The Free State Firebirds will play Shawnee Mission West in a state football semifinal game at 7 p.m. today at the Shawnee Mission South District Stadium.
When the Free State Firebirds kick off against Shawnee Mission West in a state football semifinal game at 7 tonight in Shawnee Mission South District Stadium, Bob Lisher’s eyes will be focused on the field.
Looking into the stands could put the longtime Free State coach in jeopardy of getting distracted by all the memories the faces in the crowd might trigger.
Seeing Mel Lisher Jr., Bob’s older brother, might bring memories of calling the family’s Running Walker Foxhounds and then watching their father, Mel Sr., swing the gate open so that the hounds could chase coyotes into a brush pile. Area farmers losing calves and sheep to coyotes appreciated the efforts of the hounds. Mel Jr., aka Curly, and Bobby, country boys raised in a home near Clinton Lake and Lone Star Lake, were in it strictly for the laughs.
Seeing Curly’s face in the crowd also might make the coach think of the bad luck his brother encountered when he blew his shoulder out pitching for Kansas University. Mel Sr. traced the shoulder injury to his son pitching all but the final inning or two of a doubleheader for Lawrence’s American Legion team against K.C. 199 to get his team to the state playoffs.
Bob said seeing Mel’s career end prematurely because of injury hurt more than seeing his own University of Nebraska-Omaha career as a guard on the football team end after a sixth knee surgery, which precipitated a transfer to Kansas University, where he finished his education.
“My brother was a great, great pitcher,” Bob said. “I mean, the guy had a heater. He could change speeds, but when he wanted to bring some heat, nobody could touch him. It was hard for me to accept when he couldn’t pitch anymore. I was so used to going to his baseball game and watching him do well that it was difficult.”
Seeing Dirk Wedd, coach of Lisher’s alma mater, Lawrence High, could send Lisher down memory lane to Ralph Wedd, coaching mentor to his son Dirk and to Lisher. Ralph Wedd coached Lisher at South Junior High in track and field and football, had him as an as an assistant football coach and a student teacher, and handpicked him to be his successor as South’s football coach.
Among the lessons Lisher learned from the elder Wedd: “You treat people fairly, but you treat them with discipline. Kids want to do things right. You treat them with discipline and you give them a hug when they need it. That’s what kids like and expect.”
It’s probably just as well that Lisher will wear a headset during the game. Otherwise, the wind might carry all the way to the sidelines stories told by his dad, Mel Sr., who will be seated alongside Becky, his wife of almost 59 years.
Stories such as this one about a junior high boy competing in the discus for the South track and field team: “Just about the time he was going to let it loose, I turned to Momma and I said, ‘My God, he’s gonna throw that thing clear out of the stadium.’ Bobby stumbled and it fell about three feet in front of him. I’ll never forget the smile on Ralph Wedd’s face. Bobby was awkward, but he could run fast and he loved to play football.”
Seeing Dirk Wedd in the crowd also might conjure memories of their days as assistant coaches together under Dick Purdy. Lisher served as defensive coordinator. Wedd was the offensive line coach and directed the scout team offense against the first-team defense.
“Somehow, Dirk would always find a way to get someone in there who shouldn’t score against the first-team defense and just irritate me doing that, and then he’d start talking trash,” Lisher said. “We had some fun back in the day. We really had a great time.”
Should he look into the crowd, Lisher might even spot a Blue Valley North sweatshirt, which would make him think of his first days as a high school head coach. His inaugural Blue Valley North team had just two seniors and played in the first season after one school was split into two. His records: 2-7, 5-4, 7-2, a sharp improvement curve that gave him a strong case to land the job as Free State’s first football coach 16 years ago.
‘He’s that kind of person’
Olathe North High football coach Gene Wier said he will attend tonight’s semifinal. Spotting him might remind Lisher of a life-changing path he almost took. After six state championships in 22 seasons, Wier headed for the baddest high school football on the planet: Texas high school football. That bad. Wier knew he needed to assemble a killer staff to compete and offered Lisher the defensive coordinator position at Richland High in the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex.
“When you take a job, particularly 600 miles away, you want not just knowledgeable people, and his knowledge speaks for itself, you want people of character that you can trust,” said Wier, whose first season back at Olathe North after nine seasons in Texas ended last week with a loss to, you guessed it, Lisher’s Free State team. “He’s that kind of person. And you want people who are good with kids, which he is. And we’ve been friends, so it was a no-brainer.”
Lisher said he gave it serious thought and was close to accepting the offer to go to Texas.
“It was a big-time increase in pay,” he said. “My teaching responsibilities would have been limited. But my family’s here and this is where I wanted to be.”
All three of the children raised by Lisher and the former Diana Stephens remain involved in athletics. Jayme, like her father, is a physical education teacher at Free State High, where she is assistant volleyball coach. Former KU baseball player Brett works as an assistant baseball coach at Allen County Community College. Michael is a sophomore lineman at Washburn University.
Their father keeps later hours than all of them on weekends.
“I’ll be sitting here talking on the phone with him and he’s home watching film the whole time,” Mel Jr. said. “He’ll be up watching it until 2, 3 in the morning. He wants what’s best for those kids and he studies hard for any edge he can find. And I know his assistants do too.”
The late-night film sessions take place Saturday and Sunday, and Lisher reports to work at 6:40 Monday to prepare for his first phys-ed class at 7.
When he’s not watching his own team, he might be watching a college game, stealing plays that catch his attention, or his favorite NFL team, just for enjoyment, although it hasn’t been too enjoyable lately.
“I’ve been a Kansas City Chiefs fan since they won their first Super Bowl and I’m still waiting for them to come back,” Lisher said. “And the great thing is I got to meet Len Dawson (former Chiefs quarterback and long-time KMBC sports anchor) twice this year. He’s been at our games twice and interviewed me, and that was quite an honor.”
Dawson won a Super Bowl with the Chiefs. Lisher is two victories away from winning the equivalent of one for the Firebirds. If he gets it, the popular Free State coach will be far from alone in celebrating it.