In 1982, an enthusiastic 22-year-old Willie Fritz joined the football staff at Shawnee Mission Northwest High School, a modest-sized, 13-year-old school in the inconspicuous southwestern Kansas City suburb of Shawnee, Kan.
Twelve years later, an enthusiastic 22-year-old Dave Doeren joined the football staff at Shawnee Mission Northwest. Fritz was long gone but, as was the case for Fritz 12 years earlier, it was the start of something special for Doeren.
Doeren, now the fifth-year head coach at North Carolina State, and Fritz, now the second-year head coach at Tulane, form one of only two pairs of current FBS head coaches who coached at the same high school. SMU's Chad Morris (2004-07) and Tulsa's Philip Montgomery (1997-2001) both spent time at Stephenville High School in Texas before rocketing up the coaching ranks.
Those four are among 39 FBS head coaches who coached high school football at some point during their careers. Twenty-seven of them, including Doeren and Morris, began their careers in high school.
"I was positive I was going to coach," Fritz, a 1978 Northwest graduate who spent one year as a graduate assistant at his alma mater, Pittsburg State, before returning to Shawnee, told HERO Sports. "I was an in-house sub at Northwest. The days they didn’t have anything for me I worked construction [in addition to coaching] football and basketball."
Fritz was born in Bemidji, Minn., and after moves to Illinois and New York, where his father, Harry, was athletics director at Bemidji State, Western Illinois and Buffalo (among other previous administrative and coaching stops), the family arrived in Kansas in 1976 when Harry was named executive director of the NAIA in Kansas City.
After a year on the Northwest staff, he made seven coaching stops before landing in the FBS in 2014 as head coach of Georgia Southern. (Interestingly, Fritz was head coach at Central Missouri at 13 years, where his father once coached.) Fritz's first game as Eagles head coach was against North Carolina State, coached by Dave Doeren.
"A little bit," Fritz says if he and Doeren, who was born at Naval Base San Diego but raised in Kansas, chat about their roots. "I didn’t realize he coached [at Northwest] for a year because I’m quite a bit older, I hate to admit it."
Both men say they keep in touch with former players, coaches and other friends from their time in Shawnee. And Fritz is close with Cougars' head coach Bo Black, whom he coached at Sam Houston State in 1991.
"He takes great pride in being from here. He has stopped in every summer I have been here," said Black, the Cougars' second-year coach after stops in Hays and Great Bend, Kan. "In his office at Tulane, he has our helmet on display with other places he has coached. Our staff went down two years ago in the spring and had a great time."
Interactive Map: FBS Head Coaches Who Started in High School
Black has no plans to follow Fritz and Doeren's path from Northwest to college — saying "kids at this age can be impacted in a positive way through the game," a sentiment echoed by Fritz — where he'd join a long line of Kansans (or honorary Kansans in his case) who have coached or are currently coaching college football. Kansas is one of 14 states where four or more current FBS head coaches grew up.
"Kansas boys are special for sure," said Doeren, a graduate of Bishop Miege High School in Kansas City. "It's probably that great BBQ and steak we grow up on."
"Number one, it has a great education system," says Fritz, who is friends with native Kansans and former Minnesota head coaches Jerry Kill and Tracy Claeys. "I’m a little more in tune with it because my sister and brother are teachers there. I coached at Coffeyville Community College and recruited the entire state. One year I signed about 35-40 guys, so I’ve been in all the high schools. It’s all hard-working people in the state."
Doeren and Fritz have combined for 19 coaching stops, hitting every level besides the NAIA and D3. Their gradual rises through lower levels are a microcosm in some ways of the hard-working, get-what-your-earn mentality they say epitomizes Kansans.
"I have had the privilege of coaching at many levels — high school, 1-AA non- and full-scholarship, Power Five and non-Power Five," Doeren said. "I have been with some great players and coaches along the way and have learned from all of them. I was not handed anything and have had to earn it all. That makes me proud."
"I think every place you go you learn something," Fritz added. "And you better or you shouldn’t be in this profession. I really think [coaching high school] gives me an edge from other coaches. I understand the trials and tribulations of a high school coach. I think some college coaches have no idea of what [high school coaches] must do to coach ball, in terms of teaching class and other things. My route to where I’m at is different than a lot of coaches."
No two coaches have the same route. But the routes from Shawnee Mission Northwest, 12 years apart, are about as similar as it gets, and ones that both Dave Doeren and Wilile Frtiz are darn proud of.