Baker leaves Grayslake North for Rolling Meadows
After three winning regular seasons, the second of which included the birth of his daughter during rivalry week, Sam Baker is ready to create new memories.
Rolling Meadows' school board officially approved Baker's hiring as the high school's new head football coach Thursday night. Baker leaves Grayslake North after 17 wins and two playoff appearances in his three seasons, and it was his young family that helped influence the young coach.
Baker, 32, and his wife, Kate, a teacher at Woodstock North, are the parents of son Sawyer, 5, and daughter Palmer, 1½. Baker informed Grayslake North's players on Friday morning of his decision to take the job at Rolling Meadows, which won a school-record 12 games last season in advancing to the Class 7A state semifinals. Matt Mishler, who took the Mustangs to the playoffs in each of his 9 years as head coach while compiling a 72-25 record, stepped down in January. His Mustangs won the Mid-Suburban East seven times, including the past two seasons.
"(Rolling Meadows) was always on a shortlist of jobs that if it ever came open, I was going to go for it," Baker said. "I told the kids (Friday) morning there comes a time when you have to put your family first. It's just a better opportunity personally and professionally that I couldn't turn down."
In taking the Rolling Meadows job, Baker essentially cuts his commute to work in half, as he and his family live in Fox River Grove.
"I live 45 minutes from Grayslake," Baker said. "This year was tough with the commute. During the season there were times where I just wasn't close enough to come home, so if we had things at night [at Grayslake North], it was an extra four hours of just sitting around."
Baker, who was only second head coach in the 14-year history of Grayslake North's program, guided the Knights to 7 wins and a second-round playoff berth (Class 6A) in his first season after serving as head coach at Waconia High in Minnesota the previous four years. Grayslake North went 5-4 in 2018, finishing the season by beating Grayslake Central -- the same week that Palmer was born -- for its fifth win a row, but fell short on playoff points. The Knights went 5-4 again this past season and did make the playoffs, but lost to Prairie Ridge in their Class 6A opener.
It was Grayslake North's seventh playoff appearance in eight years.
"I had a blast," Baker said. "I'm very grateful for the guys I've had to coach the last three years and coaches I've had the chance to work with. We were able to continue the tradition. ... We did a lot of really good things. Probably our best team coming up is going to be this year, so I knew if I was going to leave this team it had to be a really good opportunity."
Baker met Mishler through 7-on-7 football a couple of years ago, and the two coaches kept in touch. Baker's Grayslake North teams ran a spread offense and 3-4 scheme on defense.
"We do things very similarly," said Baker, a former quarterback at Winona State University. "My big focus when I interviewed was continuity. I spoke with the (Rolling Meadows) captains (Thursday) night and told them that the expectations of the program don't change, only the face in front of the program does."
Baker had a pair of interviews with Rolling Meadows before accepting the job as its seventh head football coach in school history. He will teach physical education and health at the school.
"We had outstanding candidates apply for this position," Rolling Meadows assistant principal Lisa DaRocha said in a statement. "Sam brought an energy and passion about the game of football into the room while discussing his plan for the continued positive culture and success that we have had here at Rolling Meadows High School. He brings a wealth of knowledge from his past experiences that we feel will mix nicely with our current staff and athletes. He works extremely hard on the culture of his program, including a focus on equity, which is right in line with what our building and district has been working on."