They call him Coach. All of them call him Coach. The Heisman Trophy winner. The backup offensive lineman. The former NFL players. They all call him Coach.
In 41 years at the helm of the Millard North football program, Fred Petito coached thousands of high school football players. Sunday, he told his current team he was going to retire.
The Mustangs flourished under his guidance. He won 279 games as the head man and lost 155. He won five Class A state football championships, most recently in 2015. He reached eight state finals.
Petito grew up on the south side of Chicago dreaming of becoming a police officer. Those plans took a turn when his father dropped him off at Hastings College in central Nebraska where he played linebacker for the Broncos. He was later inducted into the Hastings College Hall of Fame as an Alumni Coach of the Year in 2004.
His impact on not just Millard North but on Nebraska’s high school football community is matched by few.
Brian Begley, the principal at Millard North from 2007 until he retired from the district in 2022, first met Petito when Petito was at Omaha Cathedral High School in 1979. Petito was the head football coach and Begley’s eighth-grade basketball coach at St. Cecilia’s Cathedral Grade School.
Few knew him as well as Begley, who lauded Petito for his “profound impact on our Millard North community,” the state championships and “his unflinching belief in his distinctive winning system.” He added that Petito had “unparalleled success in supporting student athletes both on and off the grass.”
“I’m so proud and so grateful to Coach Petito for being such a caring and influential champion for so many over the last 40-plus years,” Begley said. “He leaves a lasting legacy of bringing class, style, intelligence, humor, generosity and South Chicago toughness to Millard North.”
The wins and losses mattered, but Petito’s care for his players went far beyond just winning football games.
“I love him to death, I think the world of him, I’m happy for him,” said former Mustang Eric Crouch, who went on to win the Heisman Trophy at Nebraska. “He was a tremendous advocate for my football career and he taught me a lot. When people refer to my career at NU it comes down to toughness. I got that from Coach Petito at Millard North. I appreciate the hard work and he makes me think about the hard work even after my playing career.”
Crouch flourished under the Petito option attack. The game-winning drives, long runs and playoff victories are things Petito and Crouch recently relived when Crouch went down on the field for what turned out to be Petito’s last game.
The visit seems poignant now with Petito’s announcement. “He remembered certain plays and winning games,” Crouch said. “It gave me chills that he has that memory and he can remember all of that after 41 years of coaching.”
When Crouch went through struggles at Nebraska or needed advice after his playing days were over, Crouch always went back to Coach.
“He was instrumental in me refocusing my commitment to Nebraska when I was thinking about leaving Nebraska after my sophomore year,” said Crouch of his well-documented decision to remain a Husker. “His support and being there for me after tough times got me refocused on playing this game, and I really appreciate that. He was someone I trusted and was always in my corner. I have a lot of respect for him.”
Former Iowa State and NFL quarterback Todd Doxzon shared a similar story.
“If there is no Coach Petito there is nothing that happens in my life without that guy,” Doxzon said.
Petito saw something in Doxzon at a young age. It’s still a vivid memory for Doxzon.
“My sophomore year in the gym at Millard North, Coach came up to me and said, ‘Todd, let me tell you something, you are going to play on Sundays some day,’” Doxzon said. “It was with such conviction and encouragement. I was 16 and he was speaking destiny into my life.”
The trust Petito had in Doxzon in that moment stuck with him at Iowa State and into the NFL.
“I held onto that and the miraculous came true,” he said. “That was due to Coach injecting confidence in me. There is a charisma about him. When he looks at you, you believe what he is saying. That is a gift he has.”
Sean Fisher graduated from Millard North in 2008 and went on to play linebacker at Nebraska. In the 2007 Mustang state championship win he rushed for 198 yards on 44 carries.
“I would be hard-pressed to come up with a name, other than Fred Petito, that I felt like had more of an impact on myself as a young man and a football player,” Fisher said. “I imagine if you polled many kids from Millard North, across multiple decades, you would get the same answer.”
Petito’s feelings for his players is obvious to those who have witnessed it — and not just for those who rush for 200 yards or make a game-clinching interception, Doxzon said.
He spoke confidence into his players and later in his career he did it in a mild-mannered but matter-of-fact way. When he spoke at practice everyone stopped and listened. There were no whistle’s stopping practice. Petito didn’t need a whistle.
“If you can inject confidence in your players. I think it is so crucial at that age,” Doxzon said. “He is so authentically wanting to invest in his kids. Yeah, he loves to compete. I’m almost 50 and tell him I love him. I would never be in the position I am without him.”
Doxzon said Petito invested in players’ lives and wanted them to be good parents, husbands and men.
“He is just hilarious. He models so well, he is not tied to material things,” Doxzon said. “It is all about relationships. He is all about investing in leaders and the next generation.”
Jeff Tarpinian played quarterback for Petito at Millard North, linebacker at Iowa and four seasons in the NFL.
“He was fantastic. A fantastic coach and mentor,” Tarpinian said. “His belief in his players wasn’t a false sense of building guys up. He made you work and taught you to work. Once you did, he made you confident in yourself. He never wavered in his confidence in me.”
Hard work is something Petito and his coaching staff preached to his players often. The life lessons Petito taught his kids have a lasting impact as adults.
“Coach had the ability to command hard work and commitment from his players, while rarely raising his voice and never putting anyone down. He always treated everyone on his teams with respect, and you always got the sense he truly wanted the best for us,” Fisher said. “He made me believe in myself as a 16 year old kid and really fought for me to have the opportunity to play football at the next level. I feel very fortunate to have had the opportunity to play for coach Petito.”
Working for Kids
Petito was an advocate for Millard North players and players at other high schools. If he thought a player could play, he was always willing to make a call to a college. And his love for his players stretched beyond their playing days.
“I would make it a point to see him every single time I was back in town,” Tarpinian said. “Whenever I did, he was just as supportive and an advocate when I got done with high school as he was when I was at Iowa and in the NFL.”
Crouch said many players have similarly benefited.
“I’m thankful he has dedicated his life to high school football and that he has dedicated his life to student-athletes,” Crouch said.