When Bob Gaddis was coaching football at South Putnam in the 1980s, Tony Lewis was one of his star players.
Then, when Gaddis was coaching at Pike, Lewis was a student-teacher at the school.
And after Gaddis took over at Evansville Reitz, he hired Lewis as one of his assistants.
Saturday night, the two coaches who have known each other for the better part of three decades will be on opposite sidelines for the first time. Gaddis will lead his undefeated and Class 4A No. 1 Columbus East squad into the Reitz Bowl to face Lewis’ Evansville Reitz team for a 6 p.m. EST (5 p.m. CST) regional battle.
“I’ve known him since he was a little kid,” Gaddis said. “He was a really passionate guy and just loved the game and always had a lot of questions.”
“Coach Gaddis was good friends with my family, and he and his wife are still friends with my parents,” Lewis said. ‘”I kind of look at coach Gaddis as a father figure and someone who has helped me develop into hopefully a good person and a good coach.”
Lewis was an assistant under Gaddis from 1992-2000 and under John Hart in 2001 before going to Wheelersburg (Ohio) as head coach for six years. When Hart left for Warren Central after winning a state title in 2007, Lewis came back to Reitz as head coach.
“In 1992, (Gaddis) called, and there was a study hall position at Reitz, and there was a coaching position as well,” Lewis said. “I had never been to the west side of Evansville, and I came down and fell in love with the place. It’s just a neat football side of town here in Evansville.”
Four of Lewis’ assistants — offensive coordinator Cory Brunson, wide receivers coach Darron Vanover, linebackers coach Brad Rowe and defensive backs coach Tyrone Browning — played for Gaddis at Reitz. Bob Stephenson, who Gaddis calls possibly his best friend, was an assistant and is now the tight ends coach. Tim Shipp, who was the freshman coach, and Tolly McClatchy, who was volunteer assistant, now work with the offensive line.
“They’ll play hard,” Gaddis said. “As I’ve told our players, it’s fun to prepare against (Lewis’) team, but really the thing is going to be won on the field by the players. There’s a lot of guys that I’ve spent a lot of time with over the years, but when it gets teed up, we don’t get to play. Our players do.”
The Panthers (9-3) are led on offense by senior quarterback Drew Johnston (5-8, 155). Johnston has completed 135 of 203 passes for 1,610 yards and 18 touchdowns with eight interceptions and has ran 97 times for 377 yards and six scores.
“He’s a small kid, but the way he plays is indicative of a lot of our players,” Lewis said. “They play bigger than their size, and he has a lot of hard. He’s been instrumental in the resurgence of our offense since probably the fifth or sixth game of the year.”
Senior running back Ke’Andre Vaughn (5-8, 170) has carried 222 times for 1,465 yards and 21 touchdowns. Vaughn’s father Andre was All-State running back for Gaddis at Reitz.
Junior Jordan Summers (6-3, 155) is the Panthers’ top receiver with 60 catches for 823 yards and seven scores.
Reitz runs a 3-3 stack defense. Senior linebackers Mason Schnarr (6-1, 217) with 120 and Andy Wimpelberg (5-7, 155) with 110 are the leading tacklers. Summers has nine interceptions.
“We are pretty small,” Lewis said. “We’ll be at a huge size disadvantage. We’re not very big, we’re not very fast and we’re not real strong, but we’re really scrappy and we fight until the very end.”
Reitz has won eight in a row following a 1-3 start. The Panthers’ losses came against Louisville Central, Castle and Evansville Central.
Reitz avenged the loss to Evansville Central with a 43-42 victory in the sectional semifinals. Last week, the Panthers went on the road and upset previously unbeaten and No. 2 Jasper 31-30.
“I would term this team as a group of overachievers,” Lewis said. “We’re a scrappy bunch that has won some close ballgames. Our kids have been resilient throughout the year, and they’ve continued to work hard. Our assistant coaches have done a great job of getting them ready to play every week.”
Reitz has won its past three regional games since a 35-28 loss at Columbus North in 2006. East and Reitz played a classic regional shooutout in 2007, with the Panthers pulling out a 61-60 victory at the Reitz Bowl.
That game, the last played between the two schools, featured 1,116 yards of total offense. East’s Dusty Kiel, whose 67-yard touchdown pass to Duwyce Wilson on the first play from scrimmage set the tone for the high-scoring affair, finished with 455 yards and five touchdowns passing. Wilson caught seven passes for 214 yards and four scores.
But the Panthers had an answer. Paul McIntosh, who would earn Mr. Football honors, put up 454 yards of total offense. He ran for 230 yards and six touchdowns and passed for 224 and a score. His late touchdown and 2-point conversion run allowed Reitz to overcome a 60-53 deficit.
Saturday, the teams will meet again with another regional championship on the line.
“We’re definitely the underdog, but we’re excited because we’re at home, and we look forward to the opportunity,” Lewis said.