Dean Smith, the legendary University of North Carolina basketball coach, passed away Saturday evening at age 83. The recurring theme over the past several days is not about Smith’s won-loss records and being one of the best college basketball coaches ever. It was about Smith the individual: principled, graceful, teacher, and a father figure. Dean Smith lived a full life.
Mentioning Smith gives me an opportunity to tell you about another individual, who passed away last Wednesday. Similar to Smith, he too was principled, graceful, teacher, and he was one of the best coaches in Iowa.
Pat Mitchell was the head football coach at Cedar Falls for so long, I thought he was the only coach the Tigers ever had.
For a long time, I never thought there was anyone before him (Ed Lyons) and I swore that there would be no one after him (Brad Remmert).
From 1967 to 2014, no one was identified with Tigers football more than Coach Mitch, who died on February 4th after an extended battle with cancer. If there was anyone else who knew how to use the UNI-Dome to his team’s advantage, Mitch was the master of it. Playing the Tigers in the UNI-Dome was a house of horrors for opponents far and wide.
Mitch’s teams played smart, strong, and fast. If you dug yourself a hole against CF, good luck trying to crawl out of that hole…you were cooked. That’s what happens when you face a guy who is 4th all time in wins (344-138-2) in Iowa prep football.
But Mitchell was more than a coach…he was an iconic figure in the annuls of Cedar Valley sports, particularly in the Waterloo-Cedar Falls area. He coached against Reggie Roby, Kerry Burt, Jerry Moses, Chris Klieman, Tim Dwight, and many others who have become stars and legends in Iowa prep football.
Mitch is on the list of local coaches, that if you just mention their last name or nickname, people knew who you were talking about: Dick Marcussen and Dan List at CF, Howard Vernon, Steve McGraw, and Dave Natvig at East Waterloo, and George Dutcher, Bob Siddens, and Glenn Strobridge at West Waterloo.
The players Mitch coached, I either watched or played against: Terrence Freeney, Chris Nuss, Jason Hamrock, Mike Flagg, Matt Purdy, Barkley Hill, and Gabe Hurley, among so many.
But it was the rivalries…oh those rivalries. When East, West, CF, and Columbus got together on a Friday night, it wasn’t a football game…it was a battle royale. The heydays of the old Big 8 Conference was a special time: iconic coaches, outstanding players, and the stadiums that were rocking. There was pride on the line…and a city championship to be won.
There are three program defining games, in my view, that made Mitchell and the Tigers’ the formidable powerhouse that they are now. Incidentally, all three was against a city rival, East Waterloo.
In 1971, the Tigers were leading East 24-13, late in the 4th quarter at UNI’s old Latham Field. Behind talented Tiger quarterback Bill Salmon, CF jumped out to a big lead. But, the Trojans rallied with two touchdowns in the last 5 minutes of the contest for a 25-24 win. East went on to win their 6th straight mythical Class 4A state title.
That loss set up the second defining moment in 1972 when CF pulled off a 10-9 upset win over East. That win was all the momentum they needed to qualify for the playoffs, which was instituted that year by the IAHSAA.
The third program-defining game was the 1st round playoff game against East in 1986. In the regular season, the Trojans pancaked the Tigers, 49-14. In the rematch at the UNI-Dome, CF stymied East and stunned the favorite to win the 4A title with a 12-6 win. It was the Tigers who went on to win a state title that year, defeating Linn-Mar, 15-14.
The Tigers would repeat that effort again in 1987, by losing to East in the regular season and beating the Trojans in the 1st round again, but fell short to Dowling Catholic, 21-3 in the semifinals.
The 1986 title was the only one Pat Mitchell would win. Mitchell and the Tigers came close several times, finishing as runner-ups 4 times (’82, ’99, ’05, ’08).
No one had a bad thing to say about Coach Mitch. Why should they? Being a coach is not about play calls, touchdowns, and championships. It’s about people. His players loved and respected him. Cedar Falls rallied behind the Tigers, all due to Mitchell’s personality: positive, delightful, tenacious, and never giving up.
It never dawn on me that one day Mitch would finally hang it up. For the last ten years, Brad Remmert and him were co-coaches and the Tigers continued the high level of success in Class 4A. Mitchell made the decision to retire before the start of the 2014 season.
In December, my brother-in-law was inducted into our high school’s basketball ring of honor. During the ceremony, I was mentally looking back how those moments and the people I was fortunate to watch, read, and listen, as well as played against, have shaped my view of respecting history and traditions. Yes, I am biased towards my alma mater, East High, but it would be foolish to not include a guy like Pat Mitchell, a rival, in being such an important figure in our community, with regards to sports.
Mitch’s passing feels like an end of an era for me. It’s hard to imagine one person, being at one school for nearly your entire life (I recently turned 39. Mitchell was at CF for 47 years). It was a little hard this past fall to not to see a highlight of Mitch on the sidelines. It was because I, and so many of us from the Cedar Valley, were so used to it.
The roar of the greatest Tiger in Cedar Falls High School history is now silent.
Pat Mitchell lived a full life and people will remember the person that Mitch was. The wins and losses are secondary.
As it should be.