Sunday, January 11, 2009
Making it look easy
By Gabe House
Sun Jan 11, 2009, 02:01 AM CST
Jim Unruh never really had aspirations to be a coach.
It's odd, considering his father, Paul, won the first IHSA 3A state title for football far back in 1974 with West Chicago. Even that, Unruh said, did not provoke him to follow in his dad's footsteps.
"It was just something I kind of fell into," Unruh said. "I don't know when you get into teaching and coaching if you ever really plan on coaching a championship game."
And yet, Unruh has been there a handful of times, most recently with 2008 Illini West Chargers in a 21-14 victory over DuQuoin. The team - with a perfect 14-0 record - gave him his first 3A title 24 years after his father did the same thing.
But when the Chargers stepped on the field at Memorial Stadium in Champaign it was more than the climax to an incredible season. It was the crowning moment for Unruh to prove his coaching strategies could succeed at the 3A level.
The single-wing offense is what Unruh swears by. And why not? It gave him three state titles at the 1A level from 1998-2000, one in 1995 and three runner-up finishes in 2A from 2002-04.
Still, when the towns of Carthage, LaHarpe and Dallas City converged to become Illini West two years ago, many people questioned the wisdom of sticking with Unruh's traditional offense. It can't succeed at a higher level of play, many said. It just won't work.
Unruh didn't listen to them, though, even after the Chargers were bounced from the 3A playoffs with a 7-2 record in the first round last year.
"There were some questions on that. Myself, I never questioned that, though," Unruh said, regarding his basic schemes. "Well, I'd seen enough teams be successful running very vanilla systems, and I've always been a believer in running what we've run and trying to run it to perfection. That's how I've always coached."
And, obviously, it paid off.
Junior tailback Stefan Flynn racked up more than 1,500 yards and 23 touchdowns to lead the Chargers. Drake Schmudlach and Mitch Beals, meanwhile, combined for similar numbers as well. The single-wing offense everyone had criticized dropped dividends in spades for Illini West.
"The biggest thing for me is seeing how successful his teams were before in using it," Flynn said. "And also knowing how well he knows the offense and how well he can teach it."
Unruh, however, maintained it was the team that did all the work. According to him, coaching football is not particularly difficult. It's as simple as putting the right players in the correct spots and letting them make plays, Unruh said.
"It goes all the way to the beginning of the season to practices to camp to seven-on-sevens when you set your goals so high each and every week you prepare, and your players demand themselves to get better," Unruh said. "That's the hallmark of a championship team."
That mentality proved to be a keystone for the Chargers, especially in the semi-final and championship games when they took halftime deficits into the locker room. Unruh and his coaching staff - who aren't exactly the "fiery speech" kind of guys - simply told the team to keep doing what they're doing. Things would work out if they stuck to the principles.
"He's more of a soft-spoken leader," Flynn said. "But there's nothing you can say bad about a guy who's won five state championships."
And despite Unruh's many trips to the title game, there is one thing that makes the normally reserved coach a little more animated; stepping on the field before the title game and basking in the history that pervades Memorial Stadium, if only for a few moments.
It's something, Unruh said, that never gets old.
"It's awe-inspiring ... to be able to coach at the University of Illinois where you've got all the great high school and college coaches that have coached at that field, and the players that have played there," Unruh said with a trace of reverence in his voice. "It's awe-inspiring to step on that same field to coach a football game."
Jim Unruh through the years
23 yrs. 230-44
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