CF generations remember legendary Mitchell

If success is defined by the numbers on a scoreboard, then legendary CFHS coach Pat Mitchell had one of the most successful tenures in the history of Iowa with 344 wins across 47 seasons while patrolling the Tiger sideline. But for Mitchell, success always went far beyond the football field and into the lives of not only his players but every person he came across. “Coach Mitchell was always in a good mood,” said Tim (Tiny) Kofron, the groundskeeper for Cedar Falls Schools for the last 15 years. “He was appreciative.”

Last January, Mitchell was diagnosed with cancer. Despite that diagnosis, he remained upbeat because the doctors told him they could contain it. “He’s one of those people you don’t knock down and keep down,” CFHS offensive line coach for the last 21 years and current CFHS offensive coordinator Ken Kohltoff said. “He’s gonna make the best of the situation. That’s just who he was.”

Despite his consistent positive attitude, he ultimately retired this summer because he physically wasn’t going to be able to keep up with the demands of coaching his players. The cancer then spread to the bone in his hip and then his brain, which is what finally took him. Mitchell died on Feb. 4, but his legacy and the feelings he entrenched in people all over the community will never be forgotten.

The appreciation for everyone he crossed paths with extended from giving the groundskeeper a camp T-shirt every year to making everyone feel like they were a valuable part of the team. “He always made an effort to talk to me before and after practice,” Chase Koch said whose contribution came on the kickoff return team during his junior year, Mitchell’s final season. “He made everyone feel welcome and like they were apart of something bigger.”

Twenty-two of Mitchell’s former players suited up to play collegiate football last season alone, but none were of a higher profile than Ross Pierschbacher who was the only four-year All Metro selection in CFHS history, as well as the country’s top ranked offensive guard in the entire class of 2014, but Mitchell didn’t treat him any differently than the special teamers. “He taught me a lot more than just football,” said Pierschbacher, who now plays college football at powerhouse Alabama. “He treated me the same as any other player throughout the entire CF program, which I thought was pretty neat and is one of the many things that made him special.”

Mitchell was a three-year starter and letterwinner at the University of Northern Iowa back when it was called the Iowa State Teachers College and then the State College of Iowa.  There he played for coach Stan Sheriff, who the field in the UNI Dome is named after. After stops in California and Wisconsin, Mitchell returned to Cedar Falls where he originally taught typing classes before moving on to PE, coached the sophomore basketball team and was the defensive coordinator under Ed Lyons. When Lyons retired in 1967, Mitchell was inserted into the head coaching role at 27 years old.

Jerry Ward, or coach Ward as most people around the community know him, was an All State running back on Mitchell’s first team in 1967, but back then he had no idea the legend that his coach would become. “To do what he did, 344 wins, 47 years, you can never see that coming,” he said.

Ward thought so highly of coach Mitchell that he and his teammates thought he would take over as the head coach at UNI and potentially coach at the NFL level after that. “I honestly, sincerely think he had opportunities but didn’t go,” Ward said. “This is what we thought would happen; he’d coach us for a few years, go to be the head coach at UNI then just keep going up.”

Immediately, Mitchell had the respect of his players who hated to let him down. In his first season, Mitchell and his coaches left the field during practice, upset by his team’s performance. As a captain, Ward kept his team out there to practice without the coaches because he was so disturbed by disappointing his coach.

Despite losing games that season, Ward and the other 18 seniors on that team gave Mitchell a message. “As far as we’re concerned, we were undefeated because we got to be with you,” his first players told him.

After playing semi-pro football, Ward came up to coach for three weeks with Mitchell and realized that maybe he would be interested in coaching. Ward has coached seventh grade football for 23 years, seventh and eighth grade track for 20 and is now getting back into coaching basketball but without coach Mitchell, Ward said he may have never become a coach. “The way I can pay guys like coach Mitchell back is to coach young people and hopefully be as good as they’ve been to me,” Ward said.

Ward isn’t the only coach that has come out from under the Pat Mitchell coaching tree. Coaches from across the state of Iowa have learned under Mitchell before they went on to coach and inspire their own crops of student athletes.

Cedar Rapids Jefferson coach Brian Webb is a CFHS alum and spent one year as a volunteer coach under Mitchell before going on to be a head coach at other schools and become the 2012 Class 2A District 2 Coach of the Year. “There was never a better guy in the profession who stood by what he believed in and was not going to compromise his values to simply win a game on the scoreboard,” Webb said.

While some say winning is everything, that wasn’t the case for Mitchell. The impact he made off the field is what people turn to first when talking about his legacy. For Rodney Hinton, Mitchell was more than just a coach. He opened up his house for Hinton to stay at when his mom was in the hospital and put groceries in his fridge when there weren’t any. “Besides coach, I never had a person who cared about me in that type of way and made me feel special,” Hinton said. “He’s been a huge role model in my life.”

When players moved up to Cedar Falls after Hurricane Katrina and they didn’t have equipment or winter coats, Mitchell took care of them and made sure they had everything they needed.

When coach Ward’s father passed away, Mitchell was the first person to give him a call, and one time when a player’s parent committed suicide, coach Mitchell was the first person they called looking for help. There are countless stories of Mitchell’s character, but often times these stories wouldn’t be revealed until years after they happened. “The guy had a great heart. He had a heart of gold, but it wasn’t like he was putting it on display for people to see,” Kohltoff said.

In 47 years, he made it to the state championship game five times, winning it once in 1986. Kohltoff said that Mitchell’s quick witted and dry sense of humor shined through when he jokingly said the reason for his four losses in the title game was because Kohltoff was around. In 1982 Kohltoff was a player on the team and was a coach in the team’s losses in ’99,’05 and ’08 but wasn’t associated with the team during their ’86 championship run. Mitchell was able to joke because he realized there were more important things than that final score at the end of a football game.

The impact coach Mitchell made on the field will always be in the record books, but more importantly in his eyes, the impact made on his players will last in their hearts forever.

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