Over the next five days, the Star will reveal our picks for Tucson’s best high school football coaches of all time. Our countdown continues today with Rollin T. Gridley, the mastermind behind Tucson High’s 32-game winning streak and four straight state titles.
No. 5 Rollin T. Gridley
School: Tucson High School
Years in coaching: 1935-1947
Local record: 88-28-8
Achievements: For Gridley, a man who eventually relinquished coaching at Tucson High for his true passion of education, his brief decade with the Badgers was defined by near perfection. Gridley’s Tucson teams from the mid-1930s to 40s never held a losing record and compiled five state championships along the way, including three straight perfect seasons.
The Janesville, Wisconsin, native never planned on coming to Tucson — he more or less happened upon the city after falling ill from a bad lunch in Albuquerque while traveling to California. A lifetime later, after Gridley died at 96 years old in August 2000, his name was etched into the Tucson High, UA, Pima County and Arizona Coaches Association halls of fame.
The Badgers’ popularity was so great at the time that their games drew crowds in excess of 13,000 during the historic 32-game winning streak — more fans than the Arizona Wildcats were attracting at the time. Gridley’s real gifts — as his years as a teacher and administrator at Tucson and principal at Catalina showed — were as a leader and motivator, rather than just a ball coach. He made such a profound impact on his players that he received more than 500 letters from former students deployed in the armed services during World War II. He told the Arizona Daily Star that he replied to every one of them.
Memorable moment: Long before Ka’Deem Carey was breaking tackles and streaking down the sidelines, another Carey — Lee “Legs” Carey — cemented his name in Arizona Stadium lore. One story Gridley continued to tell reporters was about a Week 9 game in 1945 against powerhouse Phoenix Union, in which Carey and the Badgers left the Coyotes in the dust. Tucson High had already beat Phoenix Union 15-0 in the season opener, but now it was hosting the Coyotes in front of around 8,500 at Arizona Stadium.
The game was over before it started. Carey returned the opening kickoff 90 yards for a touchdown. Then, after an Oscar Carrillo TD put Tucson up 14-0, the Coyotes were forced to punt for the first time. Carey promptly returned the kick 51 yards for a three-score lead. Tucson forced another Phoenix Union punt, and, as Gridley told the Arizona Daily Star years later, “this time they got wise and kicked the ball out of bounds.”
But on the first play from scrimmage after the punt, the Badgers handed the ball to Carey, who broke free around the left side for a 52-yard touchdown. With the 28-0 advantage, Gridley didn’t play any of his starters in the second half. When it was all said and done, Tucson left Arizona Stadium with a 35-7 victory, its 30th straight, and another signature win.
From the archives: “Coach Gridley was responsible for our success. He’s a man who changed all of our lives and was a positive influence. I mean that.” — Frank Borman, former Tucson quarterback and famous U.S. astronaut, in the Oct. 14, 1991, Arizona Daily Star
Big number: 32. Starting with a 41-13 win against Yuma in the 1942 season finale, Tucson won 32 straight games before Austin High School, from El Paso, upended the Badgers 7-0 in the 1946 season opener. The streak stood as the longest in Arizona history until Eagar Round Valley broke it in 1982. During the streak, the Badgers outscored opponents by nearly three touchdowns a game, averaging 25.5 points while allowing only 6.2 per contest. Before taking over football, Gridley also won a state title in basketball at Tucson in 1934 after finishing runner-up a year earlier.
Coming up: Find out who is ranked No. 4 in Thursday’s Star.