The football postseason also brings award season. And picking a winner in each of the various categories is never an easy task. From selecting the Player of the Year to Coach of the Year along with All-Area and All-State teams, fans can (and will) make a case for several quality names that are more than deserving of recognition.
How does the Coach of the Year candidates look this season?
It can be a near-impossible task to narrow down to just one name…or even a handful of names. NBC Sports Chicago managing editor Joe Collins and I tried to do just that on Wednesday.
In the not-too-distant past, various newspaper writers and such announced these awards before the end of the state playoffs. Personally, I never understood that on several levels. In my mind, the postseason counts and needs to be taken into consideration for such awards. That said, we always have coaches who do a fantastic job of turning programs around from the previous year.
Take Joliet West Bill Lech, who led the Tigers to their first conference title in 50 years. He is more than worthy of consideration. The same goes for Erick Middleton at Marian Catholic. He led the Spartans, a team that had not won more than two games in a season since 2011, to a 5-4 regular season and a playoff berth this season. Glenbard North head coach Ryan Wilkens took it on the chin last season in the Panthers’ first season as members of the DuKane Conference. They posted an 0-9 record. All Wilkens did was lead the Panthers to a 7-3 mark in 2019—good for the second-round of the 7A state playoffs. How about Thornwood? Head coach Kenneth Smith guided the T-Birds from a 2-7 team to the state playoffs. The same goes for LaSalle-Peru's Jose Medina or Grant's Chris Robinson, whose teams had terrific turnaround seasons in 2019.
But somehow, you need to have a metric for separating some of these worthy coaches from the others. For me, that metric is what happens in the playoffs. A deeper postseason run undoubtedly helps to eliminate the logjam for Coach of the Year honors.
So should head coaches at “power programs” be excluded from Coach of the Year honors? Does having a roster stacked with talent and numbers and depth mean you have done any less of a job in 2019 compared to others? Meaning, the likes of, say, Lincoln-Way East’s Rob Zvonar or H-F’s Craig Buzea shouldn't be under consideration? Do we just expect them to roll the helmets onto the field and expect victories week in and week out? If it was only that easy.
In Class 8A, we have some fantastic coaches with stories that are still adding chapters. Take Minooka (Who?). I'm willing to bet that more Brother Rice fans have been to Mars than Minooka; however, the Indians are undefeated and looking to advance to the semifinals. They feature a staff filled with Hall of Fame coaches, led by former Downers Grove South Hall of Fame head coach John Belskis. And Hall of Fame coach Terry McCombs, who is a 50-year veteran in the IHSA, is an assistant coach for Belskis. How's that for having a partner who has been there and done that more than a few times?
How about Warren Township head coach Bryan McNulty? The Blue Devils have gone from a second-tier/also-ran football program in the North Suburban conference to a powerhouse in two short seasons. The 2019 squad brings a new meaning to “Fright Fest” in Gurnee these days.
Another somewhat misguided opinion for some fans is that they feel coaches at private schools shouldn't be considered for any Coach of the Year awards because "they recruit" their roster. So the job that, say, Loyola's John Holecek has done in getting the Ramblers to the level of success they've achieved isn't worthy? Or look at Mount Carmel head coach Jordan Lynch. Is the job he has done this season, leading the undefeated Caravan to a top seed under one of the brightest spotlights week in and week out, not deserving of an award? Nazareth Academy's Tim Racki has propelled the Roadrunners to another deep postseason run. Should we just ignore this? Same goes for Joliet Catholic (Jake Jaworski) and St. Francis (Bob McMillen)? Or that both Marist and Brother Rice, both of whom came into the postseason with 5-4 records and have since rolled in 8A, don't deserve a mention? Come on.
What about the Chicago Public League coaches who endured the recent teachers strike. They got their teams ready under the most trying of circumstances. Several of those schools won IHSA playoff games. How can anyone say that Phillips head coach Troy McAllister isn't worthy after leading the Wildcats into the 7A quarterfinals? All they’ve done is compete with a mid 4A-sized enrollment and a dedication to play "up" to 7A just because they want to compete at the highest level possible. How can you not love that in any coach?
I also include the entire state of Illinois in my Coach of the Year award. Heck, why not make this an even-harder task than it already is? In all seriousness, has anyone been able to get his program to the top and remain at the top more effectively than East St. Louis Darren Sunkett? Has anyone noticed that Glenwood is back and a state-wide power under head coach David Hay? Or that Rochester Derek Leonard just keeps winning games and titles year in and year out and now is locked in to winning the Rockets’ first state title in 5A. Or veteran head coach Dave Bates at Auburn? They just knocked off 2A power Maroa-Forsyth last Saturday and are full steam ahead to the quarterfinals against another power in St. Theresa after going 4-5 in 2018. Pana’s Trevor Higgins has won despite a trying offseason where he lost his four-year-old son in a tragic accident.
I'll make you a deal. Give me another 2-3 weeks and I'll be able to come up with a much clearer picture on the 2019 Coach of the Year award. Until then. let's see how things shake out over these next few remaining weeks of the season and see so many good coaches and stories continue to take shape.