West Aurora's Drach retires
For a football coach who experienced as many victories on the field as Buck Drach did over 28 years as a head coach, he experienced much more than his share of tragedy.
Success and agony crystallized in a moment of truth one emotional fall day in 1985.
"I'll tell you when I figured it all out," Drach began.
It was his second season coaching at St. Charles High School. The undefeated Saints trailed Schaumburg in a first-round playoff game. This was just days after the funeral for his sister-in-law. She had been killed in a car accident out in the sticks, broadsided by another driver who cruised through a stop sign and didn't see her car through high stalks of corn.
"We were going in and needed a score to win, and I looked behind me and all our kids were holding hands," Drach said. "I thought, wow, that's pretty powerful. I looked across the field and I'll be darned if Schaumburg wasn't doing the same thing.
"It hit me that the wins and losses didn't make any difference."
Roger "Buck" Drach made a difference, though. Way more than the 173 victories he'll take with him driving between his Aurora home and the hunting club he partly owns, Grundy's Honkers in Gardner, Ill.
His retirement from coaching at West Aurora, announced officially by the school on Thursday, leaves a temporary gap where character and old-school discipline held fast.
Drach went 16-29 the last five seasons with the Blackhawks, including a 4-5 mark this past season.
He retires with a lifetime record of 173-103, including 116-48 in 16 seasons at St. Charles High School from 1984-99. He led the Saints to 12 playoff appearances with Class 6A quarterfinal berths in 1994, 1996 and 1998.
Drach arrived at St. Charles after a seven-year stint at Limestone High School in Bartonville. He went 41-26 at Limestone.
"It isn't about the individuals, it isn't about the stats," he said over the cell phone while driving, his two hunting dogs in the car with him.
"It's about getting knocked down and getting back up again. It's the locker room with the coaches. People have no idea how much fun we have behind those doors, no idea. It's the relationships you make with the kids, with the coaches, with opponents, with everybody."
Drach, who upon graduating from since-closed Saunemin High School in 1968 walked on to Eastern Illinois University's football team and was elected a Panthers team captain as a senior in 1974, became synonymous with St. Charles High football.
He coached there from 1984-99, and in those 16 seasons directed the Saints to 12 playoff appearances, a couple of them with his 6-foot-5 All-State son, Jon, playing quarterback. Buck Drach, a 1993 recipient of the Illinois High School Football Coaches Association's Ray Eliot Award for meritorious service, led the Saints to Class 6A quarterfinal appearances in 1994, 1996 and 1998.
Unfortunately, as he said, "I never won the last game of a season."
Very few do. And with the events of 1985 and the personal trauma he later experienced, he realized on-field strategies were a trifle in comparison.
Three times during his last decade at St. Charles his wife, Rose, was diagnosed with cancer. She finally succumbed in September 1999, just 35 years old.
He acknowledged the immense amount of support he received.
"Just the whole community, how they treated me when I went through all that stuff with Rose," Drach said. "That went on 10 years."
The ramifications continue in a much happier vein. The annual charity Kick-a-thon, held during the St. Charles East-St. Charles North football game, is organized by the schools' dance teams and cheerleaders and energizes 100 members of the community. It has raised close to $750,000 in Rose Drach's honor, Buck said. Funds are awarded to the American Cancer Society and LivingWell Cancer Resource Center in Geneva in a ceremony during a basketball game between the two schools.
Buck Drach won loads of big games at St. Charles, but during his wife's travails he came up with a saying he considered "might be my biggest accomplishment: Help for today, hope for tomorrow."
He brought both help and hope to the West Aurora football program in 2006.
Armed with the knowledge of four different offenses learned under three different coaches at Eastern Illinois, all the success at St. Charles, and 41 victories in his first head coaching job at Limestone Community High in Bartonville that included a Class 5A championship loss to Glenbard West in 1983, Drach had the pedigree to raise the Blackhawks' program.
He and his "right-hand man," Mike Powers, had the goal of leading West to the playoffs, which hadn't happened in 12 years.
"Everybody tells us we were a lot more competitive than we had been in years past," Drach said, "but my goal was to get to the playoffs and we were unable to do it."
That goal may have gone unaccomplished, but between beating the hallways to increase numbers, fielding a tough team this season that didn't absorb a running-clock loss for the first time since West Aurora entered the DuPage Valley Conference, and instilling a more professional sheen, Drach left a mark.
"To be quite honest, we looked better than anybody we played," he said. "We won the pregame show, but we didn't always win the game."
This is a proud, tough man. After high school he enrolled in Caterpillar's manufacturing program, and he narrowly avoided the draft for service in Vietnam.
"I was ready to go because I didn't have much else going on," said Drach, classified 1A but lucky enough not to get his number drawn.
Although he had the opportunity to watch Jon play at Western Michigan, Drach likewise didn't have much else going upon receiving reduced academic and coaching responsibilities within the St. Charles district after 1999. He assisted Batavia coach Mike Gaspari, coached junior high sports and applied for the College of DuPage football job when the West Aurora position opened up.
Drach never considered going from the heights of state power St. Charles to a struggling Blackhawks program as a loss of prestige. He had been knocked down. He had gotten back up.
"It was the best thing that ever happened to me," he said.
Now he's on to his next best thing.
After this season he visited his daughter, Emily. He played with his grandchildren, Elle and Ryan, relaxing with no nagging thoughts of hustling back to hassle kids into starting off-season training.
Emily is due to deliver Drach's third grandchild in about a month. Duck blinds beckon at Grundy's Honkers.
"I'm ready to start another chapter now," said Drach, as he drove down the highway with his dogs.