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Coach John Tyree and Winning Football Games at Age 77

December 19th, 2016 · 2 Comments · Football

I am a big fan of high-school football coaches. Starting with the guy (Jim Young) I played for in high school and continuing on through nearly every prep football coach I came in contact with during my four decades in sports journalism.

I guessed, in this blog post, that I covered around 400 prep football games in my career. And I’d hazard I enjoyed covering about 375 of them.

Prep football is like no other variety of the game, for a bunch of reasons, but one of them is the often-charismatic men who coach the teams.

They bring a tool box of skills to the football field — physical stamina, knowledge of the game, enthusiasm, an ability to teach, leadership … and a skill for getting 16- and 17-year-old kids to accept teamwork and discipline.

John Tyree is one of the best I encountered at coaching young football players … and certainly one of the most deeply experienced.

Tyree is a little guy from Oklahoma who is tough as nails and mostly made out of rawhide. I want to say he played at Oklahoma State despite being about 5-foot-8 and maybe 150 pounds — now, and probably then.

His name became familiar to me when I was a kid reporter at the San Bernardino Sun and Tyree took Fontana High School to the 1976 large-schools championship game at Anaheim Stadium.

This was huge, in Fontana, one of those hundreds of U.S. cities where prep football defines (or once did) a town. Having a strong football team proves, in the minds of many, a school and a town can organize, field and support a competitive team in the most-followed prep sport in most of the U.S.

Tyree sent me an email the other day with a subject field that read: Merry Christmas.

This is the whole of the message:

“Still at it at 77. Head coach at Calexico High School. Went 6 & 6, lost in the semis, got coach of the year in the Imperial Valley. JT.”

Yes, you saw that correctly. The man is coaching varsity football at the age of 77. In Calexico, a desert town a few miles from the Mexico border, where the average high temperature in August, when preseason practices are held, is 106 degrees Fahrenheit. (Just being on the field for those overheated hours must put him in the top 1 percent of physical durability for a man his age.)

Calexico apparently had been awful in football for a long stretch. I have found references mentioning “running clocks in the second half” — when the scoreboard clock never stops because a game has grown lopsided. Meaning Calexico not only was losing (o-for-2015, for starters), it was getting blown out a lot.

Tyree, of course, was having none of that.

He came in and installed the wishbone offense, which he has been running pretty much his whole career, and Calexico won its first five games. It then lost all five of its Imperial Valley League games, but one of them was 34-28 and another was 28-21. And zero running clocks, thank you.

Calexico won a first-round playoffs game in the San Diego Section 35-6 over a Palo Verde team it lost to 34-28 five weeks previously (which must have pleased the coach), before being ushered out of the playoffs in the second round.

Some Tyree notes:

–He emailed me shortly after adding a comment to an item I did on Nick Barnett, who played for Tyree at Fontana Miller High School in the 1990s. I wrote that Tyree said Barnett was the best player on the team, and Tyree’s recollection, relayed in the “comment” area, is different. “Most competitive I have coached in 53 years,” he said of Barnett. Covers a lot of ground.

–I often have trouble remembering if Tyree is from Texas or from Oklahoma, and I once framed it to him something like this: “You’re from Texas, right?” He glared at me. “That’s almost a racial slur,” he said.

–He once suffered a broken neck when other coaches goaded him into riding a bull, while coaching at Cameron Junior College in Oklahoma. That was in the 1980s, when Tyree was a “kid” of 45 or so. A couple of decades later, he had surgery on it and as the 2004 season opened he was wearing a cervical collar.

–He used to like to wear saddle shoes on the sidelines. And maybe still does. Not a look you often see in a prep football coach.

–Tyree has held something like 50 coaching jobs. (OK, it’s probably closer to 15.) He moves around a lot. In a piece that appeared in the Imperial Valley Press, he is quoted as saying: “It’s hard to stay that long anywhere as a coach because you start running into problems you never can solve and you get tired of running into walls.”

–He had been retired, briefly, before taking the Calexico job earlier this year. He told the IVP: “I got a small ranch in Texas and had some plans, but to me retirement is overrated. It’s unhealthy when you’re not doing anything. Age is not an issue. … I’m not 25 like the first time I came (to the Imperial Valley) and that may be a blessing.”

This is a fun thing. If you want to hear John Tyree speaking during a preseason workout. In this video, he talks about his plans for the program ahead of the 2016 season.

“The key,” he said, “is to get better every day. Nobody can stop you from being better every day. Stay the course. Don’t panic.”

That’s John Tyree … still coaching at 77. Still staying the course.

 

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2 responses so far ↓

  • 1 George Alfano // Dec 28, 2016 at 1:52 pm

    One of the greatest and most honest interview subjects who are high school football coaches. I always came away with great quotes.

  • 2 Steve Romano // Oct 2, 2017 at 4:59 am

    Coached with Tyree at Chaffee College and Fontana Miller. A unique individual if EVER I have met one. I respect the man and am so glad to see through his comments that he has not changed. Blessings abound.

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