BIRTH OF A TEAM LEGENDARY FOOTBALL COACH KARL KIEFER STARTS ANOTHER WINNING TRADITION
Pain is temporary. Pride is forever.
--Sign in the locker room of Tempe Mountain Pointe High School
Karl Kiefer's kids kneel around him under the west goal post at Mountain Pointe Field. "Closer, closer," the coach grunts. "Family. Family. Together."
Three dozen teenage boys form a clump of sweat and stink. They have just completed a series of practice-ending sprints, dubbed "gassers." But Kiefer isn't done with them yet.
The afternoon practice in 105-degree heat hasn't been as crisp as he would have liked. Already, the team has paid with a more-than-usual number of "up-downs--arduous dives into the turf in full gear. Over and over.
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"The history of this school is being built by you right now," Kiefer starts, gazing down on his troops. "What you do this year will set the tone for what happens from now on. There's pressure, sure. We are under the microscope of the entire community."
The 53-year-old coach squints through his eyeglasses into the late-afternoon sun blazing over South Mountain. He has been in this situation before, thousands of times. After almost three decades, Kiefer's timing is as good as a topnotch actor, preacher or salesman.
"I love stress. There's nothing like high school football, not college, pro. Nothing! You'll be back watching games when you're done, I promise you. This field is a beautiful place on Friday nights. Beautiful!"
His players stare up at him with a mix of reverence and apprehension. The coach isn't a lovable guy, but "Kiefer's Kids" would run through walls for him. They are white, black and Hispanic, sons of the well-to-do and of single moms who can't afford to buy football cleats.
Pugnacious in appearance and manner, the granite-jawed Kiefer looks, sounds and acts like a football coach. In a world of doubt, he feels and exudes certitude. He believes in his team, his family, his God and in trying to kick his opponents' butts.
"Don't have cliques," he warns in a stark Arizona twang. "Be family. Football is your business together. If you go to the JV game this week, sit together. If you have to bring girlfriends, I guess that's okay. But keep them on the outside."
Many players chuckle softly. The coach is being serious, but he doesn't mind hearing his guys laugh--at the right time and place.
"Remember, men, no statements," Kiefer continues.
Everyone here knows what that means: no earrings, gaudy jewelry or wild attire. No long hair. It means that on the day before games, all players wear uniform jerseys to school. On Game Day, they wear shirts and ties.
No exceptions. No statements.
"If you're caught, you can forfeit your right to be on this team. We will play the role to the hilt of an excellent football team. That's your statement."
Kiefer is finished. His players jump to their feet. Enmeshed, they thrust their right fists toward the big, blue sky.
"One-two-three. Mountain Pointe Pride!"
@body:If we lose even one game, our family and fellow students will jump on us. But we play because we love to play.
--Mountain Pointe linebacker Uriah Stricker
Karl Kiefer chats with assistant coaches Phil Abbadessa and Dick Baniszewski on their way to the locker room. The three are as anxious as the players to get the season under way in a few days.
Kiefer is a legend in this state. His football teams have won more games than those of any active coach in Arizona. He's already in the state's High School Coaches' Hall of Fame, and is four victories away from becoming the winningest Arizona football coach ever.
But Kiefer etched his sterling record of 218-73-3 at Tempe McClintock High School, a few miles away. Now he's coaching at a new school for the first time since Barry Goldwater was running for president and the Beatles were doing Ed Sullivan. He started at McClintock in 1964.
Mountain Pointe is about to start its first season of varsity ball. Located in the bedroom community of Ahwatukee, the school is in its second year of operation and doesn't have a senior class yet.
"Kiefer's Kids" will be going at it with sophomores and juniors against other teams' seniors.
"Just a few days, guys," Kiefer tells his colleagues, both of whom once played football for him at McClintock. "A few days."
@body:We've always been kind of by ourselves out here, out of sight, out of mind. The school and the team give a central focus to the community.
--Jane Hickman, Ahwatukee resident and vice principal at Mountain Pointe
A faceless sprawl of tract homes, golf courses and strip malls, Ahwatukee is separated from the East Valley and Phoenix by I-10 and South Mountain. The area numbers about 40,000 people, including adjacent subdivisions.
Born in the mid-1970s, it has continued to grow even during rugged economic times. But it's been a quiet explosion.
"We're kind of set apart from a lot of things," says Clay Schad, founder of the weekly Ahwatukee News. "That has made us close-knit, like a small town."
But Ahwatukee--which is within Phoenix's city limits--lacks basic, small-town amenities: It has no downtown, City Hall, community swimming pool or even lighted Little League fields. The annual Easter parade is about as small-town as Ahwatukee gets.
The Tempe Union High School District decided in the late 1980s to build a fifth high school. (School-district boundaries in Arizona can cross city boundaries. The far-flung Tempe district encompasses Ahwatukee and other Phoenix and Tempe neighborhoods.) The district chose a site in Ahwatukee at 42nd Street and Knox Road, a few miles south of the Warner Road exit of I-10.
The powers that be decided to call the new school Mountain Pointe, thinking it clever to add the "e" to Pointe as a nod to the nearby resort.
Some Ahwatukee residents--mostly retirees--complained about the proposed school before crews began work on the $27 million facility. They feared the obvious: increased crime and traffic.
Mountain Pointe was completed, anyway, in time for the start of the 1990-91 school year. But the district couldn't find enough money to open it.
The shortfall proved to be a blessing in disguise.
New principal Harold Slemmer and a skeleton staff fine-tuned their dreams during the year-in-waiting. Slemmer also met with nearby residents who ordinarily would have had little to do with a school.
Slemmer decided to make Mountain Pointe a closed campus when the school opened in the fall of 1991. It would become the only closed high school in the Tempe district. Students aren't allowed to leave the premises for any unauthorized reason. Despite residents' early misgivings, the shiny new high school has changed how many in Ahwatukee feel about their environs.
"Most of us didn't have that feeling of 'our' anything, except for our homes," says Don Perkins, president of the school's Parent-Community Advisory Council. "Now we've got something to hold on to."
The football team has nurtured that feeling. Principal Slemmer had one man in mind for Mountain Pointe's first head football coach: Karl Kiefer. For years Slemmer had served as an assistant to Kiefer at McClintock. He admired the coach deeply.
"I envisioned our school trying to emulate Karl in some ways," says Slemmer. "A no-nonsense environment, kind of like the old days. Karl isn't just a dictator: He blends old-fashioned discipline with loving concern for his kids. I just didn't know if I could get him."
@body:I bump into guys from McClintock who tell me, "I hated that son of a bitch when I played for him, but now I know what he was doing. He was turning me into a man."
--Assistant coach Dick Baniszewski, on Karl Kiefer
Few thought Karl Kiefer would ever leave McClintock High of his own accord. Kiefer had been the Tempe school's only head football coach in its quarter-century history, and he'd carved out a dynasty, winning three state championships and 75 percent of his games.
But Kiefer expressed interest when Harold Slemmer asked him if he'd be interested in coaching the Pride. It wasn't about money: Kiefer would make just $4,000 above his teaching salary no matter where he coached in the district.
"I thought it could be a chance to start something again from the ground up," Kiefer says. "This time I would have a clue what I was doing. When I started with McClintock, I didn't."
Kiefer was 26 when McClintock principal William Boyle hired him as the new school's first head football coach in the fall of 1964. Kiefer was a familiar name to Valley sports fans. Longtime locals remember him as one of the area's most accomplished multisport athletes of the mid-1950s.
The youngest son of Kansas dairy farmers, Kiefer moved to Tempe at the age of 4 because of his dad's health problems. He grew up near then-remote Papago Park, where he and older brother Paul rode horses in the mountains and played every sport they could.
The crew-cutted kid excelled at athletics at Tempe High School, winning more awards than he can easily recall. His scrapbooks reveal he earned a spot in the National Honor Society. And he played a mean trumpet.
Kiefer enrolled at Arizona State University after high school.
"I was a roughneck type of player with decent ability and a lot of heart," he says, sitting in a memorabilia-crammed study at his Tempe home. Not particularly fast or large, Kiefer played tight end on offense and linebacker on defense. His spirit prompted his teammates to vote him co-captain in his senior year.
Dan Devine was Kiefer's first football coach at ASU; Devine was followed by Frank Kush. The unrelenting, hard-nosed Kiefer appealed to tough guy Kush. "Frank was a nuts-and-bolts type who loved line play," Kiefer says. "Dan was an organization man who let his coaches coach. I watched these guys close and learned. Both stressed discipline, discipline, discipline, which was something I had already been brought up with."
Kiefer was so devoted to football that he worked his marriage into the team schedule. The bride was ASU Pom Pon girl Sharon Mickle, the daughter of an Arizona ranching family. The couple was married on her parents' ranch in November 1959, near the end of Kiefer's senior season. They honeymooned in Hawaii after ASU beat the Rainbows in a season-ending game.
As he neared graduation, Kiefer started toying with the idea of becoming a football coach. Frank Kush hired him as a graduate assistant for one season, after which Kiefer moved to El Paso to fulfill a two-year Army ROTC obligation. After his honorable discharge, he and Sharon moved onto her family's ranch north of Scottsdale. The couple raised their three children there. The youngest child, Kent, starred at quarterback for his dad at McClintock, then went on to a fine career at the University of Missouri.
After he moved back to the Phoenix area, Kiefer's alma mater, Tempe High, hired him as a math teacher and assistant football coach. He worked there for a year. Then, in 1964, he signed on with newly built Tempe McClintock.
McClintock won from the git-go, and some saw Kiefer simply as a Frank Kush discipline clone who made pliant players do things one way--his way. It was true then, as now, that Kiefer made few concessions to society's changing mores. But he rose above the cluster of coaches who push their players around for their own egos. Though he was winning, Kiefer reassessed his approach to coaching after he developed an ulcer in his 20s.
"I didn't realize at first that life can't be intense all the time," Kiefer says. "You get too old too fast that way. Coaching is intuitive, and it's hard to be intuitive when you're tired and stressed all the time. You have to be all there for your kids. I wanted to be a better coach. So I worked at changing myself, at keeping it simple."
Through it all, Kiefer stayed focused on the three most important things in his life--football, family and faith. His coaching philosophy remained basic: Outcondition your opponent. Adjust at halftime. Find assistants you can trust. Showcase your stars. Be consistent.
"In a way, Karl is kind of tunnel-visioned for his kids," says his wife, Sharon. "He commands discipline and he's right down there in the trenches with them. He's one of a dying breed. You stick with him, he'll do anything he can for you."
The coach isn't big on social issues or intellectual pursuits. But he's a walking example of how to give to others. He spends hours on the telephone counseling and making calls for ex-players who need a job or simply advice on something. Once his player, always his player.
Dozens of "Kiefer's Kids" at McClintock went on to play college football. Some made it to the pros. His program was among the most consistently powerful in the state.
"After a while, everybody knew we were gonna have good teams," Kiefer says. "We became hated for that and we loved it."
And, the coach adds without a trace of doubt, "The same thing is gonna happen at Mountain Pointe."
@body:Traditions. Some hate them. Others seek to change them. But only rarely comes the opportunity to make them.
--Cover of Mountain Pointe's first yearbook
Coach Kiefer faces a roomful of parents in Mountain Pointe's weight room, a state-of-the-art facility that would make many colleges proud. Behind him a handwritten message reads: "Bigger! Faster! Stronger!"
It is Open House night and the school is packed. There's nowhere to sit but on the weight benches. Some parents stare at Kiefer with the same wide-eyed fear their youngsters sometimes show.
Kiefer, of course, is himself--brusque but approachable in his short presentation.
A mother stops to shake his hand on her way to another of her son's classes.
"I want to thank you for making my boy do things he didn't know he could do," she tells him. "Know what I mean?"
"Yes, I do," Kiefer replies.
Karl Kiefer had the best of all worlds when he went over to Mountain Pointe as football coach and head of the physical education department before the 1990-91 school year: a spanking-new facility, a pal for a principal and most of his coaching staff from McClintock.
He says he wasn't overly concerned about finding good players, most of whom would have attended Corona del Sol or Tempe High if Mountain Pointe hadn't opened.
"You can always find kids who want to win," says Kiefer. "Everybody knows that's why they hired me. People like winners."
But something happened at the start of Mountain Pointe's first year that no one had anticipated: The media termed it a "race riot."
The school is about 75 percent white. Thirteen percent of the students are Hispanic, while about 6 percent each are black and Asian American. Interviews with students and teachers indicate that what happened was no riot.
"A white kid told some black kids to go back to their own neighborhoods," Kiefer recalls. "He used bad words that he got from his redneck parents. There was fighting. The black kids were defending their name and honor."
Principal Slemmer quickly met with the parents of most students involved in the melee. But, Slemmer says, the kid who allegedly started the brawl never returned to the school.
Kiefer doesn't tolerate race problems on his football teams. "At this late date, it amazes me that some people still hate each other because of skin color," he says. "In school, kids should try to understand and respect those who look different than them. On the field, I don't even want my kids to think about stuff like that."
That's what made the addition of Jay Carter to Mountain Pointe's squad last year a compelling tale. The black sophomore wanted to play football, but he didn't try out for the team on time. Further souring his chances, Carter had a classroom blowup with Dick Baniszewski, the assistant coach who heads the social studies department.
A 29-year-old with a rapier wit and a motivator's moxie, Baniszewski challenges his students in class as keenly as he does his players on the field. During a spirited discussion one day in World History class about minorities in America, Jay Carter lost it.
Baniszewski says of the incident: "Jay started screaming and swearing. 'There's gonna be an uprising and people are gonna die.' He was out of control. I grabbed him. 'Jay! Jay! Change things! Don't just bitch!'"
Word of Carter's blowup cinched it for Coach Kiefer. He didn't want to have anything to do with the talented but troubled youngster.
Principal Slemmer asked Kiefer to reconsider, and the coach did--with strict conditions. Carter could come out, but Kiefer made him do up-downs for weeks before he let him actually practice with the team.
Carter didn't play in the Pride's first few games, but he didn't quit.
"The coaches was very tough on me," he recalls, "but I could tell they cared about me as a person. They stayed with me when they could have quit on me. I just wanted to play football."
As the weeks passed, Carter turned into a star running back and a team leader. He says fear may have expedited his maturing process.
"I was sick of doing up-downs," he says with a wry smile. "Up-downs teach anyone."
Mountain Pointe scheduled nine junior-varsity games for its first season. Kiefer unleashed some fine, young talent--including 200-pound running back Mickey Gates.
Gates had moved to his uncle's home in Ahwatukee to escape the gangs that ran his old neighborhood in Santa Monica, California. A boy in a man's body and a learning-disabled student, Gates proved to be a tough, gifted runner. He also proved to have a remarkably sweet disposition, and soon became a beloved part of the Pride.
"They're my best friends," Gates says of the team. "Playing for Coach is real hard, but I'm learning a lot. He teaches you to be real responsible--to stick with something. I'm just growing up."
Mountain Pointe sailed through its season unbeaten, winning by an average score of 46-6. Along the way, the team captured the imagination of Ahwatukee.
"What Kiefer did was to give the community and the school a winning something that's ours and only ours," says area resident Don Perkins, who has a daughter at Mountain Pointe. "He may have come along at exactly the right time. I'm not big on sports, but we needed something like that."
But Perkins says some folks weren't thrilled by the new team.
"Some people in a survey expressed concerns that Coach Kiefer ran up the score sometimes," he says. "They feel that the football program has an elitist attitude. Some people think Karl is out for himself."
Those in charge at Mountain Pointe vehemently disagree.
"People tend to think that successful football coaches are out for themselves," says vice principal Jane Hickman. "But Karl doesn't set himself apart from the school, no way. His players run over and salute the school band after every game. He pushes them to study. He sees his team as whole people who are part of a whole school. And he builds winners."
@body:C'mon, you knuckleheads. This is serious business.
--Karl Kiefer to his team
It's moments before kickoff in Mountain Pointe's preseason scrimmage against the Chandler Wolves. A few hundred fans sprinkle the stands.
Chandler's players whoop it up on the sidelines. On the Mountain Pointe side, assistant coach Dick Baniszewski reminds the team about the power of mood and image.
"Let them holler and yell," Baniszewski says. "We're quiet--like death. Scary. Until right before the game. You know that movie, The Ten Commandments? Something's coming at you, through a green cloud. Then, boom! It hits you. Let it build. There's no score tonight. You're competing against your own best self. Visualize."
Mountain Pointe holds its own against its bigger, older, more experienced opponent, but Chandler prevails, 20-7. The Wolves dance around the field as if they've won the state championship.
Kiefer briefly gathers his players at midfield. "We made a lot of dumb mistakes, but it wasn't too bad," he tells them. "I'd like to play these guys someday when it counts, but I doubt we will. They're cellar rats."
Though the Mountain Pointe team hadn't played an official varsity game, expectations were high before the season started in early September. The Pride will play at the 4A level until next year, when the school has its first senior class and enrollment jumps from its current 1,700 to about 2,500. In 1993 it's up to 5A, the state's largest--and toughest--classification.
The players feel the pressure.
"We have to win to live up to everyone's expectations," says quarterback Doug Szanto, a straight-A student who wants to be a doctor. "It comes from our friends, our parents, everybody. But I think we've got the discipline to handle it. And we've got the coaches."
Though he's clearly the boss, Kiefer relies on his assistant coaches to carry a heavy share of the load. Many high school assistants act solely as drill sergeants or cheerleaders. Kiefer's aides coach, too: Phil Abbadessa runs the Pride defense and Dick Baniszewski handles special teams and the linemen. And that was Baniszewski beneath the school's lion mascot at the Pride's first pep rally.
There's another member of the Mountain Pointe staff this season.
"If you want help, this is the guy," Kiefer tells his team at one practice, pointing to a tall man in shorts and a tee shirt. "Listen up."
Bruce Kipper steps forward. He counsels the school's athletes on academics and NCAA requirements.
"You guys aren't going to as much as sneeze without me finding out about it," says Kipper, a former professional baseball pitcher. "Character is going to count for a lot with recruiters. All you have to do is read the papers and see what's happening at ASU. You need to stay very clean. We have something special going on here. All it will take is one incident to tear it all down."
Mountain Pointe Field is packed for the season opener against the wonderfully nicknamed Yuma Criminals--the town used to house the old territorial prison.
The Pride march in a cluster from the locker room to the field. They stand under the same goal post from which Karl Kiefer had spoken to them a few days before about the beauty of Friday nights.
The team is quiet.
Suddenly, a cacophony.
The teen anthem "Welcome to the Jungle," by the group Guns n' Roses, blares over the PA system.
The Pride come alive.
The game is a seesaw battle marked by long touchdown runs and passes by both teams. Two exhilarating hours later, it's over.
Mountain Pointe has won its first varsity game ever, 33-32.
The second game, at Phoenix Alhambra, also ends in victory, this time by a 21-6 margin. The third game is a 66-22 blowout of Casa Grande.
Game four is as exciting as high school football gets. Favored Thunderbird High School leads by a touchdown with a few minutes to play. The two-minute offensive drill the Pride work on at practice is put to the test.
Quarterback Szanto gets hot, hitting 135-pound sophomore wide receiver Mike Collins with five straight passes. An unlikely hero, Collins had dropped a few balls in the scrimmage against Chandler and had lost confidence. Afterward, he spoke of "the big pressure" and resolved to concentrate more.
The monster game of the season is at hand, a long-anticipated intercity battle against Kiefer's alma mater, Tempe High.
Local media have decided the 4-0 Pride are for real. The team hits the Top 10 in statewide polls. Local cable outfit ASPN televises the contest.
Mountain Pointe leads early, but senior-dominated Tempe scores twice late in the first half to take a 14-6 lead. Kiefer isn't given to Knute Rockne-like speeches at halftime, but he sounds a warning.
"We turn it up a notch--or else," he says. "You guys got a little intimidated. That's ridiculous. You'd better not let them score."
A gutty effort by Jay Carter on a fourth-down run with seven minutes to go brings the Pride within one point, 21-20. But the extra-point kick fails, and Tempe keeps the lead.
With the game on the line, the Pride defense stiffens and, like the previous week, the offense has a final opportunity. Down to possibly two plays, Kiefer calls for quarterback Szanto to throw deep.
Skeeter Brown sneaks behind two Buffalo defenders deep in the end zone. Szanto's throw is perfect. The game soon ends. Final score, Mountain Pointe 28, Tempe 21.
Forgetting his bad knees, Kiefer dances around the field with his assistants, hugging this player and that. During the celebration, he happens upon Carter, a catalyst in the Pride's improbable victory.
"Lot of heart, Jay," he says. "Lot of heart."
Kiefer knows it will be difficult for his kids to sustain their emotion after the big win over Tempe. His fears are justified in last Friday's game against Scottsdale Coronado.
Four straight turnovers lead to a 22-0 Coronado lead before the Pride touch the ball on offense. Mountain Pointe cuts the margin to 22-7 at the half, then to 22-10. But this time, the young team can't climb the mountain.
Several players are crying as the game ends, and the Mountain Pointe football team tastes defeat for the first time in its short history. The defeat has been a sound one.
Kiefer looks on, grim-faced, as his team salutes the Pride school band. He turns back to the field and watches Coronado celebrate its win. He trots over and compliments the Dons' star running back.
Everyone steers clear of the coach as he makes his way to the locker room. Not a good loser under any circumstance, he is infuriated by his team's effort. There will be many, many up-downs at Saturday morning's practice.
@body:Notre Dame went for a tie against Michigan. A tie! We'll never go for a tie here. We go for state championships.
--Karl Kiefer to his team
At the end of practice every Tuesday afternoon, the Mountain Pointe Pride push the Sled. No one on the team escapes this punishing exercise.
The Sled is a seven-man contraption that moves forward along the ground only with a strenuous, unified effort. The players take turns pushing it up a small hill and around the school baseball field. When one septet is done pushing, they immediately do a series of up-downs.
A player yells, "Push the Sled til you're dead."
The rest pick up the chant, sounding like Marine recruits.
Hobbling to keep up, Kiefer revels in his players' efforts. "Pride time, Pride time," he keeps repeating.
"This is what it's all about," he says. "I love it.
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