Mills made football matter at Wauconda
When Dave Mills came to Wauconda High School two decades ago, his goal was to make football a family affair on and off the field.
He achieved that goal and then some.
Mills is retiring from teaching in the business education department at Wauconda at the end of this school year and has retired as the Bulldogs' head football coach after a 14-year run in that position that culminated with a 2021 undefeated regular season, a Northern Lake County Conference championship and a second-round playoff advancement.
He led Wauconda to five playoff appearances, the most of any football coach in Bulldog program history, according to Illinois High School Association records. Mills recently was named coach of the year by Round Lake-based radio station 98.3 FM, which bills itself as "The Voice of Lake County."
"When I started at Wauconda in 2002, football didn't matter," said Mills. "Every five or six years they would have a good team and then there would be four or five years between. I wanted to build up to the success we have had where football matters and everybody buys into what is going on. I wanted to make it a family and community event at Wauconda where everybody rallies around Friday nights and where it matters. Kids taking pride in who they are and what they are is probably the greatest joy of it all."
Mills' arrival to Wauconda has an interesting back story to it. Mills, a Sandy, Utah native, played tight end at Brigham Young University and was in the training camps of the now Washington Football Team and New England Patriots. He made it to the final roster cuts with both teams, likening that experience to going to your favorite buffet and arriving to find the doors locked.
His college roommate? Former Chicago Bears player Glen Kozlowski, who took over as Wauconda's head coach in 2002.
"He and I had laughed one day that we were going to do this and coach together," said Mills, the starting tight end on the 1984 BYU team that went 13-0 and was voted consensus national champion.
"Wauconda had an opening in 2001 and it came down to the final rounds. Glen asked if he got the job did I want to move out here? All of a sudden I am living in Island Lake, Illinois and going to teach at Wauconda and taking on the next chapter."
Koslowski coached seven years at Wauconda before Mills moved into the head position in 2009.
"It's been a lot of stubborn work and belief and presenting a picture and image to everybody and trying to create that culture," said Mills, who also coached football in Utah, including at Southern Utah University. "It was a slow buy-in to success. I remember my third year we were in the North Suburban Conference Prairie Division and got our first win. We are coming back from Round Lake and there are 100 people in the driveway of the high school celebrating the win. I thought to myself, 'This is what it can be. We just need to be consistent at it.' "
This year's playoff victory was the program's first since 1992. The NLCC title was also the team's first since 1991.
Mills, who noted he plans on continuing to coach football somewhere in retirement, said he received a lot of great advice over the years, including that from the likes of at-the-time Patriots tight ends coach Dante Scarnecchia and former BYU coach LaVell Edwards.
"The things we have done at Wauconda, present what you can be and provide a pathway to get there," said Mills, who coached his son, Davis, during his run at the school. "Hopefully, I have paid it forward. We have had great kids here. Kids have gone on to play all over the country. It's been fun to watch them grow and go do their thing and they come back and tell their story, and that makes it easier to put that dream out there."
Mills recalls the large celebration that took place at Middleton's on Main (a local establishment in Wauconda) after the Bulldogs secured the NLCC title against Grayslake North (the party was part conference title and part Mills' retirement).
"There were 300 people there, current and former players and parents," said Mills, whose wife, Wendy, also teaches in the business ed department at the school. "Three of our former quarterbacks were there. Listening to all of it, even though they moved on and left they still know what is going on with Wauconda football. There is that family and culture. We built it and did it and here's the proof.
"More than anything, this is a tribute to the players this year and the players of the past, the coaches and the community. It's a representation of them. A lot of credit goes to the players, the coaches and the community that has been involved in Wauconda football."