By Todd Hefferman, The Southern
Mike Rude is running the gauntlet at practice today.
Looking as nimble as he was in his Christopher days, the 6-foot-3 Johnston City leader takes a snap and fades back to push the offense through a drill.
A few minutes later the 58-year-old is down on the ground helping out a prospective lineman with his down blocking.
Toward the end of practice, battling the 96-degree heat alongside his players, Rude shows a few linebackers what to look for.
A champion chameleon, Rude has seen it all and shown it all, compiling a 180-124 record in 32 seasons as a head coach. Only Du Quoin's Al Martin (188-35) has more wins among active coaches in the region, but the Illinois High School Football Coaches Association Hall of Famer is the only area coach to lead his team to three different conference titles (Southwest Egyptian, Black Diamond and South Seven).
Once a proponent of the wishbone option, Rude changed offensive gears for the third time in his 37-year coaching career four years ago with a shift to the single-wing. His one-back passing attack at Johnston City yielded over 3,000 yards for Nick Francescon, while his ground attack broke 2,000 yards in a single season for tailback Kyle Baker in 2003. Baker and Keith Stefan (1993) won The Southern's Player of the Year Award under Rude's tutelage.
"Since I've known him, Mike has gone from an option coach, to a passing coach, I-formation guy to the single wing," Marion coach Kerry Martin said. "When Mike buys into a system and decides that's what he's going to do, he runs it extremely well. He puts everything into it. He has adapted his offensive philosophy to his talent level, and comes out successful every time."
The strangest offensive system he's ever installed, Rude's single-wing attack begins its fifth season this fall with seven returning starters. Last year Johnston City had three of the area's top 15 rushers and led the area in yardage, but Rude said the talent he's had has been only one of the scheme's successful attributes.
"Most of the people that can tell you how to defend it are dead," said Rude, who has over 60 game tapes of teams using the offense in the 1940s and 50s. "I mean, there just aren't people around that old that know how to defend it. I think it fits our kids very well. I think it gives us a little bit of an edge. I think our blocking in the single wing is what makes it so unique. There's not a play we run in our offense that we ask a guy to physically whip another guy."
Just getting a blocker between the ballcarrier and the defense has been enough, as the Indians have reached the postseason six straight years and look poised for a seventh consecutive appearance. Three offensive linemen, two tight ends and three running backs return from an offense that racked up over 3,500 yards on the ground last fall.
After this fall, Rude will make another shift - this time a geographic one. His 16th season at Johnston City will be his last, he said, as the face of Southern Illinois football will retire as principal at Washington Elementary School and as the head football coach of the Indians. He's made no secret about the move, nor about his preferred successor, assistant coach Brian Beery, who's been with him since 2002.
"Brian Beery as an assistant has done all the things, he's taken all the load of things I'd normally do as a head coach, and allowed me to be the principal and still coach football," Rude said. "When I retire as a principal, and I've already turned in all my retirement stuff, if I turned around and said 'Hey Brian, thanks a lot for doing all that stuff for me because it was very difficult to do as a principal and football coach, and I think what I'll do right now, now that I'm retired as principal, I'll just stay here as football coach.' That wouldn't have been right."
Beery, Johnston City's offensive coordinator, said one of the reasons he came to the Indians was to learn under Rude, one of the best minds in the game. He also said he wants to be a head coach someday, but put his plans on hold once summer workouts began.
"I thought about it, but at the same time I never want to shortchange what we're doing currently," he said. "I might think about that in the offseason, but now that the season is under way, that's not even a focus in my mind. I'm focused on getting these kids ready and serving coach Rude the best that I can."
Although Rude will step away from Johnston City's head coaching slot, he said he won't step far. He has no intentions of retiring from coaching, even saying he'd be willing to move away from the area if the right opportunity came along.
The former Christopher quarterback coached against two of his former teams already, he said, so taking on Johnston City as the leader of another Black Diamond school is not out of the question.
How could it be, considering how long he's stayed with the game?
"You quit 1,000 times," said Massac County coach Kelly Glass, who began his 26th season of high school football this fall. "You don't ever mean it. And it's hard to duplicate the thrill of being with a bunch of kids, and getting better, and getting a victory on Friday nights. It's the only sport, that I think is the ultimate team sport. You depend on each other so much, and I don't know if it's habit forming, but it gets in your blood.
"He probably loved playing, just like I did, and that's not something you can do downtown."
Said Kerry Martin, "In a non-football, off-the-field kind of thing, Mike has seen what kind of impact the game has on young men. In their development into young men, I think he understands the impact the game has."
In addition to keeping up with an offense almost 60 years old, Mr. Always At Your Goalpost has done more than any other to promote the game in Southern Illinois. One of the last coaches of the Coal Bowl, Rude helped bring back a regional all-star game more than a decade after the last Coal Bowl and put the wheels in motion for the Southern Illinois-Western Kentucky All-Star Game which will be played for the third time next year.
Rude says he likes breaking down film as much as he ever has, and now finds himself on the phone talking about the single wing to coaches from Austria to Manhattan to Australia. Somewhere, somehow, he will do more of it next year, and let someone else run the gauntlet at Johnston City.
"I'm going to continue to be a football coach, and I'll work at it harder, because I won't be a principal," Rude said. "People that know me, know that that much of my life is football. That's all I do."
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