Mertens steps down as Lake Zurich football coach
He's not a finalist for another head-coaching job. He's not fed up with anyone in Lake Zurich's administration. He's not tired of the parents.
Luke Mertens has heard all the rumors and has laughed them off.
Plenty of rumors swirled Monday after Mertens, just 43 and on a hall-of-fame coaching path, stepped down suddenly as Lake Zurich's head football coach after just two seasons.
"I am not going anywhere else, "Mertens said. "I don't have my eyes on any other place."
Truth is, he knows his place.
"It's the same story you've heard from many coaches," Mertens said. "(Coaching) is a huge commitment that takes a big chunk out of your family life, and my kids (Reese, almost 13, and Rocco, almost 10) are at an age right now where they're really active in sports. There's big burden that's left on my wife (Nicole), and I'm forced to miss tournaments and practices. My kids are never going to be young again, and I don't want to look back and have regrets that I missed so much of their life, because I already have missed a lot."
Monday's stunning news also included Mertens, an English teacher at Lake Zurich who spent 12 years at Lakes before accepting the Lake Zurich position almost exactly two years ago to the date, revealing he is leaving teaching, too.
"We have a family business, and our latest endeavor has been commercial real estate," Mertens said. "It's been successful. We have an opportunity for a couple of redevelopments in the North Shore, and it needs my attention. My family was OK with not doing it because they know how much I love coaching, but I just felt like it was an important enough opportunity where my family sacrificed a lot. It was something where I needed to step up and say, 'Everyone has always sacrificed for me and my career, and it's time for me to put the family first.'
"This is going to provide me with the opportunity to have a lot more flexibility, be more visible in my kids' lives, and be a better dad and a better husband. I'm blessed because my family did not put any pressure on me at all. This was definitely a self-driven decision."
In 2005, Mertens became the first head football coach in Lakes' history. He left after having guided the Eagles to the state playoffs eight years in a row. In his first season at Lake Zurich, after a hazing scandal jarred the football program the previous season, he led the Bears to 13 wins and a berth in the Class 7A state championship game. Lake Zurich went 7-4 last season, advancing to the second round of the playoffs. In 14 combined seasons at Lakes and Lake Zurich, he has a record of 92-55.
And while football has always been a part of his life -- "I've never not had it part of my life," he said -- he will leave with no regrets. He will continue teaching until the end of the school year.
"It was an unexpected opportunity," Mertens said. "I'm lucky enough that some opportunities did happen and I can take them and do it. Sometimes we don't control when things drop in our lap."
He looks forward to being "Dad."
"Football is a major part of my identity, and anywhere I go people refer to me as 'Coach.' Which I take a lot of pride in," Mertens said. "But there's more to life."
Mertens said he came to his decision recently and took Spring Break to reflect. He told his players Monday morning. If the timing seems bad, he says it was never his intention.
"This had nothing to do with anyone," Mertens said. "It had everything to do with just me. It's just something that I felt I had to do. This was an opportunity to be a better parent and an opportunity for me to make possibly a higher-level income, as well."
All son Rocco needs to know is that his dad will be around more often.
"As I explained to my son, 'I'll be able to take you to football practice now,' " Mertens said. "His face lit up and said, 'That's great. I'm really pumped that you're going to be able to take me to football now.' When I heard him say that, that's when I knew that I'm doing the right thing."