MESA — On a recent Friday night, the Mountain View High School gym was packed. Most of the fans wore a specially designed shirt that depicted a goat, with the name “Ernst” in the middle.
Typically reserved for a player considered the “greatest of all time,” the term “goat” was dedicated to their beloved longtime coach, Gary Ernst.
When Ernst walked to the bench, he was greeted with a roaring ovation from the whole gym, including the players and fans of Mountain View’s opponent, Valley Vista. Mountain View then brought up former and current players, all of whom delivered heartfelt farewell messages to their coach.
The sadness in the air was palpable. Even the public address announcer choked up midway through some of his scripted lines.
A week earlier, news broke that Ernst, 73, would be let go after this season, his 38th. After 943 wins and eight state championships, including seven with the Toros, arguably the greatest coach that Arizona high school basketball has seen was being forced out, as new principal Mike Oliver spoke in vague terms about wanting to move Mountain View in another direction.
Ernst said he was “completely shocked” by the move – and by its timing.
“I felt that I had served this community and that I deserved more than releasing me at the end of the season – in fact, even before we were done with our season – so that is going to be bitter,” he said. “I don’t think it was handled very well, and I thought I deserved a lot more than that.”
Ernst’s forced departure left many people upset with how Oliver handled the situation.
“I was pretty disappointed, honestly,” Mountain View senior guard Conner Cook said. “I feel like they should have waited until the end of the year, not right in the middle.”
Ernst’s son, Jason, started an online petition condemning his father’s release from the program and advocating to keep him on as the boys head coach. As of Friday morning, it had collected more than 5,000 signatures. The petition noted that Ernst did more than win games.
“More importantly,” it said, “he has built a basketball program based on hard work, dedication, character, loyalty and accountability with our neighborhood youth. Through his coaching he has taught many life lessons to young men you have played for him.”
Ernst was humbled by the support.
“It shows that 38 years of dedication is appreciated by a whole lot of people,” he said.
Throughout the ordeal, Ernst never lost sight of the job at hand. He still had a home play-in game to coach against Valley Vista. If the Toros lost, Ernst would be done.
With the night beginning under a heavy cloud of emotion, it’s a wonder everyone could refocus on the game. But once the ball was tipped, it was time to play. The game itself was a back-and-forth affair, with tensions high for both teams given the stakes. In the end, Mountain View came up short, falling 56-49.
It was Mountain View’s worst-case scenario: The Toros’ season and their coach’s tenure came to an end.
Players and coaches stuck around after the game, and held an emotional sendoff for Ernst. He was able to catch up with all of his former players, even some that had been on his very first Mountain View team back in 1984. He was able to give one last postgame speech to his current players and cut the net of the basket as a memento of his Mountain View swan song.
“He has one of the greatest memories of probably all time,” Mountain View junior guard Brigg Wolfe said. “You’ll have players from 38, 37 years ago come up to him, and he’ll know their name, what happened that year. He’ll probably tell you their record if you asked him.”
One of Ernst’s former players that attended the game was Todd Heap, an ASU football standout, and former Baltimore Ravens and Arizona Cardinals tight end. Heap attended Mountain View and was a part of some of Ernst’s best teams. Heap played from 1995 to 1998 for Ernst and earned two state championship rings with the Toros.
“We are all super fortunate to be just a small little stint in his career,” Heap said. “Some of us were lucky to get a couple years. I was lucky enough to get three years with him. I’m just fortunate to be a part of this program and this culture.”
With his Mountain View career officially over, it’s uncertain whether Ernst will continue coaching somewhere else. He is staying family focused for the moment, expressing a desire to spend more time with his wife and grandchildren. He has two grandchildren currently attending Mountain View, as well as one more grandchild, with basketball aspirations, on the way to Mountain View next year.
The outpour of love and respect that the Mountain View community gave Ernst in his final game was truly a sight to be seen. No matter their team allegiances, everyone recognized what he has done for Arizona high school basketball. Whether the door for Ernst to continue coaching remains open or closed, he will go down as the best to ever do it and will be remembered forever among the community he helped create.
“There is so many things I could say about the community. It’s such a special place, and it means everything to me,” said Ernst, who added, “I couldn’t be honored more to serve this school and to go out with a crowd like this and so many supporters.”