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As the 2012-13 sports season wound down the question seemed to be on everyone's tongue.
"What's going on at Wheaton Academy?"
The short answer: a shifting focus in the physical education department and, as Wheaton Academy Head of School Gene Frost said, " ... hire the best people you can get."
Looking back — and before a positive summer meeting with Frost at the school — that seemed to fly in the face of the curious case of former Warriors football coach T.J. Ragan, who was among 25 head or assistant coaches who have moved out of their positions at Wheaton Academy since the 2012-13 campaign.
They included varsity boys basketball coach Paul Ferguson (back to Wheaton College as an assistant men's coach while remaining at Wheaton Academy as Bible instructor and director of admissions), 18-year boys and girls cross country and track coach Bill Bickhart (athletic director at Annapolis (Md.) Area Christian School) and wrestling coach Jeff McFarland (retired).
In May an alarmed Wheaton Academy coach emailed the Daily Herald. Among his initial remarks regarding the changes were: "I'm concerned (Wheaton Academy) sports is moving in the wrong direction with the wrong reasons" and; "it stinks and stinks bad."
Ragan's saga seemed to epitomize things as well as initiate commentary both inside and outside the lovely campus in West Chicago.
On March 16, 2012, Wheaton Academy announced Ragan had been hired out of his position as associate director of athletics and director of performance at Valor Christian High School in Highlands Ranch, Colo. Experienced as a performance trainer at youth, high school, college and even professional levels in football he moved his wife and four children to a house near the acclaimed, 650-student private school to serve as varsity football coach as well as to head a new position, director of performance.
By Feb. 8, 2013, after leading Wheaton Academy to victories in its last four football games and a tri-championship in the Suburban Christian Conference Gold Division, he was out.
A statement jointly signed by Ragan, Frost and athletic director Andrew Tink — who himself replaced associate athletic director Steve Gallaher — included the passage: "... in recent conversations regarding plans for our comprehensive health and fitness program both during and after school, it became clear that both parties did not have alignment in the future direction of our program."
Ragan finished his year as Wheaton Academy's director of performance, was succeeded in June by Geof Weisenborn out of Messiah College in Pennsylvania, and is now strength coordinator and defensive line coach at Taylor University in Upland, Ind.
Brad Thornton, a former football player at Cary-Grove High School and Wheaton College, was hired out of Evangelical Christian in Memphis as Warriors interim football coach. He's assembled a great staff of holdovers and newcomers, including former Wheaton College All-Americans Brad Musso and Steve Thonn. The initial hiring announcement said Wheaton Academy will continue its search for a permanent head coach for the 2014 season.
In response to a recent email, Ragan acknowledged disappointment at the entire situation, but his brief assessment of the split mirrored what was written in the jointly signed agreement: " ... at the heart of it all we did not agree on how to build a championship program."
It's important to note he added, he "couldn't be more pleased with where God has us now."
In fact criticism of the changes has dried up. Even the Wheaton Academy coach (who remains in his post) who expressed discontent in May has had a change of heart. In a June face-to-face he was excited for the 2013-14 sports year to begin. He called Thornton "a class act." Of those who had left, he said, "I think a lot of fresh doors have been opening."
And he called Frost, "a good person (who) had to make tough decisions."
A five-letter athlete at Wheaton Academy between 1967-71 who looks in fighting trim still, the silver-haired Frost would not deny the decisions were tough. He called Ragan one of the top conditioning coaches in the country; in referring Bickhart to Annapolis Christian, Frost described Bickhart as "just the best in a games-based physical education program."
But in a decision Frost said was made three years ago — and which he said Bickhart was made aware of — that curriculum is not where Wheaton Academy was headed.
"To answer your question, 'What's going on at Wheaton Academy?' I think (what) would kind of explain everything is our commitment to moving our PE department from a games-based, traditional PE program to a lifetime conditioning-fitness program. That's been the big change," Frost said.
"What (we're) finding is athletes need year-round conditioning in their sport and the ones that don't have a sport need to find it and get in the habit of year-round conditioning in a lifetime of fitness. That's what we've gone to, so we've left the games-based PE program behind and for our athletes we've integrated a year-round conditioning program and our parents don't have to pay thousands of dollars to find a private trainer, they're doing it as part of their PE program.
"And for our third of kids that don't have (a sport) we're finding things in our dance program and alternative sports and clubs; we're trying to build a customized conditioning program in our PE program that they'll learn habits that last a lifetime."
Frost said he is not interested in building an athletic academy. His intent is seeing the physical education department and interscholastic teams implement "best practices" to match Wheaton Academy's fine arts and academics. When asked what the pillars of Wheaton Academy are, Frost produced a plaque hanging in his office that read, "To nurture growth in our students through relationships, excellence and service to the glory of God."
Frost said sports is "a way to learn those things better than just about anything."
"The other change is — and this is my stump speech when I go to other schools — is you hire the best people you can get," he said. "You spend all your time finding the best people you can get, find the best coaches you can get. Because a school is your teachers and your coaches."
He said the departures of Ragan and Ferguson were a surprise, but Wheaton Academy filled their respective positions with college men. Ragan was supplanted by Thornton in football and Weisenborn in performance; Weissenborn's also the Warriors' lacrosse coach after seven years as Messiah's coach. Pete Froedden, a five-year assistant at Lipscomb University in Nashville, Tenn., succeeded Ferguson in the boys basketball spot.
As a way to emphasize the quality coaches Wheaton Academy both attracts and sends out into the world, Frost noted that both coaches who led the Warriors girls soccer teams to state championships went on to college programs — Dave Underwood, who has since returned after three seasons as men's coach at Sterling (Kan.) College; and Scott Marksberry, now men's coach at John Brown University in Arkansas after two seasons as the women's coach. Former baseball coach Willie Bosque is a regional scout for the San Diego Padres, their scout of the year in 2012.
The topper was the July hiring of Jim Spivey as co-coach of Wheaton Academy's boys and girls cross country teams with Bickhart's veteran assistant, Chris Felinski. A former runner for Fenton coach John Kurtz, Spivey was a 13-time All-America at Indiana and a three-time U.S. Olympian middle-distance runner. Spivey has also helped coach at Vanderbilt and University of Illinois-Chicago.
"Now, that's the kind of coach you want kids around," said Frost, who pairs experience in business (Chicago Board of Options Exchange) with divinity (Northern Baptist Theological Seminary) and has also written a book about best practices in Christian schools, "Learning from the Best."
The moves in the athletic department were many, they didn't please everyone and at the time some were controversial. Yet it seems difficult to link some sort of scandal to the topic of what's going on at Wheaton Academy.
"We're not perfect, I'm not saying we're doing everything right," Frost said, "but I'm hoping that we can just build a credibility where people say, 'I don't understand everything that gets done, but I know what you're trying to do and I know it's human beings, and I know you're trying to make that kind of improvement.'
"We're just going to go out and find the best people and when God has another job for them at the college level or doing their PE program out East or something we're going to try to make it the best for them and be positive. I could say we left on good terms with all those guys."
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