Former Buffalo Grove fotball coach Grant Blaney on the sidelines with his team following the Bison's state championship effort against Marist on Nov. 29, 1986 at Ilinois State University.
Daily Herald File Photo
Grant Blaney's football teams at Buffalo Grove were usually on top of their game.
So, it's no surprise the first football coach in Buffalo Grove history was on top of his game as he discussed tonight's celebration where the field will be officially dedicated as Grant Blaney Stadium.
"It's almost surreal to have a field named after you," Blaney said as he started laughing about some of the emails he received about the honor. "Most of them were either, 'This should have happened a long time ago,' and the others were, 'At least they did it before you're dead.' "
What about the opportunity to talk to the current BG players before practice Tuesday?
"At least they'll see who is going to hold up the start of the game," Blaney said with a laugh.
Blaney promised he would do his best not to disrupt the timing of a celebratory night as the Bison host Elk Grove. After all, he knows how coaches can be when it comes to staying on schedule.
But the schedule for this honor couldn't have worked out better. It occurs 25 years after Blaney's best team at BG went through the 1986 season without a loss and became the Mid-Suburban League's first football state champion.
For many years, the 1986 team, which will be honored at halftime, has been recognized by a sign just outside the southwest corner of the stadium.
Now the man who led that special team will also be recognized inside the stadium thanks to the efforts of many including Blaney's daughter Cindy Manning at approximately 7 p.m. today.
"Having Blaney remembered puts a whole new meaning on this," said Jim Wagner, a three-year varsity linebacker who led the 1986 championship team defense.
"I'm more excited about that than our unit," said Matt Hemstreet, a starting running back-flanker for the 1986 champions. "I'm really excited for coach after all the years of wondering if and when it was going to happen."
It makes for quite a happy anniversary.
"I'm elated, needless to say," Blaney said.
So are many others who were part of a program Blaney built from scratch after the school opened.
Building a perfect foundation
Timing turned out to be crucial in Blaney's long and winding road to Buffalo Grove.
After graduating from Iowa State in 1957, he returned to coach at his alma mater of Amundsen on Chicago's North Side. One of his players was Gary Korhonen, whose state record for victories at south suburban Richards was broken last week by Mt. Carmel's Frank Lenti.
Blaney wound up at Thornridge as a frosh-soph coach and went up against Korhonen, who became a good friend and is expected to attend tonight, at Eisenhower and Richards.
In 1968, there were openings in District 214 at Wheeling and Blaney accepted a job in February for the next school year. Three months later, Blaney faced a dilemma when he was told he would be one of the leading candidates for the Thornridge job after head coach Jack Robinson resigned.
"I wanted to be a head coach and I knew the talent was there," Blaney said. "I had been there since the school opened in 1960, but my wife and I decided to go north."
He worked at Wheeling for Jack Liljeberg. When BG opened, Blaney was hired by athletic director Wayne Selvig to start a football program.
"The rest was history," said Blaney, who went 111-54 in 16 years at BG with seven Mid-Suburban North division titles and seven playoff berths. "For 13 years I had tried to formulate all it takes to develop a winning program."
Amazingly, it took virtually no time in a situation that normally demands a lot of time and patience. BG won all of its junior varsity games and its only varsity game in 1973 and the next year went 7-1 and shared the MSL North title in its first full season behind all-stater Tom Stonerook.
"We had such a good group of kids to start with and we were able to get off on the right foot immediately," Blaney said.
He also made two key decisions in those early years. One was starting a two-platoon system he still firmly believes in today.
The other was to turn the defensive keys over to offensive-minded assistant coach Rich Roberts in 1977.
"I had never coached a lick of defense in my life," said Roberts, who succeeded Blaney and won 102 games in his 18-year tenure at BG. "But the best move in my professional career Grant made for me.
"I was so fortunate to be in that situation and Grant and I worked hand-in-hand for so many years. We were like cream and sugar in coffee."
It was not the Mike Ditka-Buddy Ryan kind of relationship with the 1985 Bears.
Wagner played at UCLA and remains close with 1986 quarterback Mark Benson, who played at Northwestern. They believe Blaney and his staff could have succeeded at higher levels.
"We basically had two head coaches," said Wagner, who went on to play at UCLA. "Blaney was still in charge and he let Richie do his thing on defense.
"For 17- and 18-year-old kids they really put it together well. These coaches were as good if not better than most of the college coaches around."
That helped the Bison nearly make a meteoric rise to the top in 1978. A team led by future Illinois standout and NFL lineman Don Thorp and quarterback Craig Groot lost the Class 5A state championship game 15-9 to St. Rita.
But that year, along with semifinal losses at powerhouse East St. Louis in 1984 and 1985, helped set the stage for perfection.
Reaching the peak
When 1986 rolled around, Buffalo Grove had established itself as one of the MSL's premier teams. But no one knew just how good it would be for this team.
"It was pretty unbelievable," Hemstreet said. "I don't think going into the year we expected to do as well as we did.
"We were very loose. We ignored everything and went out and played."
Blaney thought the 1984 team with future Illinois quarterback Pete Freund and receiver Steve Vinci was one of his best personnel-wise. But Wagner returned as the backbone of a truly special defense.
Not that it looked that way in the 1986 opener as it was being ripped apart by Proviso East quarterback Tabbie McCall. So, at halftime, Roberts tore apart the original plan, went with six defensive backs and BG held on to win 27-19 despite giving up more than 400 yards.
"The kids were so intelligent and they were able to pick that up right away," Roberts said. "We were very fortunate. At no point in time did I think we'd go undefeated after that game.
"Our defense got better and better with those kids being able to run to the football."
Wagner was a monster at linebacker who played at UCLA. Defensive tackles Jon Gustafsson and Gavin Pearlman played at Illinois from what Rolling Meadows coach Fred Lussow called "the best BG defense I've seen."
BG finished with 5 shutouts and allowed only 38 points in its last eight games. The defense came through as Tony Benante's fumble recovery set up the game-winning score in the fourth quarter in a 20-14 Week 6 battle of unbeatens at Conant.
And this was a defense literally hungry for success as it became tough to even reach triple-digit yardage each game.
"When I got the interception, I saw the beef," said linebacker Tom Bruno of his state quarterfinal touchdown return, which resulted in dinner for the entire defense on Roberts.
Benson took over an offense that could beat people in a variety of ways.
"He came out of nowhere and once he realized the job was his, he was outstanding," Blaney said of the future Northwestern player. "He could make more 8-yard sacks into 8-yard gains than any kid I ever had."
Pat Milz rushed for more than 1,000 yards, receiver Mark Sheedy was a game-breaking threat and Chris Rudolph made a successful move from linebacker to fullback. The line led by all-area pick Kevin Werner wasn't big but developed into a solid unit under Tony Jungblut.
They beat Palatine twice in a week in the old days of Wednesday playoff openers 27-0 to end the regular season and 13-0 in the second round of the postseason.
"If we had a couple of their players, that might have helped," Palatine coach Joe Petricca said.
BG was definitely helped by facing three of the MSL's five playoff qualifiers and a Hersey team that would win the 6A title a year later.
And this trip to Bloomington ended with Blaney carried off the field by his players. Milz rushed for 2 touchdowns and Benson threw for 2 as BG rolled Marist 26-6.
"What was interesting with this team is from Game 1 to Game 14, they got a little bit better every game," Blaney said. "They never hit any plateaus and they never regressed.
"It's unique because sometimes you do regress a little bit. They had a lot of camaraderie and a lot of confidence in themselves."
A lot of that came from their coach and his even-keeled demeanor.
"If we kept going who knows where we would have been," Wagner said of the level BG was playing at when the 1986 season ended. "There weren't really any all-stars on the team but it was instilled in us to do your job. That's how Roberts and Blaney worked."
More than wins and losses
A few years ago, Matt Hemstreet went to watch a Prairie Ridge game not far from his Crystal Lake home.
"I hear, 'Hey, Hemmer,' and I hadn't heard that in 20 years," Hemstreet said.
It was Blaney, who was nearing the end of 50 years in coaching as an assistant at Prairie Ridge. It was someone who had meant so much to Hemstreet at such a crucial time in his life.
A month before Hemstreet started freshman football, his father, Wayne, died at age 51 from leukemia. Hemstreet was coached by his dad in youth football and he wasn't sure if was going to keep playing.
But the calm, yet demanding, influence of Blaney that had an effect on Hemstreet.
"I adopted him as a surrogate father," Hemstreet said. "I saw his unique leadership ability. He wasn't a yeller and he would treat you like your dad would. If he was disappointed he would tell you he was disappointed in you.
"He was great in many ways at teaching everyone priorities. The priorities weren't football, but family and education came before sports, and it wasn't a load of BS."
Wagner coached for a while at the high school level and found himself using a lot of things Blaney said and did.
And Wagner said Blaney's priorities and beliefs extended to those beyond the football program.
"That makes him an even more special guy," Wagner said. "He wasn't just a football guy but he was a great guy. He helped a lot of people out, even kids you wouldn't think.
"He did affect a lot of people outside of football and that's what makes him so special."
Which makes it special for BG games now to be played in Grant Blaney Stadium.
A look at the coaching career of Buffalo Grove's Grant Blaney:
•111-54 record in 16 full seasons (1973-89)
•1986 undefeated Class 6A state champions
•1978 Class 5A state runnerup
•State semifinalists in 1984 and 1985
•Seven playoff appearances
•Seven Mid-Suburban North titles
•Only three losing seasons
•Also a high school assistant at Amundsen, Thornridge, Wheeling, BG and Prairie Ridge and a college assistant at Lake Forest, Harper and North Central.