Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Herald-Whig Football Coach of the Year: Illini West's Jim Unruh


Herald-Whig Sports Writer

CARTHAGE -- The question Jim Unruh appreciated the most wasn't one directed at him.

It was addressed to his dad.

Hanging out in the Memorial Stadium press box as the Illini West football coaching staff met with the media following the Chargers' Class 3A state title game victory nine days ago, Paul Unruh was asked how the game had changed since he coached West Chicago to the initial Class 3A crown in 1974.

His response? Not at all.

"He said, 'It's still hit or be hit,'" Jim Unruh said.

Illini West critics need to remember that.

Two years ago, when the consolidation of Carthage, LaHarpe and Dallas City was finalized and the newly formed Illini West school district learned its football program would be a Class 3A program, Jim Unruh was told his schemes, his offense and his basic fundamentals wouldn't win.

He heard it too many times to count.

"They said, 'You can't run that offense,'" Unruh said. "I heard over and over, 'You're not going to be able to play at an elite level with that type of offense.'"

The single-wing attack -- a staple during Carthage's reign as one of the state's top small-school programs -- may not be ideal for bigger schools, but it works. Unruh knew that. He believed that. He hoped that.

Not even a first-round exit from the playoffs in 2007 could convince him otherwise.

"We still had to come together as team and as a program," Unruh said. "I've always believed in my system. I was told it wouldn't work when we went from Class 1A to Class 2A. Well, it worked. I was told the same thing going to Class 3A. Well, we made it work."

That's because Illini West became one community, not three.

Unruh said after every game last year he was questioned about which town a player was from or which program he had played in. They weren't accepted as Illini West players. They were still linked to their hometowns.

"That was a question I didn't get a single time this year from anyone," Unruh said.

Nor did he get any questions about rivalries or past meetings.

"It was players and coaches coming together for the same goal," Unruh said.

And learning from past mistakes.

The first week of practice back in August, the Chargers were adamant about changing their approach to defense. They had to tackle better, wrap up better and flow better.

"We have to be more aggressive and make the initial play," linebacker Derek VanFleet said. "That's a matter of trust."

You don't create that overnight.

"Last year, it was a little rocky at the beginning, but we got used to each other," senior tackle Luke Burling said. "This year, I see a big improvement in teamwork, getting in the weight room and working out together and being better friends."

Unruh said the relationships were made from a healthy respect for one another.

"Before, when Carthage teams played LaHarpe teams, it was a rivalry game," Unruh said. "But it wasn't built on animosity. It was built on respect. It was very easy to mold our systems together."

Unruh's personality is a big reason why.

Engaging, entertaining and imaginative, Unruh doesn't see himself on a different plane than his assistants. In fact, he doesn't favor calling them assistant coaches.

"It's one of my least favorite terms," Unruh said.

He sees them as equals with their own responsibilities.

For example, Illini West special teams coach Tim Lafferty called on fake punt on the game's opening drive, which the Chargers converted and later capped the 17-play drive with a touchdown.

"I didn't make that call," Unruh said. "Lafferty told me about half a second before we ran that play what was coming."

It shows the maturing relation between Unruh and Lafferty, the former head coach at LaHarpe-Northwestern.

"This year, if you watched games, we are continuously using each other as sounding boards," Unruh said. "I'm asking him for suggestions, he's giving suggestions. We're trying to come up with the best play call at the time."

Most of the time, they did, but it was up to the players to execute.

At that point, it comes down to hitting, tackling and running.

Just the basics.

And like Paul Unruh said, it's still hit or be hit.

"That sums up our philosophy," Jim Unruh said. "We do the basics, and we stress that you do them right."

No one does them better.

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