Earlier this month, 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 — past, present and future:
Part 1 of 2
Q: At what point did you decide coaching football was what you wanted to do?
Fetkenhier: I was going to be a basketball coach when I grew up. I was at Ferris State (in Michigan) in my sophomore year and I was working with a youth team. They had a goal-line stand, and I said “Wow, this is really cool.” The feeling I got was unbelievable, and after that I wanted to be a football coach.
Taylor: I was in ninth grade. I respected my high school football coach so much that I thought this was something I might want to do. Either that or go work in the steel plants. My dad said, “You know, the plant might not always be there.” I thought, what’s he talking about. Everybody I knew worked in a steel plant or the Ford plant. Luckily, I made the right decision.
Clapp: It was my senior year in high school and my coach said, “Hey, do you want to go to college and play more football.” I didn’t realize you could do that. You had to pick courses, and I wanted to be a teacher, and teachers could coach. I went to Central College (in Pella, Iowa) and had one of the more successful guys who’s ever coached (287-win Hall of Famer Ron Schipper).
Q: Was it always high school football that interested you the most?
Fetkenhier: I never thought about coaching college until late in my career. There’s things you look at that are pretty cool, because all they do is football. But you see all these guys get fired, and what nobody realizes is he’s got four kids, he’s now got to sell his house and move. I talked to my wife several times about it, and it was scary to uproot your family like that.
Taylor: No interest at all in college. It’s too uncertain and I need a lot more stability in my life. Plus my wife wouldn’t do it.
Clapp: Yeah, because of the personal relationships you can have. There was a time in the early 90s where people that were successful in college asked me about coaching there. But it really wasn’t what I wanted to do.
Q: What were the coaching job(s) you had before moving to Arizona?
Fetkenhier: Where I grew up is a lot like where (Taylor) grew up. It was a factory town. It was in Genessee County, Michigan, which is where Flint is. We had 24 percent unemployment — and we think 13 is bad — and the school I was at (Grand Blanc High School) laid off 100 teachers. And I thought it would never happen to me. I’m an assistant coach in my first year, standing in the unemployment line, seeing ex-players. A car dealership in town hired me, and I did that for two years. I never have gotten up in the morning and not wanted to get out of bed because I hated my job. But I was doing fleet sales, and I didn’t want to get out of bed. I had a job offer in Kalamazoo and I had this (at Cactus). My family was pretty much deceased, so I asked my wife “Are you willing to move 2,000 miles?” She said, “let’s do it.” And Cactus was actually a blind draw, so I’ve been really fortunate.
Taylor: I was at Milan High School (in Ohio) five years and we had a lot of success there, so I was beginning to think I had something to do with that. So I took this head coaching job at Western Reserve High (in Collins, Ohio), and they’d won three games in four years. Oh man. I found out I didn’t know anything. I called Ron Horn (of the Peoria Unified School District) and asked about the football job, and he said “Yeah, we had a football job until last week, and we just filled it with Doug Clapp.” So I thanked him. He said “This area is really growing fast, if you came out for a few years as an assistant, I’m sure you could find a job.” I said my wife needed a job, and he said he would get her a job, too. Everything Ron Horn said happened. So we flew out, got two jobs and bought a house in one day. We never make decisions like that.
Clapp: My first job was in Ashland, Neb, outside of Omaha, which is a big hotbed for football. I coached there for about three-and-a-half years. The head coach let me do everything. I got to run the whole show, without the title. Then I got out of it and went into a private business for six or seven years. I wanted to do football and teaching again, so I came down here. I have asthma, and Arizona was supposed to be good for it.
Q: What was it like going from the Midwest, where high school football is a major part of the culture, to Arizona in the mid-1980s?
Fetkenhier: I didn’t think it was that big of a change. One thing I thought was that because of the weather, everybody would be throwing the ball around or running option football. I get out here in 1984 and that first year we had 10 games and I think nine were wing-T teams. We opened against Greenway, and beat them 6-0 and we played Deer Valley and tied. Then we played St. Mary’s, and I didn’t know what a St. Mary’s was. Steve Belles was the quarterback, and it was a good game for a half and then they spanked us. The next week we played Alhambra and on film Alhambra, I thought, had better people than St. Mary’s. I’m driving home feeling sorry for myself because we’re 1-1-1 and I’m thinking what the hell are you doing in Phoenix, Arizona. We ended up beating them 14-12. It was scary for me because all your support system was back there, and these guys had only known me eight weeks.
Clapp: I was very fortunate to go to Peoria (in 1984) because Peoria was a small community at that time. It was more like the small towns where I came from. I was here two years as Mark Matheson’s assistant. Then Mark decided to go to Ironwood and start up that program — he didn’t think this was going to be any good. I got the job because of Ron Horn. In 1986, we started out 0-3, and what most people don’t realize is we played the three best (4A) football teams to start. We went to the fourth game here with Yuma, and I told the kids “This is one of the most important games you’ll ever play. We won, got to 3-3 and ended up 5-5. We made the playoffs. And the kids had to go play all the teams that had beat them. We played at Cactus in the first round, knocked them off. We beat Tucson Flowing Wells, Phoenix North and then it was Agua Fria in the finals. That was a classic game, we won 29-23. This is crazy to say, but that team, even though they won the state title, never reached their potential. They had so much more, but they were good enough to win. It’s still the worst record of a state champion. I’m kind of proud about that.
Taylor: I was fortunate in going to Peoria with Doug. That was good football. Doug kept the ship going (in 1986) until the kids played up to their abilities. There was a players-only meeting where things were hashed out. All of a sudden, they became a great team.
Q: The Peoria-Cactus rivalry was already there, but reached a new level with both teams in the mix for the 4A state championship. What were those late-80s early 90s games like?
Clapp: These kids played against each other in Pop Warner, and it was for the pride of Peoria. I remember kids saying that for a long time, they’d rather win that game than the state championship. We played (Cactus in 1987) for the state title. Larry had a great football team. Note: Peoria won the title game 28-6. With Larry, it’s been built on respect. There’s a lot of people that think we don’t get along, but we do. He’s fabulous outside of when we’re competing. We played Cactus at Glendale Community College for years. (Late prep sports historian) Barry Sollenberger said that was a bigger game than any in the East Valley. We had 15,000-plus people come to it. In the early years there was (players) fighting off the field. It starts with us as coaches, it’s just a game and you can’t carry it over. Now, it’s more respect.
Fetkenhier: At times early on, I didn’t think it was healthy for high school football. It was just ugly, not so much on the field, but some of the crap that went on off the field. I know rivalries are great but I think some of the stuff crossed the line. The kids were fighting each other. I got called in, I don’t know what year by (then-superintendent) Raymond Kellis and he said “this stuff’s got to quit, or I’m going to fire you both.” They were meeting at Burger King on Thunderbird and just beating the hell out of each other. It was stupid. Maybe I’m wrong, maybe that’s what a rivalry is.
Q: As the rivalry was reaching its apex in 1990, Centennial was opening. What attracted you to the job, and were you apprehensive about starting a program in between two of the top 10 programs in the state.
Taylor: What attracted me was, the west side is a great football community, and Peoria is a football town. I most certainly had reservations with Peoria right there, and Cactus right there. We could see Peoria’s lights on at night. Those first few years, we lost a lot of kids. We were playing with 195-pound offensive guards. At one of our feeder schools, I remember talking to the kids. One kid said, “I’m going to Peoria.” Another kid said, “I’m going to Cactus.” I felt like for a while, we were beating our heads against the wall.
Q: In the 1990s, the district’s teams split up. Soon after Centennial reached varsity status, it moved into a region with Peoria. Cactus was in another region with an emerging Ironwood program. In 1994, Peoria tied Tucson Sahuaro 10-10 in the 4A state title game. Ironwood reached the 4A finals in 1995 and 1996. Cactus was a perennial contender and Centennial made the playoffs in 1995 and 1997.
Fetkenhier: I think the rest of the state wanted to see us all in the same region. I said, “You can do that, but if you want more publicity for our district, spread us out.” To put us all together, it will hurt our district.
Clapp: I had mixed emotions when I played against Dick, a former assistant and a friend, in the early years while they were struggling. But he’s done a great job over there. We played them all for an (unofficial) district title. It was a war every week. After the 1994 title game, I remember walking off the field, feeling like you lost. Nothing was decided, but that was the rule at the time. They’ve changed it, and obviously for the better. It was a tough thing for the kids, but you’re still a champion no matter what. Before they did that, they decided playoff games with a ruler. If you didn’t score, it was how many feet or inches closer you were to the goal line. One year, we didn’t go to the state finals because we lost by two inches. That was tough to go tell kids.
Q: In 1998 Peoria, as well as Ironwood, moved up to 5A. Centennial and Cactus became the local 4A rivalry until the entire division setup changed in 2005. What were those years like?
Fetkenhier: We didn’t like them, but I don’t think our kids used to beat the hell out of each other. It didn’t cross that line.
Taylor: That could have turned into a really good rivalry.
Clapp: The funny part that most people don’t know is, we had a better record in 5A than we did in 4A. We played the best teams — Hamilton, Red Mountain, Desert Vista. Our schedule back here was easy after the first four games. Every week is like a playoff.
Q: The number of championships in Arizona grew from five to seven with the 2005 realignment. That will end when this season is over, and football will change to six divisions. Since 2005, Centennial has claimed three 5A-II titles (2006, 2007 and 2008), and Cactus has lifted two trophies (4A-I in 2005 and 4A-II in 2009). What setup do you like the most?
Clapp: It’s been good from the standpoint of more kids play in the playoffs. I like what they’re doing right now. I always thought they could go a step further and play a championship game with the winners of 5A-I and 5A-II, and 4A-I and 4A-II.
Fetkenhier: I really like what we’re doing (with seven divisions) and I’m disappointed. In 2005, we won the (4A-I) state championship. (Tucson) Palo Verde won the 4A-II state championship. Palo Verde couldn’t have beat us. But you see their kids, they’re the state champions and they’re excited. Could (Centennial) have won the state championships in 5A-I those years? I’m not going to speak for them. I was happy for the kids that could be state champions. I don’t know how this next one will shape up.
Taylor: I like what we’re doing now. I’ve been told that with the changes next year, we’re still going to be playing everybody that we’re playing right now. Even with what we’ve got now, it’s rough on some schools. The really big schools look at 5A-II and see who they can play. Back in Ohio, the state never got involved with the scheduling. We would call each other and see if it would work out. That way makes more sense, because I think the coaches have a better idea of where they will be for the next two years.