Former Hampshire coach Cavanaugh was one really good guy

  • Former Hampshire football coach Dan Cavanaugh passed away Wednesday after a battle with pancreatic cancer. He was 59.

    Former Hampshire football coach Dan Cavanaugh passed away Wednesday after a battle with pancreatic cancer. He was 59. Daily Herald File Photo

Updated 12/21/2017 8:23 PM

You'd he hard pressed to find anyone -- and I do mean anyone -- who didn't like and respect Dan Cavanaugh.

Cavanaugh, the football coach at Hampshire High School for 25 years until he retired after the 2013 season, passed away early Wednesday morning after a six-month battle with pancreatic cancer. He was 59.


Having just turned 60 myself, and having known Dan pretty well, just typing those words caused a rush of emotions that's hard to explain.

Fifty-nine. Pancreatic cancer.

That isn't supposed to happen to anyone, let alone a guy like Dan Cavanaugh.

Cavanaugh was a state championship football coach, guiding the Whip-Purs to the Class 2A crown in 1995.

But he was so much more than just a football coach.

Rick Palmer, currently the athletic director at Westminster Christian, worked closely with Cavanaugh when they were both at Hampshire and they became great friends. In fact, Cavanaugh played his last round of golf with Palmer on June 24 this past summer.

"Dan was one of the most humble and dignified people I've ever known," Palmer said Wednesday. "He was a great person. He never talked about himself. He was one of those good guys and he will really be missed."

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"I don't think there was a finer person alive," said Mike Wendt, who turned the Hampshire program over to Cavanaugh in 1989 but returned to Cavanaugh's staff as an assistant coach a couple years later for 10 years.

"I don't know the right words to describe my feelings. He always kept the right thing in mind for every kid he coached and he was very giving of himself," Wendt added.

Cavanaugh taught math in District 300 for 33 years. A 1976 St. Charles High School graduate who went on to the Air Force Academy and then the University of Iowa, he was 121-122 in his 25 years at Hampshire, taking nine teams to the playoffs including his last one in 2013.

After retirement he took a year off but returned to the sidelines as an assistant coach at Westminster Christian in 2015, helping the Warriors reach the playoffs.


"I was finally able to talk him into coming over and he was very instrumental in our playoff season," Palmer said.

In 2016 he volunteered to coach the running backs at South Elgin. He had planned to return to his first coaching home, Dundee-Crown, this past fall but couldn't due to the cancer.

"It was really rough to hear of his passing," said South Elgin coach Pat Pistorio. "The opportunity to work with him for even one year was very beneficial with all of his advice and years of knowledge. He devoted countless hours to our program as a volunteer and he was all in. He was very passionate about his role in our program and he set a tone for our running backs. He was just a really great guy who understood and respected the game."

Cavanaugh -- who is survived by his wife of 29 years, Debbie, as well as their four children, Jay, Ryan, Kasey and Amy -- was also a man who never showed ego of any kind.

"I was talking to (former Hampshire AD) Jim Wallis about Dan recently and Jim said the year Dan won state he went 14-0. The year after that he was 0-9. And he was the same person. That's just how he was," said Palmer.

Current Hampshire AD Dave Hicks worked closely with Cavanaugh in Dan's final years as Hampshire's coach -- years that weren't all that easy on the field in terms of wins and losses.

"The one word to describe him is gentleman," Hicks said. "He was a mentor to young men and his focus was beyond winning and losing. He was a picture of continuity year to year. He had strong values and passed those along to the young men he coached. If you ever walked into his classroom you saw the same thing. He was very steady from day to day."

Cavanaugh coached the Whip-Purs in one of my favorite games of all time to cover. It was the quarterfinals in 1995 and the Whips had to travel to Rockridge, near the Quad Cities, to take on the defending state champs, who were also undefeated and the top-ranked team in the state.

The wind chill hovered between 10 and 20 below zero. The field was frozen. It was Hampshire's first away game in the playoffs.

And guided by an even-keel coach who wouldn't let his team allow the elements to deter their mission, the Whips won 20-14.

That's the day I truly became a fan of Dan Cavanaugh. And over the next 18 years it was a pleasure, no, I'll say it was an honor to cover his games, get to know him, see the man he really was, and come to admire and respect him.

He will be missed, and in more ways than one.

•Visitation for Dan Cavanaugh will be Friday from 3-7 p.m. at St. Catherine of Siena Church in West Dundee. Burial will be private. In lieu of flowers, memorials may be made to either or FISH Food Pantry.

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