It seems like only yesterday that Dave Mohapp and I were "the newbies."
Mohapp was in his first year as head football coach at Warren in 1997 when I got hired to cover high school sports at the Daily Herald.
Sixteen years later, we're definitely feeling our age a little more. I just threw out my back for the first time ever…making the bed, of all things. And Mohapp told me that he's at the point where he almost can't stand going another day walking around on his bad knee. A former star fullback at Wisconsin in the early 1980s who withstood years of relentless pounding, he had one knee replaced a few years ago and is planning to have the other done sooner rather than later.
But as Mohapp and I get older, it stands to reason that (hopefully) we're also getting wiser. In fact, I told Mohapp the other day that, as of this year, he's now the "Dean of Lake County football coaches." (Not sure, by the way, what that makes me.)
"Oh, I don't know if people would accuse me of being the dean of anything," the usually low-key Mohapp said with a big laugh. "But yeah, I guess I have been around for a while."
Entering his 16th season, Mohapp has gone from new kid on the block to the most tenured head football coach in Lake County. Only a handful of other football coaches come close to his longevity.
Andy Bitto has been at Carmel for 15 years, Steve Winiecki has been at Deerfield for 14 years, Tony Monken has been at Vernon Hills for 13 years and Chuck Spagnoli has been at Lake Forest for 10 years.
After that, no other Lake County head football coach has been in his post for more than eight years (that would be Lakes coach Luke Mertens) and, in fact, outside of Mohapp and the four other coaches who have served more than a decade, the average time on the job for head football coaches in Lake County is currently 3.9 years.
There's been a lot of turnover in recent years and that seems to be magnified this year by the arrival of four new coaches in the county, possibly the most at any one time.
Mike Jones at Libertyville, George Kaider at Mundelein, Dave Proffitt at Lake Zurich and Ben Ault at Grayslake Central all begin their first seasons tonight.
"This is an exciting time in our division," Mohapp said of the North Suburban Lake, which features a new head football coach at three of its seven schools. "All this change is going to make things fun this year. There are new schemes to get ready for, different looks, different ideas.
"There are so many good coaches in our league right now. In the time I've been in (the North Suburban), it has gotten so much better and so much more competitive. Coaches like Bill Mitz and Randy Kuceyeski, guys who had been around for years, really helped (set the standard). It's weird not to see them around anymore."
It seems possible, if not likely, that the days of lifers such as Mitz and Kuceyeski might be numbered.
Mitz was the face of Stevenson football for 28 seasons. He retired in 2009 after leading the Patriots to 197 wins, 22 playoff appearances and the Class 8A state championship game in 2002.
Kuceyeski played the same iconic role at Libertyville for 18 seasons. He retired at the end of last season after 133 wins, 14 playoff appearances and two runs to the Class 7A state championship game. The Wildcats won the title in 2004.
"It's so hard to have longevity now," said Grayslake North head coach Steve Wood, now in his seventh season. "With all the work that goes on outside of the season now, it's almost like you're coaching two full seasons, if not more. I don't think it was always like that.
"For coaches with young families, it can be hard to make that kind of commitment for a long time. I think that's why you'll continue to see the (frequent) turnover."
Wood pointed out that in the seven years he's been a head coach in the Fox Valley Conference, he's gone from being the newbie to the third-most tenured coach.
"It says something about our league that the quality is still there even with all the turnover," Wood said. "There's been a lot of turnover since I became a head coach and you just kind of expect that now."
Although careers may be getting shorter overall these days, most football coaches can't seem to get enough of their jobs while they're in the moment. The prepping, the practicing, the training, the film-watching is all worth it come game day.
"There are a lot of stresses and demands placed on you as a head football coach," said Stevenson coach Bill McNamara, who took over for Mitz three years ago and was on the staff as an assistant for many years before that. "But if you coach at this level, you're in it because you really love the game and you really love the kids. That's what keeps you going.
"For us, this is the best time of the year."
For the newbie head football coaches in Lake County, tonight will be the only time of the year that they'll have a distinct advantage over all the other coaches.
"You probably get a little bit of a competitive advantage in Week One because nobody really knows what you're going to do," said new Grayslake Central coach Ben Ault, who replaced Nick Goshe, now an assistant coach at Fremd. "That's kind of nice, I guess.
"But then once that happens, everything is out there for people to see and you're really not so new anymore."
Not as new…but still newer than Mohapp and me. Then again, who isn't in Lake County these days.