Matt Tait: Lisher’s retirement brings an end to historic run of high school football in Lawrence

photo by: Mike Yoder

Free State High coach Bob Lisher, right, congratulates the Firebird team after their 37-17 regional 6A playoff win against the Junction City Blue Jays, Friday, Nov. 14, 2014 at Al Simpler Stadium in Junction City.

There are few things longtime Free State football coach Bob Lisher likes more than hunting and fishing.

Family, football and Free State. That’s about it.

So you can only imagine that, even though he’ll have a lot more time for two of his favorite things in the near future, Lisher’s retirement, which he announced after last Friday night’s quarterfinal playoff loss to Manhattan, is going to be an adjustment for a lot of people.

More than that, it marks the end of an era in Lawrence.

Sure, Lisher’s decision to step down represents the end for the only football coach the school has ever known. But Lisher was the last of a special breed around here, and his retirement closes the book on a long list of classic football coaches who have called Lawrence home and won a whole bunch of games during the past several decades.

“I suppose folks now would probably call them old-school coaches,” said Free State administrator Mike Hill, who played for Lisher at Lawrence High in the 1980s, coached with him at Blue Valley North and Free State, and was his boss at Free State, as well. “There’s certainly some truth to that, and if you ask them and those of us who were with them, there’s a sense of pride that comes with that label.”

From his playing days under Bill Freeman at LHS to helping lead the Lions’ dynasty from 1985-96 as a key assistant under Freeman and Dick Purdy, to three seasons in the great unknown of Blue Valley North and 22 remarkably strong seasons at Free State, Lisher played a part in bringing nearly 300 victorious Friday nights to his beloved hometown.

“I’m not sure that, as a player, anybody received as much coaching as Bill directed toward Bobby, because he knew how good he was and wanted him to be the very best player he could be,” said Ron Commons, who coached with Lisher for a handful of seasons under Freeman at LHS. “That obviously carried over into the way he coached, and Bob always did a great job of getting the best out of his athletes so they were ready to perform on Friday nights.”

His 22 seasons at Free State produced an overall record of 148-85, a mark that illustrates how consistently good that program has been on Lisher’s watch.

The list of big-time players and memorable moments produced by Lisher is far too long to print, and just making it seems to be missing the point.

Yeah, Lisher was a heck of a football coach. But his abilities there paled in comparison to his success in interacting with young people and helping them become quality men and women.

Hand-picked by iconic South Junior High football coach Ralph Wedd to be his successor with the Cougars, Lisher’s impact on young people in Lawrence began there, back in 1984, and never stopped.

Lisher helped win state titles at LHS, led Free State to 18 playoff appearances, won five Sunflower League titles and made seven trips to the state semis, as well as a trip to the Class 6A state title game in 2008.

And he capped it all off with seven consecutive trips to the 6A quarterfinals.

Lisher never got the title he deserved at Free State, but his legacy is not missing anything because of it.

“I just think about how consistent he was,” said longtime friend and foe Dirk Wedd, who coached alongside Lisher under Purdy at LHS and then against him for nearly 20 years in the annual city showdown game. “You knew that his defense was going to bring eight, nine, 10, 11, 12 players on a blitz every snap, and you just hoped you could get the ball back to the line of scrimmage. He’s truly one of the great defensive minds in Kansas high school football.”

Lisher’s first high school head coaching job came in 1994, when Blue Valley North hired him to help set the foundation for the program that won its first state title in 2017. He finished 14-14 in three seasons there and found his experience to be vastly different from life in Lawrence.

Hill, who coached with Lisher at BVN, recalled the early days of the two bringing over Lawrence High’s Friday morning breakfast ritual to Blue Valley North.

Forever held in the dingy basement of an old church on 19th and Naismith, the Blue Valley version of the LHS tradition did not have quite the same feel. That first team breakfast in the fall of 1994 was held at Leawood Country Club, out by the swimming pool, and when the meal was served, it was quiche that was carved up and slapped onto the players’ plates.

“We kind of knew then that this was going to be a little bit different,” Hill joked.

But football was football and Lisher, who will turn 60 in February, made do, fine-tuning his coaching chops and establishing the principles of a defense that would make Free State a perennial contender for the next two decades.

Hill called Lisher’s decision to return to Lawrence when the opportunity came up in 1997 at newly formed Free State High “a no-brainer.”

“Just to get back home and coach Lawrence kids, regardless of whether they wore green or red or were north or south of 15th Street, was special to him,” Hill said.

And that’s what makes the end of the road so special to so many people.

“It’s so hard to capture in a sentence or two what Bob has meant to this school and high school football in this area,” Hill said. “All of the kids that played for him loved him and worked hard for him and he, in turn, did the same for them. It’s hard for our football program to say goodbye, although I’m sure we’ll find a great replacement, but I think our school’s going to miss him. It goes beyond Friday nights at 7 o’clock. He’s been a fixture in the building and we’re going to miss him. There’s no question.”


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