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Age did not deter Greg Purnell from jump-starting his career as a football coach at St. Francis.
Purnell, who had built a hall of fame career in Iowa, led the Spartans to the 2008 Class 5A football title and was instrumental in development efforts in the capital campaign to build the Kuhn Memorial Stadium, which brought the Spartans back to campus after three years playing at the College of DuPage.
"The lesson I learned," Purnell said, "is don't be afraid at 60 to jump in a car and go and do something you love doing, even if you have to go to a new state."
Sunday at St. Francis' football banquet he announced his retirement after 47 years of coaching. Purnell will remain as St. Francis' highly successful major gift officer and director of the St. Francis Fund (annual fund). He leaves behind a record of 47-26 in seven football seasons at St. Francis and a lifetime record of 203-90 in 29 seasons as a head coach. Purnell's five playoff appearances and six seasons with records of .500 or better top all Spartans football coaches.
"I had told the (St. Francis) President Tom Bednar I was going to coach one year in the new stadium and that would probably be it. I reiterated that with our president last year and that, coupled with the fact that I've had four surgeries in five years, it's just time," Purnell said Monday.
"When I got back into being a head football coach in 2007 I never thought I'd be in that position again because in 2000 I gave it up and I was 55. I just felt very fortunate to be chosen in 2007 to help change the perception of St. Francis football."
St. Francis athletic director Dan Hardwick, who is accepting applications for the job until Jan. 3, said Purnell "transformed" the St. Francis football program. More importantly for the entire school community Purnell's work in the school development office raised funds for not only Kuhn Memorial Stadium, which benefits numerous activities, but also for the school's new science and technology wing and its library and media center.
"For those two things, his on-field and off-field accomplishments, I feel that the administration here at St. Francis just owes him a huge, heartfelt thank you," Hardwick said.
A Loras College graduate, in Iowa Purnell earned a record of 156-64, notably 19 seasons at Linn-Mar High School where he won state titles in 1985, 1989 and 1990, led runner-up appearances in 1986 and 1994 in 13 overall playoff appearances. He was inducted into the Iowa Football Coaches Hall of Fame in 1990.
Out of coaching four years, in 2005 Purnell was asked to be the freshman coach at his alma mater, Wahlert High in Dubuque.
"I thought to myself, I can do this again," he said.
Purnell upped the ante when he and his wife, Patti, moved to Illinois to take over the St. Francis program. After a 3-6 record in 2007, the Spartans ran Purnell's traditional wing-T offense to perfection. Headed by running backs Mark Kachmer, Stan Bobowski and Ryan O'Donnell, receiver Brett Robinson and quarterback Jeff Reckards, the Spartans went 13-1 and beat Metamora 49-35 to capture the 2008 5A championship.
"We were blessed with having the four quickest kids all together at once in the same backfield that I have had in 47 years of coaching," Purnell said. "When you get a speed element like that and you run a misdirection offense, which people weren't used to, it helped create havoc for a lot of people and for a lot of teams."
He mentioned "special thanks" to Spartans football assistant coaches Jesse Pierce, Joe Horeni, Pat Rosmonowski, Gary Vargyas and Stan Bobowski Sr. Working with them, Purnell increased football participation by the student body -- those who play and also those who celebrated Friday nights.
"As a parent I can tell you he's a good man, truly loves his kids and the stadium project would have never happened without his efforts," said Frank Pecora, vice president of the St. Francis Spartans Fathers' Club, whose son, Andrew, played for Purnell in 2010 and whose daughter, Alayna, was a team manager the last two seasons.
"I will really miss the interaction I've had with the players and the coaches at St. Francis. I got back into coaching for two reasons, the kids and the coaches, and I've really, thoroughly enjoyed it," Purnell said.
"It's been a great challenge, it's been a lot of fun, but it's time for a change in the leadership for our football program and I will do nothing but be extremely supportive and help whoever takes over here to the best of my ability."