Mark Froehling announced this week that he is retiring as the head football coach at Farmington High School. He told his team first, which is exactly what you would expect from a man who has always cared for his players above all else.
One of the highlights of my many years writing about high school sports came in the fall of 2006. I spent homecoming week with the Farmington Tigers, watching every football practice, sitting in on Froehling’s chemistry classes, enjoying homecoming festivities and writing about what took place.
That was a joyful week because I was able to write about one of the finest coaches I have ever known. As Farmington activities director Bill Tschida told me, “Mark is a treasure.”
Froehling, 52, has been a head football coach for 23 years; eight years at Caledonia and 15 years at Farmington. His career record is 122-101, but wins and losses is about the last thing for which he will be remembered. His players always knew that he cared about them as people and not just as football players.
He is known as a coach who interrupts practice to read to his team. The players rest on the field as their coach stands in their midst and reads aloud from books that are usually inspirational and always motivational.
After reading to the Tigers during a practice in 2006, he said quietly to me, “You’ve got to build a team somehow. If you just play football, then it’s only about football. This is all about team. I choose books about team, with the philosophy of being part of something bigger than yourself.”
He and his wife Lori made the retirement decision after the 2014 season ended. He will continue to teach chemistry.
“We’ve been talking about it the last couple years,” he said. “I wanted to make good decisions about where things stood. We’ve had multiple changes with the team, conference, classes, and I didn’t want to abandon the program during those transitions. They can be challenging and you want some stability.”
Indeed, Farmington has seen changes in recent years. The football team has moved from Class 4A to 5A to 6A, and when the Missota Conference dissolved this year Farmington joined the South Suburban Conference, which was a big step. The Tigers didn’t win a game this fall.
“We anticipated facing very good football teams every week,” Froehling said of the South Suburban. “And they didn’t disappoint. Every team was well-prepared, every team had great athletes and a good number of athletes, they knew how to play the game well.
“It was a little tough for us this particular season; we happened to be in a year where we just brought back about four starters from last year and we ended up doing this transition with a very young team. But to their credit, if you had come to practice you wouldn’t know what our record was. The kids came to play every week and practice was always positive. I told the seniors they were a great group to go out with. It has to be fun and they allowed that to happen.”
Froehling is only the second coach Farmington has had in 35 years. Earl Wetzel had the job for 20 years and Froehling was an assistant under him for two years; when Wetzel retired, Froehling was named head coach.
Trey Davis, a 2007 Farmington graduate who went on to compete in football and track at the University of Minnesota, said, “His impact goes beyond football to the example he sets as a man and just how much he cares about his athletes. It speaks to the way he did his retirement, waiting until after the banquet.”
Davis, now assistant activities director at Shakopee High School, added, “You never questioned that he cared about you. He would give you the shirt off his back if it meant you would be a more successful person.”
Tschida said Froehling set an example for all coaches at all schools.
“Some people are able to set their ego aside and really understand the true purpose of education-based athletics,” he said. “Mark is one of those people who has always looked at the greater good when it came to coaching. It was never about serving his ego and collecting accolades. It was always ‘How can I make a positive impact on the young men I’m coaching.’ That’s why he is so well-respected. He kind of sets the gold standard on how you can coach in this very machoistic sport yet do it in a manner that’s respectful of the individuals.”
Last season I was at Farmington for a game against Northfield. After warm-ups, the Tigers gather in the school weight room for last-minute words from Froehling. Here is what he told his team that day…
“We’ve got to be ready to play. I want to see effort and I want to see execution, right away. Let’s be moving out there, let’s get this thing going at our pace, not at their pace. Let’s dictate the pace, let’s run ‘em out of gas and take care of business, fellas. We’ve got to withstand any initial surge they might have.
“We know how to face adversity. This is football, gentlemen. There is always going to be adversity, nothing’s going to be perfect. There are going to be things we’ll have to overcome. Let’s not pretend that nothing bad’s never going to happen. We’ve just got to be prepared for it; how are we going to react to it? It’s a sign of the character of this team. And we know what kind of character we have, right? We know we can handle anything if we handle it together, can’t we?
“We’ve got to be able to play this one play at a time, right? Whatever happened on the last play, do we really care about that? No. Does it really matter what the next play is, the play after the one that’s being played right now? No. Will you please give me great focus on that play? Work your technique, do your job; you know your buddy’s counting on you to be focused right then, don’t you? He needs you. We all need each other, and let’s be sure we’re all taking care of our friends out there on the football field.
“Let’s show respect for our opponents tonight by the way we play the game. Every time we walk out on that field, we’re going to respect the game and make sure that we’re playing good, tough Tiger football. Gentlemen, let’s bring it in here and take a knee. What a beautiful night for the game of football, right fellas! This has gotta be fun, and let’s be thankful for being able to be here.”
Notice, Froehling didn’t say one word about winning the game. He talked about togetherness and focus and teamwork and being thankful.
After practice one day during that homecoming week in 2006, I talked with then-senior J.J. Akin, who went on to play football and graduate from Gustavus Adolphus College, where he now works as coordinator of marketing and technology and an admissions counselor.
Akin said to me, “Our coaches talk a lot about family, and they back it up. It brings unity. We’re not always going to be football players. We’re going to be husbands and fathers. Those are important things in life.”
And those lessons are taught by important people.
BY THE NUMBERS *Schools/teams John has visited: 184 *Miles John has driven in the Toyota Camry in 2014-15: 4,556 Follow John on Twitter: @MSHSLjohn