Stevenson's Baumann delights in long-awaited football championship

Updated 1/8/2015 9:17 PM

Each winter, Tom Baumann makes his escape.

His rental properties in Florida make the perfect reprieve from the harsh weather and temperatures of the Midwest.

The warmer climate is also better for his aching knees, just like the new artificial turf football fields, where he spends much of the rest of his retirement. Much softer and more forgiving on the joints.

"Although, my knees still get sore if I stand in one place for too long, even on the turf," Baumann said this week from Florida, where temperatures were in the 60s. "I'm 74, and my knees feel that way. But the rest of me doesn't.

"Football is keeping me young."

Baumann has been coaching football for 52 years. Over Thanksgiving weekend in November, he finally reached the summit of high school football when Stevenson won the Class 8A state championship at the University of Illinois.

It was the Patriots' first football state title in school history.

Baumann is an assistant coach at Stevenson, in charge of the defensive backs. His perspective on the sidelines of Memorial Stadium on that Saturday evening was particularly unique.

He was the first head football coach at Stevenson, serving 17 years from 1965 to 1981. He's been coaching football for the Patriots in some capacity for 38 years.

For him to be a part of Stevenson's long-awaited first state championship was beyond special to him. When the program was in its infancy, it was his baby. He's seen it come a long way.

"I'm very struck by it all," said Baumann, who smiled from ear to ear as he read the e-mail that he recently received from Stevenson indicating that orders for state championship rings are due soon. "I have such an appreciation for the whole experience, maybe even more so than others. It's made me think a lot about the early days. I've been through a lot of the ups and downs.

"Someone said to me after the game, 'You've been waiting for a long time for this.' And I thought, 'I haven't been waiting, I've been working hard for it.'"

Baumann was asked to build a football program at Stevenson back when the landscape in Lake County was much different.

Stevenson was considered a rural school, out in the sticks in 1965. The school didn't even have a football field yet, so the team practiced at a nearby airport on the southwest corner of Milwaukee Avenue and Route 22. Only 18 players were on Stevenson's first team and Baumann would have to scout every opponent in person because it was too expensive to make multiple copies of game film to exchange with other coaches.

Under Baumann, the Patriots went 67-67-3 with four 7-2 seasons.

The first state playoffs weren't held until 1974. In 1975, Stevenson ended up in a three-way tie for first place in its conference. But since only conference champions got to go to the playoffs, there was a coin flip. The Patriots did not win the coin flip.

"That 1975 team was probably the best team we had when I was the head coach," said Baumann, who retired from his position as a social studies teacher at Stevenson in 1998. "It was too bad that we lost that coin flip."

Baumann has enjoyed the flood of e-mails and phone calls he's gotten since Thanksgiving weekend, particularly from former players such as Greg Mercier, the star running back from that 1975 team. Mercier is now a retired FBI agent.

"It's a warm, fuzzy feeling to hear from guys like that," Baumann said. "Greg was the captain of our very first team. He was student body president. He started on the baseball and basketball teams and he played tennis, too. He was a great athlete on a really good team for us.

"We've had other really good athletes and really good teams at Stevenson over the years. But something has disrupted (the run), injuries or chemistry, or any number of things.

"That's why this year's team was such a special team. They did a great job of handling everything, challenges and adversity. They really came together. Winning state is very hard to do. Everything has to come into place at just the right time."

Baumann certainly cherishes his place with the Stevenson football program, and would love to keep coaching as long as the team will have him.

"I love the kids. It's stimulating to be around them," Baumann said. "I also love the teaching aspect of coaching and helping kids learn the game and how to use their emotions in a productive way.

"It's keeping me young, and I hope I can keep going with it. It's not like I want to call it an end now that we won. I'm thinking, 'I finally got it right.'"

• Follow Patricia on Twitter: @babcockmcgraw

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