It’s a word heard often in the sports world. Usually a team or program is steeped in it, bathed in it, cloaked in it or sometimes, utterly devoid of it.
The dictionary defines tradition as an activity that happens regularly and has become the usual thing. In sports, the word “winning” often comes before the word “tradition,” but in general sports terms, if the word winning isn’t there, it’s implied.
The Illinois High School Association recently released a list of the 200 winningest football programs in state history. The IHSA’s list is sorted by number of wins, giving a large advantage to schools that have had a football program for a long period of time. They still must win games to be on the list, but having a program since 1900 is certainly an easier route to the list than starting one in 1978.
East St. Louis tops the list with 737 wins entering the 2014 season, followed by Chicago Mount Carmel with 708. Rounding out the top 10 are some familiar names in high school football circles, such as Wheaton Warrenville South (673), Tuscola (672), Arcola (669), Carthage (658), Champaign Central (657), Rock Island (642), Loyola Academy (641) and Geneseo (640). Joliet Catholic narrowly missed the top 10, taking the 11th spot with 634 wins since 1920, while Morris is 18th with 598 wins since 1900.
All storied programs, to be sure. The above paragraph also is littered with multiple state championships besides total wins. The question is, what constitutes tradition? Is it sheer volume of wins? State championships? Winning percentage? Playoff appearances? The last two aren’t a factor on the IHSA list, which is too bad for local school Coal City.
The Coalers actually have the area’s highest winning percentage, .653, in their 36-year history. They have 245 wins against 130 losses, including a state title (1993) and a runner-up finish (2004). They also have reached the playoffs in 24 of the last 27 seasons.
It’s hard to deny that Coal City has a winning tradition, but they don’t fall on the top 200 on the IHSA’s list because the volume isn’t there. But for the past 25 years or so, they are hard to beat.
The current head coach of the Coalers, Lenny Onsen, was a member of the first varsity team the school fielded, so he has seen it grow from the start. He was on the coaching staff during the state title run of 1993 and head coach in the runner-up year of 2004. He has seen the building of a tradition from the ground up.
The school’s first varsity team was in 1978, when Onsen was a senior. He coached one year in Dwight, in 1987, before returning to Coal City in 1988 and has been there ever since. He even came back on weekends during college and worked on the chain gang.
“When it comes to tradition, I always think of a town like Morris,” he said. “They have kids that have had brothers, dads, uncles, cousins, grandfathers and even great-grandfathers go through the program. We are just starting to have kids playing for us that had dads that played here. It’s the family, the generations, that help make the tradition.”
Winning certainly helps that, too, he added.
“There is nothing like a small-town playoff game, and we’ve been fortunate enough to have quite a few of them,” he said. “We also hold our youth camp on the game field, just to let the young kids know that someday they can run through that tunnel with the fireworks going off. That creates a lot of excitement. We also get a lot of help from our Touchdown Club that feeds the kids on Wednesdays during the season and holds fundraisers. They are a big part of our tradition, too.”
Morris is next on the area list with a .615 winning percentage in 90 years. The IHSA has the Redskins with a 531-206 record, including state championships in 1980, 1984 and 2005 and runner-up finishes in 1979, 1989, 1994, 2001, 2004, 2007 and 2012. Three different head coaches have taken the Redskins to a title game. Dan Darlington presided over the bulk of the success, winning the 1980 and 1984 titles as well as guiding the second-place finishes in 1979, 1989, 1994, 2001 and 2004. George Dergo took over in 2005 and won a state title that year before guiding the 2007 runner-up. Current coach Alan Thorson was in charge of the runner-up team of 2012.
The 32-year-old Thorson had yet to be born when Morris first reached a title game and won a state title and, even though he grew up in Seneca, he knew of the Redskins’ tradition from a young age.
Now, he’s immersed in it and trying to keep it going.
“You always heard, even in Seneca, about the great program Morris had,” Thorson said. “Even when I got out of college, my first job was at Plainfield South, and I got to see it from the other side. Plainfield South was trying to build a program and we were going up against Morris, one of the top programs in the state. That was 2004, when they were the state runner-up, so we saw a really good team.”
For the team now, the expectations are the same every year.
“We have our main goal as winning a state title,” Thorson said. “We want Morris to be one of the best programs in the state, year in and year out. We want to do it for the program and the community. We know how important the football program is to everyone around here.”
Thorson stresses to his team that it’s the name on the front of the jersey that is important, not the name on the back.
“That’s what makes our program special,” he said. “We know what it means to everybody. I mean, there are people in the reserved section of the bleachers that have been in the same seat for 25 years or more, whether they have kids in the program or not. The football team is a big deal to the community, and we know that.”
Even after players graduate, it’s important to them that the players after them continue what’s been going on, he added.
“We know we had a hiccup last year and missed the playoffs, but I think that will only help us this year,” Thorson said. “A lot of the times, Morris kids are just used to winning because that’s what they do. They went 3-6 last year and realized that it takes a lot of hard work. They just don’t throw their helmet on the field and expect to win.
“Every team that has made it to state has put that work in. If these kids want to be one of those teams, there’s work to do. And we expect it. In my family, we don’t make many plans over Thanksgiving weekend. We expect to still be playing football that weekend.”
Seneca is next on the area list as far as winning percentage, going 134-120 (.528) over its 26-year history, according to the IHSA.
The Fighting Irish won a state title in 1990 and had a run of 11 playoff appearances in 13 years before suffering from a 11-year playoff drought that finally ended last season.
Minooka has never reached a state title game, but has reached the semifinals twice, in 1996 and 2003. The Indians’ winning percentage is .508 (195-189) in 40 years and they have made the playoffs 13 times, but none since 2011.