Golf league allows retired football coaches to have some fun
It is a golf league loaded with big hitters, though few are likely to break par.
Every Thursday from May to October, a group of retired area high school and college football coaches gather at an appointed suburban golf course to tell stories, reminisce about the glory days, pick each other's brains about the sport they devoted their lives to and -- oh, yeah -- play 18 holes.
Now in its 16th year, The Coaches Tour, founded by commissioner Jack McInerney -- an Illinois High School Football Coaches Association Hall of Famer and past IHSFCA president who coached at IC Catholic Prep, Westmont, Lyons Township, Oak Park and Downers Grove South -- is still going strong.
One does not have to be a great golfer to play, but there is a key prerequisite.
"You have to have been a football coach," McInerney said. "I hate to be too exclusive, but there it is."
McInerney said in 2004 he was playing golf twice a week with different groups of football coaches. He decided to combine the groups and invite several more coaches he'd met through the many stops in his long career.
The list today reads like a roll call of area coaching legends. Included among the 32 league participants are 15 IHSFCA Hall of Famers, including Buck Drach of St. Charles and West Aurora, Joe Bunge of Naperville Central, Larry McKeon of Naperville North, Palatine's Joe Petricca, Lake Park's Bob Monken, Ken Schreiner of Hinsdale Central, Tim Cederblad of Benet Academy, West Aurora and Plainfield, Glenbard West's Jim Covert, Jack Derning of Fenwick and Lyons Township, Glenbard North's Dale Evans; and Mike O'Neill of Andrew and St. Laurence.
Several former NCAA coaches are in the mix, too. College Football Hall of Fame inductee Tom Beck coached at Illinois Benedictine College and Elmhurst College before leading Grand Valley State to an 11-0 record in 1989. He was later the offensive coordinator at Notre Dame and Illinois.
Gene Mitz, brother of IHSFCA Hall of Famer Bill Mitz of Jacobs and formerly Stevenson, coached at North Park, Northwestern, Drake, Triton, Rose-Hulman and multiple area high schools.
Former Harper College coach John Eliasik won three national titles in 35 seasons and is a member of the NJCAA Coaches Hall of Fame.
Of the 32 participants, 22 have been head coaches, 15 have coached in IHSA state championship games and four have won the Ray Eliot Award, given to a coach who exhibits sportsmanship while advancing the sport.
The weekly outings give the retired coaches a chance to socialize with their peers in a way they were unable to during the day-to-day grind of their respective careers.
"It's interesting because there are guys that you coached against, guys you had great games against, and now here we are talking about those games from a whole different perspective," said Petricca, who turns 70 in September. "Then you come to find out they're all great guys. We never have any heated exchanges ever. It's just great guys and great competition."
Petricca said it's difficult to pinpoint one of the many great stories he has been told on the golf course over the years.
"Just getting to know the person, that's the most interesting story there is," he said.
True to the competitive nature of football coaches, prizes are awarded each week for the lowest and highest scores. Each week's winner, adjusted for handicap, has his photo taken in a green jacket. McInerney said he scoured resale shops for a year and a half before he found one with gold buckles and buttons.
As for the high score each round? That player is "awarded" a pink golf ball. McInerney has been taking photos of the high and low scorers each week for 16 years.
"Typical coaches, right? We're going to give a reward or a little bit of shame," joked Covert, 71, who led Glenbard West to a 132-58 record in 19 seasons, highlighted by the 1983 Class 5A state title. "When McInerney got the pink ball a couple of weeks ago, he listed all the week's accomplishments, like which team won and who got the green jacket. When he listed who got the pink ball, he listed his name in the smallest font I've ever seen in my life. Buck Drach said 'Hey, Jack, I really couldn't read that name on there. What was that all about?' But we've all had the green jacket and we've all had a pink ball over the years, so there's a little empathy going on."
Not all 32 play every week. Medical appointments, vacations and various aches and pains usually result in 20-24 players per week, McInerney said. Eighteen players took part in Thursday's outing at Fresh Meadow in Hillside.
Attendance is always strong for The Coaches League versions of the President's Cup in August and Ryder Cup in October.
"We're all competitive, but we're all out there for fun and pulling for each other," said McKeon, whose 231 career victories over 27 seasons included state titles in 1992 and 2007. "It's that kind of league. You're just happy to be out there, you're happy to be outside hitting some balls while you get to know all of these guys you competed against. And you find out they're pretty good people. That's the fun part of it."
The league alternates between courses like Fresh Meadow, Carillon in Plainfield, Village Greens of Woodridge, White Pines in Bensenville, Willow Crest at Oak Brook Hills, and Oak Brook Golf Course, among others.
No matter the location, McInerney said the first rule is to have fun, the second rule is to have fun and the third rule is to play good golf.
"And we live by that creed, believe me," he said. "The guys, we have a great time."