I've been covering high school football in Illinois, from Champaign to East St. Louis to Chicago, for more than 40 years.
Along the way, I've met and admired many outstanding coaches, including Fred Cameron and Bob Shannon of East St. Louis, Champaign's Tommy Stewart, Richards' Gary Korhonen, East Leyden's Jack Leese, Deerfield's Paul Adams, Glenbard West's Bill Duchon, St. Rita's Pat Cronin, St. Laurence's Tom Kavanagh, Gordon Tech's Tom Winiecki, Brother Rice's Tom Mitchell, Joliet Catholic's Gordie Gillespie, Mount Carmel's Frank Lenti, Providence's Matt Senffner, Glenbrook North's Harold Samorian, Buffalo Grove's Grant Blaney, New Trier's Chick Cichowski, Vocational's Bernie O'Brien, Robeson's Roy Curry, Philllips' Carl Bonner and Julian's J.W. Smith.
But no one impressed me more than Murney Lazier.
His coaching record at Evanston makes you blink twice when you see it. No, this can't be. Let me check it again. One hundred and twenty-five victories, seventeen losses, four ties, in 18 years. That's right. Only 17 losses in 18 years. A winning percentage of .859, the hhighest in state history.
What made him stand out above all others, in my view, was his rock-solid and uncompromising brand of discipline, his "every kid is equal" philosophy and his innovative and creative nature. He was tough and gruff and mean and ornery but his players loved him and would run through a brick wall if he asked them to. Because they knew he would do the same for them.
He had great players like Howard Jones, whom he considered the best player he ever coached, Mike Kenn, Doug Redman, Emery Moorehead, Steve Greene, Joe Stewart, Carlos Matthews, Jim Purnell, Mike Wynn and Bob Pickens. But most of his players were hardscrabble kids with small bodies and big hearts.
Many of those kids, now middle-aged and carry a bag of memories, will return to Evanston on Saturday to honor their old coach as the school renames the football stadium in Lazier's honor during ceremonies at the Waukegan/Evanston game.
"The field belongs to the kids," Lazier said. "I hope it will motivate Evanston athletes to do what my kids did. I will feel proud that my name will be on the field because the kids dedicated their lives for the 18 years I was coaching. You can't minimize what they did. It's very memorable to me."
Lazier started a year-round weight training program at Evanston and introduced aerobics and lacrosse in the spring for athletes who didn't participate in other sports. He added other innovations...percentages, tendencies, an offense that was more sophisticated than many colleges, hired Ph.Ds as assistant coaches, gave motivational speeches. No alcohol, no smoking. Some of his ideas were picked up by then Northwestern coach Alex Agase, an Evanston graduate.
"The team belongs to the kids, not Lazier or the parents or the school administrators," said Lazier, explaining his philosophy. "A coach does everything he can to make them good. I did everything to be sure they would win. There was no inquality in our program."
Once, when some black parents tried to accuse Lazier of racism, other black parents and former black players stood behind the coach. "He treated everyone the same, like dirt," one ex-player said. Others called him "Do Right," as in do right or don't play. He was an original, one of a kind.