Jerry Pezzetti’s mind flows back to a time in a small Iowa town when he was a high school athlete in the mid-1950s.
He had lost his father to cancer when at age 3. In the community of Melcher-Dallas, he was influenced by coaches who helped mold him into a strong young man.
Pezzetti, now 75, knows how a coach can shape high school students. He rose from the grandson of coal miners to become one of the nation’s most successful high school football coaches.
“A small town like that, it was a hard-working town,” Pezzetti said, looking back at his upbringing. “In a small town like that, you learn things from different people. Loyalty, family.”
Pezzetti, who has coached varsity football for 52 seasons and led Ankeny High to a 14-0 season last fall, has been named the Des Moines Register’s high school coach of the year.
He has won 371 games in his career, which started at Murray more than half a century ago. He ranks third among Iowa coaches in career victories and is No. 22 nationally, according to the National High School Sports Record Book.
Pezzetti earned his second state championship by winning last year’s Class 4-A crown. He also led Ankeny to the title in 1997.
Last fall’s team was the final season for Ankeny before the community added a second high school. Pezzetti will start a new chapter of his coaching career this coming season. He will serve as co-coach of the new Ankeny Centennial school with his son Ryan, who has been his team’s offensive coordinator since 1997.
Pezzetti still has the competitive fire he had when he first started coaching.
He attended and played baseball at Drake. Pezzetti decided to pursue coaching, but wasn’t sure whether to concentrate on football, basketball or baseball.
Pezzetti started at Murray in 1961 and hasn’t left the sport.
“I guess I’m not accustomed to change,” Pezzetti said.
Times are different since he started — from flat tops to Facebook — but high school students are basically the same, Pezzetti said.
“Kids want to be part of a team and want to be successful,” Pezzetti said.
He arrived at Ankeny in 1969 when the town had yet to grow into a large Des Moines suburb.
“When I first came to Ankeny, we were the smallest school in the conference,” Pezzetti said. “We were in the same conference with Saydel, Boone and South Tama. Last season, we were the second-largest school in the state. I’ve seen the community go from one to the other.”
How has the town grown since then? There will be three artificial turf football fields in the city this fall, he said. The two schools will each have one, and they’ll share a playing surface at Ankeny Stadium.
His 2012 squad will leave a lasting imprint on the town. The finality of the last one-school team seemed to weigh on everyone. The players dedicated themselves to making a statement at the UNI-Dome in Cedar Falls.
“We had very few problems,” Pezzetti said. “We knew this would be the last year for one high school. We didn’t bring that up a lot, though.”
The Hawks showed an ability to rally. Early-season wins over West Des Moines Dowling Catholic (35-28) and Southeast Polk (28-21) proved that.
Quarterback Joel Lanning, a Des Moines Sunday Register Elite all-stater, was the driving force behind the squad. He is now playing at Iowa State for coach Paul Rhoads, another of Pezzetti’s former players.
Lanning, who could run or pass, was a durable athlete who carried the ball 56 times in Ankeny’s final three playoff wins.
The title resonated throughout town.
“Till the day I die, I’m going to remember every single one of these players, every single one of these coaches, the community, all the fans we had, this team,” receiver Marshall Clark said after the game. “It was the best team I’ve ever been a part of.”
Like many of his teams, Pezzetti’s squad managed to play its best ball at the end of the season.
Lanning, who was brought up to the varsity as a freshman, matured into a great quarterback. One of his skills was running the traditional offense favored by Pezzetti, a multiple-back set that encourages misdirection to move the football.
“If you fake good, you take some of those players out of the game,” Pezzetti said.
Everyone down the line seemed to take a role in the program, from players and coaches to the student body, administration and school board.
“It was definitely a community thing,” Pezzetti said.
Things change this fall when Pezzetti moves to north-side Centennial. All of his former assistants will move with him, except Andy Brodell, who now lives in Colorado.
“This year will be one of the more difficult years,” Pezzetti said. “It will be tough on me. It’s a tough situation, but you have to move on with it.”
Pezzetti has spent the last few weeks directing player camps, ones that start when boys are fourth-graders learning the game. The love of the game and the desire to shape another generation of young people stays with him.
Someone recently asked Pezzetti: If you won the $448 million lottery this week, would you quit coaching?
“I thought about it, and I said I’d probably be doing the same thing as I’m doing right now,” Pezzetti said.