Mike Fritze never said he was retiring from football, and after a two-month break he’s back in the game.
After closing his career as a teacher and coach at Apple Valley High School in November, he’s now at the University of Minnesota Crookston, where he will be defensive coordinator and assist with the Golden Eagles’ recruiting.
That didn’t come about by happenstance. UMC’s head coach is Paul Miller, who led Apple Valley High School to state championships in 1986 and 1993. Fritze worked on Miller’s staff at Apple Valley before succeeding him as head coach in the mid-1990s. Miller, in turn, worked for Fritze as the AVHS offensive coordinator in 2008.
“I plan to be coaching football for a long time,” Fritze said. “When Paul and I got together, we started talking about our careers and what we wanted to do, and one of those things was that we wanted to work together again.”
Fritze actually planned to retire from Apple Valley after the 2011 season, and plans were in place for him to join the UMC staff as offensive coordinator. He then found out he needed to work in School District 196 for one more year before becoming eligible to retire with full benefits. After rescinding his retirement, he coached Apple Valley to an 8-3 season and its first state playoff berth since 1993.
Once he was free and clear to join the Golden Eagles, they had a vacancy on their staff for a defensive coordinator, and Fritze stepped into that role. His appointment became official Jan. 10. He will split time between Crookston and his home in the south metro suburbs. That arrangement, Fritze said, would not have been possible without the support of his wife Kris, who he said has unlimited patience with the coaching lifestyle.
Miller joined UMC as offensive coordinator in 2011 and became head coach last year. The Golden Eagles were 2-9 in 2012 following back-to-back 1-10 seasons.
UMC plays in the Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference, one of the nation’s strongest Division II football leagues. NSIC member Minnesota-Duluth won national championships in 2008 and 2010, and Minnesota State, Mankato reached the Division II semifinals in 2012.
As if the NSIC schools didn’t provide enough competition for recruits, North Dakota State isn’t far away. The Bison earlier this month won their second consecutive NCAA Football Championship Subdivision title.
Fritze will help recruit the Twin Cities for UMC. There’s a smattering of players from South Suburban Conference high schools on the Golden Eagles’ roster, and the coaches want to get more Minnesotans overall. About one-third of the players on the 2012 roster were from Minnesota.
“Our main selling point is it’s a University of Minnesota degree,” Fritze said. “We don’t have the number of programs they have at the main campus because we’re a smaller school with about 1,700 students. We tell (recruits), ‘Small school, big degree.’ When they graduate from here, they’ll have a degree with U of M on it.”
Fritze was defensive coordinator for Apple Valley’s 1993 state championship team and already is planning changes for the Golden Eagles’ defense.
“Our biggest problem was we gave up a lot of big plays, a lot of plays of 10 yards or more,” he said. “We’re going to use more of a 4-2-5 alignment. It’s kind of a nickel package, except we’ll use it all the time. It’s what the Vikings were playing against Green Bay when (Antoine) Winfield was being used as another strong safety.”
Fritze said it worked out for the best that he stayed at Apple Valley one more year.
“I was able to finish with a group of seniors that I’d had since they were sophomores,” he said. “That felt better, and things look good for the program now. They’ll have 40 seniors next year and another 40 juniors. Numbers had been our biggest problem the last few years.”
He arrived at AVHS in 1981 after five years at a high school in Wisconsin. His brother Dave already was working in District 196, and Mike Fritze said one of his ambitions was that they coach together. They did that until Dave Fritze went to Eagan High School to become head football coach there. For a number of years, the Fritze brothers were opposing head coaches at two rival high schools.
Mike Fritze taught physical education and also coached basketball and track. He was head basketball coach at AVHS for six years, leading the Eagles to the state tournament twice.
Apple Valley athletic director Pete Buesgens did the math and concluded that Fritze had coached for 103 consecutive high school seasons in three sports. Fritze started the 2011-12 boys basketball season as an assistant on the Apple Valley staff but stepped down because NCAA rules do not allow a college coach to also coach a high school team.
But he wanted to coach somewhere because he said the camaraderie between members of a staff was the most enjoyable part of the job.
“That always was the most fun for me, and I’m also proud to have worked with the kids,” he said. “It was important to me to have Apple Valley guys on the staff, and now we have people who played here coming back to coach.”