Longtime Conway Springs and Douglass coach earns state honor
By Travis Mounts
Conway Springs and Douglass sports fans turned out in force last week to honor Fred Cottrell on his selection to the Kansas State High School Activities Association Hall of Fame.
Cottrell’s career as an educator and coach spanned six decades, with most of his time served at just two Central Plains League schools: Douglass and Conway Springs. Cottrell was recognized on Tuesday, Feb. 12, when the Cardinals hosted the Bulldogs in basketball.
“It’s very humbling,” Cottrell said about the honor.
He spent 25 years at Douglass, took retirement, and then came to Conway Springs for the next 20 years. He retired again in 2017.
Cottrell said he wanted to be a teacher when he was young, but wasn’t sure about coaching. Throughout his career, he always viewed himself as an educator first.
But in college, he started as a business major.
“I decided that wasn’t what I wanted to be in,” he said, so he changed his major to radio-television-speech, with an eye on sports broadcasting.
He landed a job as a disc jockey, but that was not the path for Cottrell.
“It didn’t have anything to do with the things I was interested in,” he said. “I don’t think I’m a very cute person. To be a DJ, you had to be cute.”
He found his calling in part through Tex Winter. For those who don’t know, Morice Frederick “Tex” Winter was a legendary basketball coach. Born near Wellington, Winter was the K-State men’s basketball coach from 1953 to 1968, and later was an assistant with the Chicago Bulls and Los Angeles Lakers under Phil Jackson. Winter created the triangle offense that helped Michael Jordan win six NBA championships and brought three more titles the Lakers during the Shaquille O’Neal-Kobe Bryant years.
Cottrell said that even though Winter was K-State’s head men’s basketball coach, he was in the classroom every day.
“Tex really inspired me. He gave me a good job one time, and that was to work the scorer’s table at K-State,” Cottrell said. “My main inspiration was Tex Winter. He was a great mentor.”
Cottrell mainly taught psychology, American government and current events. He taught some history, too, but was less enthused about that topic.
“The other ones interested me more,” he said.
His early career was spent at schools in Victoria, Frankfurt and Liberal, and he also worked at Seward County Community College. While at Seward, Cottrell served as head track coach and head baseball coach simultaneously.
“I didn’t have a lot of free time,” Cottrell said in a dead-pan tone.
In 1972, Cottrell came to Douglass, and his coaching career continued. He spent 25 years as a Bulldog, finally retiring to coincide with a change of leadership in the school district.
That left Cottrell to make a decision about the next chapter in his life.
“I thought I’d keep going with the coaching part, or I could be a substitute teacher,” he said.
In the end, he followed one of his former colleagues to Conway Springs.
That colleague is Clay Murphy, who is now superintendent of USD 356 Conway Springs. They first crossed paths when Murphy was still a student at Conway Springs High School.
“When I was in high school in Conway Springs, Fred coached against me,” Murphy recalled. A few years later, Murphy took a teaching job at Douglass, and served as head football coach, with Cottrell as one of his assistants. They coached together for six years, and Murphy learned much from Cottrell.
“He was a good mentor to me,” Murphy said. “Fred was one of the reasons I got the job in Douglass.”
They formed a bond and have remained close for years.
Murphy eventually departed Douglass for a short stint at South Haven. He then came to Conway Springs, and wanted to hire a former assistant who was also a mentor.
Murphy had hired a young head football coach named Mark Bliss, and an experienced assistant seemed like a wise decision. They installed the single-wing offense, build a ferocious defense, and the Cardinals kicked off what has been two decades of excellence on the gridiron, with seven State championships.
“When I came back to Conway Springs, we had some things to fix. I knew what Fred was all about. He was a legend in Douglass, but not known in Conway Springs. But he’s one of those guys – he challenged kids all the time,” Murphy said. “Fred always talks about setting goals and then working your butt off to achieve those goals.”
Murphy credits Cottrell with helping him become a high school principal in his late 20s and a superintendent by his mid 30s.
Matt Biehler has been the Cardinals head football coach since 2009, and is an assistant on the track and field team. But in 1998, he was fresh out of college.
“I met Fred that summer when I was looking for a job,” Biehler said.
Cottrell had a profound impact on the young educator. Biehler said Cottrell’s knowledge impressed him most.
“He makes everybody around him feel good,” Biehler said. “The greatest thing Fred did for me was he let me fall on my face. He let you fail. But if something was going to hurt the kids, he wouldn’t let that happen. We learn from everything, even our failures.”
After a quarter century in Bulldogs purple and gold, Cottrell found a new home in the red and white of the Conway Springs Cardinals.
“I had five consecutive excellent classrooms. The kids were great,” he said. Cottrell eventually cut back to just coaching. “I was very fortunate to come to Conway Springs.”
According to KSHSAA’s Hall of Fame biography on Cottrell, he coached football for 48 years, track and field for 43 years, basketball for 29 years, baseball for six years, and spent two years as a cross country coach.
Most people associate Cottrell with track and football, but his early interests were in another sport.
“Baseball was my first love, but I found baseball was my least favorite sport to coach,” Cottrell said.
But overall, he found joy in coaching, regardless of the season.
“I really liked coaching all of them,” Cottrell said. “All of them were my favorite at one time.”
However, he found football the most difficult sport.
“I didn’t think I was suited for it. I really had to work hard at it,” he said.
Being a teacher was always his first calling, Cottrell said, and the classroom brought great joy.
“I enjoyed the whole thing. I enjoyed the challenge of watching kids grow up,” he said. “I taught junior high school, high school, college. I taught at K-State for a year. I was a grade school counselor. My favorite was seniors in high school. They’re getting ready for life as an adult. I enjoyed that more than anything coaching.
“I never had to go to work one day of my life.”
Biehler echoed Cottrell’s commitment to the classroom.
“He was a teacher first. He always talked about that. I don’t know anyone who doesn’t respect Coach,” Biehler said. “He values the whole education process. The biggest thing he impressed on me was education. Treat everybody with equal respect. That makes you a coach.”
Biehler went on to say that he learned a lot serving as an assistant to Bliss, but that Cottrell became a father figure to him.
“I have a great father. Fred is like a second father to me. I had three mentors in my life – my father; my college coach, Monty Lewis; and Fred,” Biehler said.
Murphy also praised Cottrell’s commitment to the classroom.
“Fred said coaching is just an extension of teaching. The classroom was first. He preached that to the kids, too. Your knowledge is what gets you through life,” Murphy said.
He said that Cottrell was always interested in the kids who did not have the most talent. He said that Cottrell excelled with the young athletes who worked their tails off, day after day. A lot of that comes back to goals.
“He preached that you have to set goals,” Murphy said.
At last week’s presentation, Cottrell donned a long-sleeve purple shirt under his red Conway Springs polo, showing love for the two schools that comprised most of his career as an educator and coach.
“I’ve been very fortunate. The last 45 years of my teaching life were quite good. I’ll never forget it.”