Coach Vargas. Photo by LCGross
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End of an Era

Before there was a man on the moon, there was a man named Coach Vargas leading Vandals basketball. That era comes to an end as Ken Vargas retires as head coach. It’s a position he has held for over two decades and one he knew he wanted since the second grade. 

“The town. The kids. My dad…” Ken recollects, “I always knew I’d be a coach.”

His father, Richard “Dickie” Vargas, coached the Vandals varsity basketball team for 35 years. Known as a disciplinarian, Coach Vargas commanded respect. At home and on the court. 

“It’s a strong piece of the Miami tradition,” Ken says, “so it was important for me to carry forth.” 

Since 2001, Ken has led the boys’ varsity basketball team, continuing the family legacy. According to his longtime assistant coach Don Wilson, Ken is a lot like his father but more soft-spoken. 

“Kenny could chew your butt off without raising his voice,” he says. 

Ken doesn’t keep track of his overall record. It’s not how he measures success. Endurance. Dedication. Respect. Determination. Don’t give up. Those are things that are important, he says. 

“How to face the fail, that’s what I learned from Dad,” says Ken. “There’s more. You have to get up.”

His father died on October 31, 2022. There have been other tough losses, too. Lost championships. Missed shots in the last two seconds. The kids he couldn’t reach.

“Education was always the number one priority for Kenny,” says Assistant Coach Don Wilson, “Basketball was a privilege and came second.”

Coaching is not just about Xs and Os. It takes a village to do it. Don Wilson has coached ‘side by side’ with Coach Vargas for 38 years. The two are supported by three volunteer coaches – Chris Goss, Chris Guthrie and Bobby Powel. All of them, Ken says, are vital to the program. Powel, a longtime Vandals supporter and sports team veteran, contributes an old-school mentality and stories that connect present-day kids to their past. 

“Where we came from, where we’re going,” says Coach Vargas, “I rely on him to be that guy for those kids.” 

Their personalities blend into one coaching staff, according to Coach Wilson. Ken took charge of what he needed to, and let his assistant coaches take charge of what they needed to do at that level.

“Kenny was extremely good at putting the puzzle together,” he says. “Because of Keny’s leadership, he could calm the storm and, once in a while, let the storm rage.”

Cheerleading Wife

Ken grew up in Miami, AZ, and is a 1977 graduate of Miami High School and its Homecoming King. Ken played football and basketball in high school and was all-conference in both sports. As a player, he worked hard. He’d put on a harness and drag his ‘64 Ford truck on the dirt road behind George Washington School. He dribbled his ball on the way home on the wood railroad tracks.

“He was above and beyond any athlete,” says Evelyn. “He went the extra distance to be better.”

In basketball, he played point guard; his specialty was defense. He began playing football in his junior year. He gained over 100 yds as a receiver in each of the four games he played. He broke his hand in his senior year but recovered enough to play basketball. 

“Basketball was more than a sport,” says Ken’s wife, Evelyn Vargas. “He’s always had a passion and love for the game.”

Evelyn cheered for Ken’s team in junior high, a fact they discovered only 50 years later. 

The couple first dated as students at Northern Arizona University (NAU). Before long, they married, had a baby daughter, and worked as janitors for five years while earning their degrees.

“We took the baby and worked together,” says Ken. “It was the only job that fit our schedule.

Ken and Evelyn Vargas are a team both on and off the court. Photo by Patti Daley

Ken was convinced he needed an Accounting degree to support his family financially. He fell asleep during the final exam, and when he woke to an empty room he went home and told Evelyn he didn’t want to be an Accountant. She had a degree in Computer Information Systems and went to work on geological surveys the following Monday. 

Ken went back to school for another year to get his teaching credential. He was offered a job at Miami Unified School District. Though hired to teach Business Administration at the high school, within weeks, that position was eliminated and he was reassigned to teach math at the junior high. Ken went back to school and got his math endorsements.

He’s been a math teacher ever since (and will continue to teach in the fall). He also taught physical education and coached the junior high teams, leading them to 15 Central Junior High Championships. In 2001 he began teaching and coaching high school students. He’s led teams to conference championships and been recognized as an outstanding coach by peers and players. 

For his countless hours of commitment, Coach has received a blanket and basketballs with signatures, mugs of affection, an American flag made of wood with his name carved into it. There is not enough room in the house for all the plaques and trophies. 

A family man, Ken was born into a family of champion athletes and he married one. Evelyn was a three-sport athlete, state tennis champion and a coach. All three of their kids were top athletes. 

“Both of us being athletes and knowing the commitment it took and knowing my love for a sport, I know what he had to go through to make his team successful,” Evelyn explains. 

She understood the time it took. Clinic, training, films, scouting, summer devotions.

“I was happy to push him along with what he loved to do,” says Evelyn.

Coach Vargas with the Perry family. Courtesy Photo


One Big Basketball Family

Joy Peery is the mother of four sons – Tyler, Spencer, Logan and Tanner. For 16 consecutive years (2005 – 2021) one of her sons played Vandals basketball with Coach Ken Vargas.

“They all love him as much as I do,” she says. “What’s most impressive for me is that he was more concerned about the men they grew into.”

Spencer Peery, 30, credits Coach Vargas with instilling in his players responsibility, accountability and hard work. 

“He helped me to deal with disappointment and learn how to use it to our advantage to grow,” he says.

Don’t settle for being mediocre. That’s one of the many lessons Logan Peery, 25, learned from Ken as his coach, teacher and mentor. 

“I wanted these boys to help the ones who were coming,” says Coach Vargas. “It’s an inside approach as opposed to an outside approach. They set the tone. The other kids jump in and get on board.”

Lots of coaches modeled bad behavior, Joy recalls; others tolerated it. Coach Vargas did not.

“If someone was on the court not showing sportsmanship, he pulled them off,” recalls Joy. “He didn’t care if they were the best player.”

Expectations are set at home, acknowledges Coach Vargas. Respect, hard work, intelligence. He hasn’t experienced many difficulties with parental intervention over the years. 

“If you can explain what’s happening and what’s going to happen, parents understand,” he says.

For him, the hardest part has been the kids he cannot reach. He bought kids shoes, Christmas gifts, a Fry’s gift card. He knew what their family situation was, how they learn, what challenges they face. 

“If a kid hasn’t had breakfast, you treat them differently,” says Ken. “They are all so unique.” 

Tyler Peery, now 32, saw firsthand how Coach Vargas took players under his wing and gave them the attention they weren’t getting at home. 

“Your influence is more than just basketball,” he says in a letter to Coach Vargas. “It taught me how to treat people.”

The Peery family is not alone in recognizing Ken’s contribution beyond the game of basketball. In 2015, Ken received the Spirit of Cotton Award. Named after Cotton Fitzsimmons, a longtime coach for the Phoenix Suns, it is given to an Arizona high school coach that exemplifies the qualities of a coach, educator, mentor, and community leader. 

Huddling with the players. Courtesy photo

Greatest Comeback Ever

“Kenny had the ability to watch all five players on the court; he was a technician of the game,” says Coach Wilson. “His ability to do that, plus his handling of kids, coaching staff and parents made him a great coach.” 

Ken briefly considered a resignation before the 2003-2004 season. His oldest daughter was diagnosed with cancer, and he wanted to be available to support her. She pleaded with him to keep coaching because she looked forward to the season. Ken conceded and it was the season of the “greatest comeback ever” according to Evelyn. 

It was the first round in the state playoffs at the America West theater. The Vandals were down 20 points with 3 minutes left.  

“You’re only going to get one chance,” Ken told his team. “This is it.”

One player stepped up and said he could hit the 3-pointer. He hit it. With 6 seconds left and down by 1 point, a Vandal player steals the ball and makes the layup. The other team inbounds, throws the long ball down the court and it’s caught by a Vandal. There’s a huge roar, and the whole crowd empties onto the court.

“Nothing compares to that,” says Evelyn, “the exhilaration, the roar of the crowd, the excitement…”

Ken doesn’t hear the roar of the crowd during the game. His focus is on the court.

“I could not have done a thing without this lady,” Ken says, admiring his wife. 

“Yes, you could,” she says, forever his cheerleader.

“You made it possible,” Ken says.

“It’s been a great ride,” Evelyn responds. 

For the first time in 38 years, Ken Vargas doesn’t know what he’ll be doing in June. There’s a good chance the ride will continue. On his road bike, alone with his thoughts, or on electric bikes, together with Evelyn.

Miami Vandals, 2A Champions. Recognizing the seniors and their families. courtesy photo

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