Larry Fetkenhier was a young coach when he left Michigan to become Glendale Cactus’ football coach in 1984. How young is a bit of a mystery because Fetkenhier won’t divulge his age other than to say, “I’m an old son-of-a-gun.”
Soon after his hiring, Fetkenhier met with the players’ parents for the first time. He made it clear that he was in charge — youth and inexperience notwithstanding — and if that didn’t sit well with them he could always pack up and move farther west.
“I said, ‘I’ve got California and Hawaii before I have to learn Japanese, so if you don’t like what I’m doing I’m out of here,’ ” Fetkenhier recalled.
Thirty-one years later, he’s still the big man on campus.
Fetkenhier’s legacy includes two state championships (2005, 2009) and five runner-up finishes. On Friday, he won his 310th game in Cactus’ 42-13 handling of Phoenix Greenway.
Remarkably, every one of those 310 wins has come at Cactus. No football coach in the state has been at one school longer than Fetkenhier. His staying power is perhaps best summed up this way: Peoria’s coach, Will Babb, was Peoria’s starting quarterback when it beat Fetkenhier’s Cactus team in the 1985 Class 4A state championship game.
“I have a ton of respect for who he is and what he’s accomplished as a coach,” Babb said. “He’s always seemed to be a step ahead of the game, even now.”
It was never Fetkenhier’s intent to stay at one school his entire coaching career. But once he established himself at Cactus, he didn’t see the point of taking another high school job. A couple of college opportunities arose but when college assistants came to Cactus to recruit, Fetkenhier would hear stories of being hired and fired, of constantly having to move families and start over.
He wanted no part of that.
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“I think I’m a loyal person. Somehow, some way I’ve stayed here,” Fetkenhier said.
Winning 310 games helps.
Fetkenhier has maintained his energy and passion in part because he’s learned to delegate. Most of his assistants have been with him for years, including defensive coordinator Brian Belles, who’s been walking the sideline with Fetkenhier for 15 seasons. They know what he wants and that makes Fetkenhier comfortable enough to unplug and get away from the game. The time off then rejuvenates him for the season ahead.
“If I had to do everything by myself, I’m not sure I would stay in it,” Fetkenhier said. “But I learned long ago if it’s getting done how you want but not the way you might do it, shut up.
“I yell at recruiters all the time, ‘Do you ever go anywhere?’ I say, ‘You have to do it.’ I think you have to find some time to do some vacations and travel. There’s no guarantee that you’ll wake up in the morning.”
That point was reinforced late last season when Fetkenhier was diagnosed with kidney cancer. He immediately called his doctor and asked, “Am I going to die?”
Fortunately, the cancer was confined to his kidney and after it was surgically removed, Fetkenhier didn’t need radiation or chemotherapy. He had a check-up a couple of months ago and was cancer-free.
“I feel really good. I still can be active and all those things,” Fetkenhier said. “The thing that came out of this was that it was very humbling. All the emails, all the people saying, ‘We’re praying for you.’ You step back and I felt a little guilt because I wondered, ‘Have I always been that good to other people?’ I don’t think I can answer that yes.”
His friends disagree. Fetkenhier isn’t an easy person to get to know well, Babb said, but once you’re in his inner circle, “You know what kind of great man he is.”
Fetkenhier doesn’t know how long he’ll continue to coach. He thinks about something former Phoenix St. Mary’s coach Pat Farrell once told him: “Make sure when you retire you have a plan.”
“To be honest, it scares me,” Fetkenhier said.
The plan, then, is to keep coaching. For how long, he has no idea. But he’ll know when it’s time to go.
“I will keep doing this until I feel I am screwing up the kids because I’m not producing enough energy or I’m not working hard enough or I’m being a hindrance,” Fetkenhier said.
That’s not happening anytime soon.
Neither are those Japanese lessons.
Reach Bordow at firstname.lastname@example.org or 602-448-8716.. Follow him at Twitter.com/sBordow.