I’ve always wondered how Gary Guzman felt about replacing legendary Kapaun Mount Carmel football coach Ed Kriwiel all those years ago.
Somebody had to do it. But Guzman was just 31 when he took over for Kriwiel in 1991 after seven years as a Crusaders assistant.
Now 54, Guzman has settled in as a long-time head coach, in his 23rd season and leading a 7-1 Maize team into a Class 6A district game Friday at Hutchinson.
But 22 years ago, he was too naive to be scared about the bite he was taking.
Replacing Ed Kriwiel?
“I happened to be in the right place at the right time,” Guzman said.
Then he followed up with, “I guess.”
Refreshingly candid, Guzman said he was not ready to be a head coach, let alone trying to replace a coach who had won nine state championships and 204 games in 32 seasons at Kapaun. Not to mention the 93 games Kriwiel won at West from 1953-66. Kriwiel’s shadow cast long and far.
“I’m not sure that following a legend like Coach Kriwiel is a good thing,” Guzman said. “I was very young and there was a lot of pressure. I didn’t have the experience I needed at the time.”
In fact, Guzman pleaded with Kriwiel, who had been instructed to retire from coaching because of a heart condition, to stay on just a while longer.
“I told him I needed a little more time to learn from him,” Guzman said. “But he had doctor’s orders to get out of it.”
And Guzman was the coach to follow Kriwiel. Good luck with that.
He never achieved the kind of success Kriwiel had with the Crusaders, but Guzman did coach at Kapaun for 14 seasons, compiling a 73-56 record. Then he took over for another respected coach, Dan Johnson, at Southeast. In six seasons there, he was 27-31.
Maize doesn’t have the football history of Kapaun or Southeast, but the Eagles play in Division I of the Ark Valley-Chisholm Trail League. So this coaching gig is no day at the beach, either.
Maize, though, is 7-1 and one of the most explosive teams in the state.
Quarterback Connor Lungwitz has completed 103 of 176 pass attempts for 1,422 yards and 21 touchdowns while throwing only five interceptions.
Receivers Kendall Stewart and Kevan Jobe have combined for 58 catches, 932 yards and 13 touchdowns. And running back Chase White has rushed for 1,446 yards on 150 carries. He has 14 rushing touchdowns and four more receiving TDs to go with 23 catches good for 230 yards.
“Our big question mark coming into the year was our offensive line,” Guzman said. “We had to replace four kids from that unit from last season and I don’t think we were really sure how that was going to pan out.”
No team outside of Derby has been able to stop the Eagles, who are having their best season since losing in the second round of the playoffs in 2006 and finishing 8-3.
Guzman, in his third season at Maize, has found a comfort zone.
It’s not that he wasn’t comfortable at Kapaun or Southeast. He was. But the weight of past successes at those schools was enormous and neither approached its past glory under Guzman.
There’s far less past glory at Maize and the Eagles have improved steadily since Guzman took over. He learned from Kriwiel to give others credit, he said, so he is careful to point out that the credit for the team’s offense goes to the players and to offensive coordinator Victor Mercado.
“Every week in this league is pressure-packed,” Guzman said. “There’s no letting up. We know that regardless of their record right now (4-4), Hutchinson is Hutchinson. We have a great deal of respect for Randy Dreiling and his staff.”
Guzman is in a good place. Maize is one of the most interesting teams in the state and he long ago learned about himself as a head coach.
“People I knew at the time told me I might never get another chance to be Kapaun’s coach,” Guzman said. “The years I was on Ed’s staff were seven of the most enjoyable years of my life. I learned a lot about football during those years, but I also know there was a lot more for me to learn.”
If he had it to do all over again, Guzman said, he probably wouldn’t try to become the coach to replace a legend. But he did and he made the best of a difficult situation.
“It felt good knowing that Coach Kriwiel believed in me and had confidence in me,” Guzman said. “But deep down inside I just didn’t feel like I was ready. That first year was a struggle. It was very difficult for me.’’
After back-to-back 9-2 seasons, Kapaun dropped to 2-7 in 1991, Guzman’s first season. But they steadily improved after that and Guzman led Kapaun to 10 winning seasons in his 14 years.
He wasn’t Ed Kriwiel, but he already knew that.