Free State and Lawrence High kick off the state high school football playoffs tonight against two coaching legends.
Gene Wier of Olathe North and Marvin Diener of Gardner-Edgerton each have won six career state championships.
Since Lawrence High’s last state title 17 seasons ago, Wier and Diener had a heyday.
Wier’s Olathe North dynasty took up where Lawrence High’s (10 titles in the playoff era) left off.
His first O-North tenure ran from 1981 to 2002.
In the early ’90s, before Lawrence High split in 1997, Wier usually came out on the short end in what he calls “probably the best football games ever played in Kansas ... classic heavyweight battles,” two of which he remembers were at Haskell when the lights went out and one of the final ones in a snowstorm. Wier finally beat Lawrence in 1996 on the way to his first of six titles.
Diener, first a champion at Salina Central in 1993, won again in 1996 with Terence Newman, before winning four more. Included in that was the 2005 team led by Jake Sharp, who exhibited at running back the signature, physically punishing manner of Diener-coached teams.
The good times rolled for these legends.
Wier and Diener offered familiar keys to building a winning program: consistency, administrative support, having athletes who work hard to become stronger and faster than their competition and who make big plays at necessary times.
But the keys were not all scripted. Both coaches also credit luck and good fortune.
“You need a few breaks.” Wier said. “You get into a rhythm, and things just seem to go your way. I don’t know how to explain it. ... Maybe we’ll get back into that pattern, just like Lawrence High was ...”
Diener focused his analysis on the mental state players have to possess: The players need to have vision beyond what’s right in front of them.
“You need confidence that the play is going to happen,” Diener said.
Neither coach is caught up in a winning pattern this season.
Olathe North lost six games. Gardner lost three of its first four games to teams with a combined record of 14-13.
In his first tenure at Olathe North, Wier won 96 of his final 102 games, including his last 38 in a row. Wier left for Texas while he was on top.
According to Wier, the idea to go to Texas came from Mark Mangino during talks with the former Kansas University football coach about a position on the staff in the 2003 offseason. The KU opportunity did not work out, so Wier went to Richland (Texas), where he spent the last nine seasons as coach and athletic director. He said that the opportunity there “had run its course.” Wier said he had various opportunities to return to coach in Kansas, but only Olathe North made sense because it’s where he’s from.
Diener, who hooked up with Wier two weeks ago in district play for a 59-28 Gardner win, never strung together a winning streak like Wier’s while at Salina Central, but he rarely lost to a team not named Liberal, Blue Valley or Salina South, which with the Mustangs formed a collective stranglehold on the Class 5A title through 2005.
Like Wier, Diener also left on top.
Gardner-Edgerton had built a reputation as a hotbed for football as Johnson County sprawl slowly crept south. In 2006, Gardner tagged the proven winner, Diener, as the coach to take it to the promised land, but in his seventh season with the Trailblazers, it remains in the desert. Not even standout athlete Bubba Starling delivered the first title. Two familiar foes for Diener, Hutchinson and Blue Valley, ended undefeated Gardner seasons in 2009 and 2010, sending Starling to the minors and Diener back to the drawing board.
Except Diener draws up the same stuff no matter what.
“We’re a run-first oriented team,” Diener said, “and we take pride in really giving great effort. It’s old-school.”
In the case of Diener, it might be tempting for an eastern Kansan to scoff at the coach who won all his titles in the western half of the state in Class 5A.
Diener, one of the few coaches in the state who has walked in both sets of shoes, does not buy the argument that wins are more difficult to come by in the east.
“Wherever you’re coaching at, you think that’s the very best football there is,” Diener said.
Wier surely saw the very best football while in Texas.
“Football is pretty much what you do year-round. I didn’t teach classes,” Wier said.
But he said his return to Olathe North “felt right.” He called this Olathe North season a “little bump in the road.” The Eagles lost as many games this season as they lost in Wier’s last 102 games the first time around.
“I know (Free State) is a lot better than we are,” Wier said. “But we’re going to show up.”