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Passing of a legend: Iconic coach Mike Farley remembered

UW-River Falls football coach Mike Farley is carried off the field after the Falcons came from behind to defeat UW-La Crosse, 15-14, on a last second touchdown and two-point conversion to give Farley his 100th career win in October, 1986, at Ramer Field. UWRF University Archives & Area Research Center.

Legendary UW-River Falls coach Mike Farley died Tuesday, Aug. 28, at his home in Arizona at the age of 84.

His son Mike posted word of his father's passing on Facebook Tuesday night:

After a long struggle, my father peacefully passed away this morning with my mom right by his side. Our family, his friends, the coaching world, and all of the athletes he recruited and coached have truly lost a giant among men. We are saddened by his loss, but so grateful for all of the love and support so many have shown throughout the years.”

Farley coached the UW-River Falls football team from 1970-88, compiling a 117-71-3 overall record, fifth on the Wisconsin Intercollegiate Athletic Conference all-time wins list and the most in program history. His teams won eight conference titles, including four straight from 1984-87, and in 1979 secured their first postseason playoff spot in football team history when they secured a berth in the NAIA Division I National Playoffs.

He was inducted into the UWRF Hall of Fame in 1989 and the Wisconsin Football Coaches Association Hall of Fame in 1994.

After retiring as UWRF football coach following the 1988 season, Farley joined the River Falls Library Foundation Board and chaired the library fundraising committee, helping to raise $1.7 million for the $4.5 million facility that opened in 1997.

John O'Grady, who played for Farley from 1972-75 before succeeding him as Falcon coach from 1989-2009, called Farley “the rarest of the rare.”

“Everything he touched got better,” O'Grady said. “From his high school teams to the high schools themselves to the communities they were in. From his collegiate teams

to the university itself and to the community it was in. He helped to improve everything he touched.”

O'Grady said Farley's greatest impact was in the lives of all he came in contact with.

“I know I speak for all of the Falcons he coached; he improved our lives,” O'Grady said. “He made us better human beings. His record at UWRF is proof of his abilities to improve a struggling program prior to his arrival. However, the importance of those things is diminished when you compare them to the fact that, to a man, his players will claim that he made us become better men.”

Bill Forster, a teammate of O'Grady's with the Falcons in 1974 and 1975, before serving as head football coach at River Falls High School from 1989-2001, remembers the letter of recommendation Farley wrote for him when he graduated from UWRF.

“He just gave me a great recommendation,” Forster said. “And it was funny because he said if he wanted to have somebody coach his son it would be somebody like me, and I ended up coaching his son. So it was kind of neat to be able to do that.

“He was a great example to me about what to do and how to do things,” Forster added. “ It's sad to see him go, but there's a lot of great people that have come out of there because him.”

River Falls High School activities director Rollie Hall, who played at UWRF from 1979-82, said he first met Farley as a freshman at Cameron High School.

“He came to our team banquet my freshman year and was the guest speaker,” Hall said. “I'm from Northern Wisconsin and had never met a college coach and here's this guy who had that little Illinois drawl and he was funny and smart and had a great message, and I thought, I'd like to play for this guy.”

Four years later Farley returned to Cameron with a blunt message for Hall.

“I'm 18 years old and he said, 'you're coming to River Falls to get an education,'” Hall recalled. “'You can play football for me but you're going to get an education.' That's not something you heard from a lot of college coaches.”

And Hall said Farley followed up on that promise.

“There's a lot of kids that probably wouldn't have graduated if he didn't push them,” he said.

Current UWRF football coach Matt Walker called Farley the most iconic member of the Falcon football family.

“We talk to our current players all of the time about the wonderful tradition and history of this program and they all know that Coach Farley is at the center of most of these talks,” Walker said. “In my role, I have the honor to get to be around a lot of our Falcon football alums, and I get to hear first hand how much this man impacted the lives of the young men he was around. The legacy he was able to leave behind inspires me everyday to make sure I am being the best coach that I can be and motivates me to keep my priorities straight for what I am trying to do for our players and this football program. Unfortunately we have lost the most iconic member of this storied football tradition and family, but his spirit and influence on Falcon Football will never be forgotten.”

Walker said there will be a moment of silence for Farley before kickoff of the Falcon's season opener this Saturday, Sept. 1, at 6 p.m. at David Smith Stadium at Ramer Field. Each player will also wear a sticker on their helmet featuring a black circle with a white #1 to symbolize one of Farley’s favorite sayings; “One play at a time.”

Farley is survived by his wife Rae and sons Steve, Dave and Mike.

Services for Farley are pending.

Bob Burrows

Bob Burrows has been sports editor at the River Falls Journal since 1996 and at the Hudson Star-Observer since 2009. Prior to joining the Journal, Burrows served as sports editor with Ledger Publications in Balsam Lake, Wis. A native of Bayonne, N.J. and a U.S. Navy veteran, Burrows attended Marquette University before completing his studies at UW-River Falls in 1992.

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