Bartlett football coach Tom Meaney understands it's not easy to play for his successful program, which last week clinched its sixth title in the Upstate Eight Conference since 2001.
"To be a football player at Bartlett you have to be dedicated," said Meaney, who is 60-33 in nine seasons. "We expect a lot out of you. We expect you to do the right things, we expect you to take care of the classroom, we expect you to be a good citizen. If you don't follow our rules, you're not going to be around."
"Being an athlete at a big school is not easy. We probably put too much pressure on the kids, but it's part of being a good, successful program. We want to put a good product on the field."
The Hawks have been putting a good product on the field for over a decade. Last week they clinched their 11th playoff berth in 12 seasons. An underlying reason for that sustained success has been good, consistent coaching.
Meaney and offensive guru Mark Williams have been on the Bartlett staff since the varsity program's inception in 1998. They migrated to Bartlett from Elgin High along with their mentor, Dick Stephens, who became Bartlett's first head coach. Together they helped lead the Hawks to their first playoff berth in 200 and the school's first UEC titles in 2001 and 2002.
Little has changed since Meaney assumed the head coaching duties in 2003. The Hawks continue to succeed by adhering to a philosophy of hard work. No one at Bartlett takes pride in short cuts.
Fundamentals are drilled until they are mastered. Whereas some football programs work on form tackling for a few days at the start of doubles in August, Bartlett players work on form tackling at practice every day. They also work daily on firing out of their stances low. Offensive linemen hit the sled every day. It's old school football. And it still works.
That daily attention to detail pays off when combined with a rigorous off-season training program. Football players are expected to lift three times a week if they are not involved in another sport. Preparing in the weight room is part of the football culture at Bartlett, encouraged by the coaches and self-policed by fellow players. It's a big reason why the Hawks are usually one of the most physical teams in the area every fall.
Bottom line: Bartlett players hate losing enough to put in the hard work to avoid it.
"Losing to Maine South last year made us push each other harder to get back to the playoffs," said 6-foot-3, 230-pound tight end Lorenzo Mitchell of a second-round loss to the three-time Class 8A champions.
"We lifted a lot after that. We watched a lot of film. We worked on footwork drills. We did the little stuff other teams don't do. They'd rather hang out and not do the work."
These Bartlett players have the benefit of playing for a proven coaching staff at its professional peak after three UEC titles in four years. It's a good mix of veterans and young blood. Meaney said he and Williams have essentially taken "supervisory" roles at this point in their careers. They leave the bulk of game planning and play calling to coordinators Eric Kramer and Eric Ilich, both of whom will soon make excellent head coaches.
Meaney called the Bartlett defense until 2009, when he relinquished that role to Kramer. The job couldn't be in more loyal hands. Kramer is a homegrown talent now in his sixth season on staff. He played linebacker for Bartlett in 2000 and 2001 and was named the honorary co-captain of the Daily Herald Fox Valley All-Area team before moving on to Millikin.
Likewise, Williams has relinquished offensive play calling to Ilich, the former Neuqua Valley quarterback now in his seventh year on Bartlett's staff. Ilich is easily identified on the sideline by his familiar game-day letterman's blazer.
"A lot of us have been together for a long time and it really helps when you have consistent coaches who have each other's backs," Meaney said. "The kids know what to expect year to year. We've had most of these kids since they were in third grade coming in here for camps. It's nice that way. These kids know they can trust us. It's a pretty good relationship between the kids and the coaches."
Bartlett's coaches tend to ride their players until the desired result is achieved. The players come to appreciate being driven to succeed.
"Sometimes they put us through hell, but I honestly couldn't ask for a better group of coaches" said third-year quarterback AJ Bilyeu, who will play for Air Force next fall. "Ilich, Kramer, Williams, Meaney -- you can tell football is all they care about. They honestly eat, sleep and breathe football.
"They would never give up on us. Even on those days when we're not doing so well they're still right behind us, finding ways to improve. They teach us everything from taking care of our bodies to making sure we do our school work. They really care about us, which is why we want to work hard for them."
As stated up top, Meaney will tell you straight out it's not easy to play for a successful football program. He'll also tell you it's not easy to coach one.
Though he has seven years left before he retires from Elgin Area School District U-46, Bartlett's second head coach said he doubts he'll last that long in his current role.
"I'll be surprised to go two more," he said Wednesday. "You want to do the best you can and you don't want to shortchange anybody. I don't know how long. Losing can take a lot out of you, but winning can take a lot out of you, too. You put a lot of time into it and you expect a lot of things. You want to be successful, to continue to be successful. You put the pressure on yourself.
"I think coach Williams and I put a lot of pressure on ourselves. We want to do a good job and let the kids be happy and enjoy the experience of football. We push them, no doubt about it. We get after them a great deal. But that's part of the fun in getting kids up and motivated and working hard. Hopefully, they've had a good experience with us coaching."
You know what most high school kids consider a good experience when it comes to sports? Winning. Eleven of the last 12 Bartlett classes have made the playoffs and six of them have won conference titles. On that basis alone, coach, your players have had a great experience.
It may not be easy to play football at Bartlett, but it is rewarding for those willing to put in the work.