These two high school baseball coaches have been at it for 39 years.
Aimee Plante/ azcentral
After the 54th orthopedic surgery in his life last November, Roy Muller put his Phoenix Pinnacle High School baseball cap above his bed with a sign that former Arizona State coach Pat Murphy gave him several surgeries ago.
It says, “Tough times don’t outlast tough people. Never give up.”
Muller is 67 now, walks with a slow, awkward gait, one leg shorter than the other. He sometimes uses his fungo bat as a cane. But he still has the mustache and the enthusiasm in his 39th year leading a high school baseball team, despite surgeries on both of his hips, his back, his shoulders, his knees, his ankles, his hands and his wrists.
Known as the bionic baseball coach, there is nothing more therapeutic than watching his players take the field.
“This is medicine for me,” he said. “When I got back on the field, got on the grass, I felt like I was tall again. I could walk.”
Not far from Pinnacle, at rival Horizon, one of Muller’s first assistant coaches, Eric Kibler is in his 36th year as the Huskies’ head baseball coach. He opened the school in 1980, producing countless college and pro players and at least three father-son sets, including this year with sophomore catcher/outfielder Kody Huff, whose dad Tim (1993 graduate) had his jersey No. 14 retired with a sign on the outfield wall at Husky Park.
Earlier this season, before a game at Horizon, Kibler and his team paid a tribute at home plate for retiring Phoenix Brophy Prep coach Tom Succow, who is leaving in May, after leading Brophy’s program for 39 years. He is stepping away with his longtime assistant, Ed Kurakazu. Succow and his wife are moving to Prescott with hopes of still coaching, just as an assistant, the way Jerry Dawson did it after leaving a legacy at Scottsdale Chaparral with then a state-record 773 wins seven years ago. Dawson is now a pitching coach at Yavapai College.
Succow put off prostate cancer surgery until the end of the 2012 season, which ended with Brophy losing the Division I state championship game to Chaparral on a two-run, walk-off home run by Dylan Cozens.
Succow, Kibler and Muller went into the Arizona Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Fame on the same day more than a decade ago. Nothing has changed among them. Each has retained his enthusiasm for the game, sticking with the principles that have made them successful.
Kibler, 67, has won 859 games in his career. That is believed to be the state record. When Jerry Dawson retired from Scottsdale Chaparral after the 2010 season, he had 773 career wins in 37 seasons, which, at the time, was the state career wins record.
Succow, 66, has 724 wins. Succow succeeded Dave Grant at Brophy. Grant went onto Glendale Community College, where he picked up his 1,000th career win in this his final season of leading the Gauchos. Brophy already has a coach to take Succow’s place. It will be the school’s all-time home run leader, Josh Garcia, a 2007 graduate. Raoul Torrez, a 2006 Brophy graduate who played at Arizona State, is expected to be an assistant.
Muller, 67, is at 661 wins. Starting at Paradise Valley in 1976, he took a year away while going through a personal matter, before returning the next season. He left PV after the 2013 season, believing his coaching career was over. But a week before tryouts, he returned to the Paradise Valley Unified School District to take over Pinnacle’s program.
Succow, Kibler and Muller are among a cluster of old-school baseball coaches who haven’t succumbed to the grind, to the burnout that is found in football coaching.
Mike Briguglio, in his 20th year leading Fountain Hills, has won 749 games in 35 years as a head high school baseball coach.
For Kibler and Muller, it’s year to year, on how much longer they want to coach.
“It’s the kids,” Kibler said when asked what keeps him putting on a uniform and going through the gates. “That is it. It’s nothing else. It’s about the kids.”
This Horizon team has renewed Kibler’s energy. It’s been as enjoyable group of players as any he has ever had. The Huskies are 20-3-1, finding pitching Kibler didn’t know he had, and a camaraderie that makes it fun going to the field every day.
Kibler said most of the players have played together since Little League and on youth teams since they were 8.
Loyalty, building life-long bonds, has always been big for all three coaches. Another common thread is having a loyal, longtime assistant to lean on.
“We don’t have a lot of big-name guys but our team chemistry is off the charts,” said Bob Strachan, Kibler’s longtime assistant. “They have a ping pong final four thing going on in our clubhouse right now. Our dugout is pretty entertaining at times.”
Strachan has watched how carefully Kibler, Muller and Succow have maneuvered since the early 1980s with the changing baseball culture without compromising their integrity and values.
Kibler, a longtime proponent for a pitch-count restriction (an Arizona Interscholastic Association bylaw that was put in this school year), is not quite as feisty as he was when he was younger, keeping his emotions in check.
Succow, who coached four Maggi brothers in his career, never gets too up or too down.
Muller doesn’t take himself seriously, adapting to the players and keeping the dugout loose. But he knows when it’s time to go to work.
“Coach Muller is an old-school coach but he can still relate to the kids of this generation,” Strachan said. “Eric has never mentioned retirement. We’ve worked together for 31 years now, and he’s the same guy he was 31 years ago. He rolls up his sleeves and comes to work every day. He grew up on a farm in Ohio. He just brings that kind of work ethic. He grinds it out every day.”
Brophy (9-15) needs to win out, it appears, just to squeak into the 24-team 6A state tournament, which starts the last week of April. Brophy has played arguably the toughest schedule in the state with 16 underclassmen and five seniors.
Pinnacle (18-3-1) and Horizon, meanwhile, have traded spots at No. 1 this season in azcentral sports’ Super 10.
“I think what feeds me, I’ve got so many kids who, years later, reach on back to me and thank me what I imparted to me a little bit,” Succow said. “This season for me is a season of gratitude, my shown gratitude back to the people who have influenced me.”
Horizon has won six state championships under Kibler. Brophy won the state title in 2006 under Succow, beating Horizon 11-1 in the final. The Broncos lost the following season to Horizon in the state final.
Muller still is looking for that elusive state title. But that’s not what pushes him.
He was going to join his former longtime assistant and former player Ray Figueroa as an assistant coach at Apache Junction last year, before he was asked to pick up the Pinnacle program. That team won 19 games.
Then, in November, after having back surgery on four different areas, he figures that would be it. But he returned.
“Almost a whole lumbar is fake now,” Muller said. “I still hit fungos. I just can’t turn my hips.”
Succow and Kibler marvel at Muller’s resourcefulness over the years.
In the mid-1990s, Muller nearly died after developing a post-surgery staph infection.
“Years ago, I said, ‘If I had more (surgeries), I’d get out,’ ” Muller said. “But it went by so fast.
“My coaches, being around all of my players, absolutely keep me going. I’m not a complainer. I just take care of it. It’s a blessing. I’m very happy what I do.”