Wendy Alexander/The Madera Tribune
Liberty football coach and athletics director Mike Nolte holds the three Central Section championship plaques his team won from 2012-2014.
Mike Nolte, Liberty High School head football coach and athletic director, is one of the most successful coaches in the Valley, but he came to Liberty because he was out of a job.
Nolte, 47, was an assistant coach at Central High School in Fresno, his alma mater, for head coach Wayne Koligian. When Koligian retired, a new head coach was hired and didn’t want to keep Nolte on the staff.
“I was a little bitter about the whole thing,” Nolte said. “I put in a lot of time over there, and this new guy comes in and doesn’t want you around, it’s a little hard to deal with.”
Nolte knew then-Liberty athletic director Mike Mazzoni and was brought on as an assistant in 2008. Nolte became the head coach the next year, succeeding Chris Imperatrice.
Three consecutive Valley Championships later, Nolte knows he is in the right place.
“I had some deep roots over there in Central and coming over here to Liberty was a difficult move,” Nolte said. “But since I’ve been here, I don’t miss Central at all. This is a great place to work, a great place to be.”
Nolte graduated from Central in 1987 and attended Fresno City College, playing football for one year. He finished his time at City and transferred to Fresno State, where he earned a teaching credential in physical education. He returned to Central in 1994, and while working there, he earned his special education credential.
He led Liberty to the Valley Championship game in his first and third year in charge but lost both games.
Liberty broke through in 2012, winning the Valley Championship in Div. V, and repeated the next year. The school moved up to Div. IV in 2013 and won another championship with an undefeated season.
“It’s something that’s not easy to do,” Nolte said. “Any time you accomplish something that’s not easy to do, you really appreciate that. And each one was like the first one, no one better than the other, because it’s not easy to do.”
The athletic director position opened up this school year, Nolte applied, got the job and now serves as director and coach.
Nolte said he has coached with many great coaches who he has much respect for, but Koligian is at the top of the list.
“The way he approached the game, his intensity and knowledge is something that I strive to be like,” Nolte said.
Koligian worked with Nolte at Central from 1996 through 2007 and the two built a special relationship.
“He was my right-hand man,” Koligian said. “He’s a great football coach, and he’s great with the kids and the community.”
Koligian said that Nolte’s transition to head coach at Liberty was easy because of his experience as an assistant.
“I think the reason why Mike was so successful with the transfer over there — he didn’t really go into Liberty like gangbusters and say, ‘We’re going to do this and that,’ and that kind of stuff,” Koligian said.
Nolte is one of his best friends,
Koligian said, and their relationship goes beyond standing on the sideline together.
“When you want a friend, and you want somebody who you know is going to be there no matter what, you’re talking about a guy like Mike Nolte,” Koligian said.
Just as Nolte has great respect for Koligian, he prides himself in the respect that is built into his program.
“I think that the kids feel like they can feel pretty comfortable coming and talking to me because that respect is a two-way street,” Nolte said. “If you don’t give that respect, you’re not necessarily going to get that respect back.”
Nolte’s defensive coordinator, Jim Santa Cruz, has been on the staff since 2010. Santa Cruz said that coaching high school boys is a challenge, but that they have respect through football.
“When he speaks, they quiet down, they pay attention,” Santa Cruz said. “He commands a lot of respect not just from the boys, but from us coaches.”
Santa Cruz said he has a strong professional relationship with Nolte and they share trust, communication and strong focus. He credits their success to the continuity of having the same coaches in the program under Nolte’s tenure.
Nolte’s management skills are fantastic, Santa Cruz said. Nolte’s attention to detail in preparation every week is a testament to his work ethic.
“For what he has accomplished as a head football coach,” Santa Cruz said, “he’s even a better man. That guy is one of the best men I’ve ever known in my entire life.”
Santa Cruz and all of the other coaches are pulling in the same direction, Nolte said, and the standards that he has set for the players and the program are evident by the way the coaches approach football.
“I think that, over the years, teams take on the personality of their leaders,” Nolte said. “With the way we carry ourselves on the football field, the way we play hard, good sound football, I think is something I’m very proud of.”
Daniel Gligich is a student in Gary Rice’s community journalism class at California State University, Fresno.