Varsity Football

Retired Mulvane football coach, former players reflect on 26 years of passion

Mulvane football coach Dave Fennewald has retired after 26 years because of health concerns.
Mulvane football coach Dave Fennewald has retired after 26 years because of health concerns. The Wichita Eagle

In one of his first few years at Mulvane High School, Dave Fennewald was printing copies for his first football summer camp when he heard something that stuck with him.

A school official came into the copy room, saw Fennewald and gave him this message: "Welcome to the graveyard of Kansas coaches," he said. "You will not be here two years. You will not be able to win."

Dave Fennewald retired Friday after 26 years and 144 wins. He didn't retire because of a lack of wins or patience. He did it to focus on his health and his family. Fennewald isn't leaving Mulvane. He will serve as an assistant principal.

Fennewald coached Shrine Bowl players, players who have gone on to become coaches themselves and players who have become successful outside of football.

He came to Kansas from South Dakota in 1992. When he interviewed in front of the Mulvane school board, he talked for an hour and a half. The board's top request: "We want somebody who will give us a long-term commitment."

He has received a wave of support since the announcement. Fans, opposing coaches and former players have reached out with text messages, tweets and phone calls.

Marc Marinelli was one of the first.

Marinelli is the football coach at Eisenhower. He played under Fennewald from 1996-99. When he got the news, he called.

"I just told him how proud I am of him," Marinelli said. "And I told him how much I love him."

Chase Hansen played for Fennewald from 2000-04. He is now the coach at Sterling College.

Hansen said Fennewald was one of the greatest influences in his life and career choice.

"I talk to parents or recruits almost daily, and I tell them one of our four pillars is character," Hansen said. "Who you are on the inside matters. I tell them, 'The reason I am the way I am today is because of the football coaches that I had.' "

Zach Haynes is another. He graduated from Mulvane in 2013. Haynes is just down the road as an assistant at Derby. Fennewald was his "first real role model" as his coach in third grade.

"He loves winning games, but he cared more about how his players were going to be great husbands and amazing fathers," Haynes said. "That was the one thing I always took with me."

Marinelli said one of the best traits of Fennewald and his coaching style is his caring manner — even after graduation.

Fennewald was always a passionate, emotional coach. He didn't hold anything back, and he made his players feel like part of his family.

"It doesn't matter when you played for him or how long you played for him or how well you played for him," Marinelli said. "Once you play for him, you're always one of Fen's boys."

Haynes shared similar sentiments. With Derby and Mulvane just a few miles apart, they have more opportunities to see each other.

This winter, they met up at a coaching clinic

"It was like there hadn't been any time since I graduated," Haynes said.

All of this has humbled Fennewald. After 26 years in Mulvane, he has coached through generations. He has coached both of his own sons and had his daughter serve as manager.

He has qualified for numerous state tournaments, including seven straight with last year's 6-4 team.

There were lean years in Mulvane, too, but he knew there would be, especially early. Fennewald told the school board during his interview he was going to need time to turn the ship.

"I remember driving home one fall afternoon after practice," Fennewald said. "I had tears running down my cheek, saying, 'What did I get myself into?' "

He said determination and knowing he was making a difference in boys' lives got him through it. Through that, he has seen the Mulvane community change. That includes the football program.

"Our facilities now are as good as any 5A or 6A school in the state, I believe," Fennewald said.

The Wildcats have still never won a state championship, but they came close in 2007. They won back-to-back playoff games but lost 20-17 to Ulysses in the third round.

Then in 2012, they did one better. Mulvane made it to the Class 4A semifinals at 11-1 after a rivalry win against Buhler in the quarterfinals. The end came against eventual champion Holton.

Fennewald didn't say spending 26 years in the same place was about chasing state championships. It was about molding young men, he said.

"Football is what I did," he said. "It's not who I am. My love is in impacting kids and working with people."

He will still get the chance to do that as an assistant principal. But Fennewald said that when August rolls around, he will get that itch again.

His fire hasn't faded.

"But I can't coach my kids the way I need to, and that's not fair to them," he said. "My assistants would have taken on a bigger role, and that's not fair to them either. I didn't think it was fair to the program."

Fennewald said he will still be at Mulvane football games, and students will see him walking the halls. He won't blow a whistle or run his team onto the field next season, but he will be there.

Twenty-six years is a long time to stay in one place. It shows patience on both sides, between coach and administration. And for that, Fennewald said, "Thank you."

"I love all my student-athletes that I've coached passionately," he said. "I tried to give them everything I could, not just to be successful on Friday, but to be successful in life."