joe had a hand in our success.
We put together the first winning season (8-2) in Show Low High School history.
We beat archrival Snowflake (14-7) for the first time ever. We also won the Cougars’ first region title defeating Payson 27-21 in overtime. We rose in the state rankings to as high as No. 4 — a first for the program. We also represented the town in the 3A state tournament — yet another first for the Cougars.
When the magical turnaround season ended, I looked back on all the good fortunes that we had enjoyed. Sometimes fumbles rolled our way, tipped passes fell into our receivers’ arms, broken plays turned into long runs, opponent pass attempts that looked to be completions, were dropped and opposing runners tripped and fell just about the time they were about to break into the open.
I realized that number of fortunate breaks just don’t happen in high school football.
Someone was looking over us.
It was coach Girardi.