Don Schnake coached Elk Grove to a mythical state football championship in 1972 but he always insisted that the most satisfying moment came in 1963 when he produced his first unbeaten team at Vandalia.
Talk about pressure. At a huge midnight pep rally after the last game, the school board president distributed small trophies to each player that stated: "Vandalia, Mid-State champions, 9-0." The engraving had to be done before the game was played.
"Football was better in the Vandalia area than people think," Schnake once told me. "Because of Taylorville and Hillsboro, basketball was more popular. It was basketball country. Football didn't get enough credit. The kids were sons of coal miners. The 1963 season at Vandalia was more satisfying than 1972 at Elk Grove because we beat teams that had beaten us for years."
Schnake was a coaching pioneer. He always seemed to beat the odds. He picked up most of his philosophy from his old high school football and basketball coach at Centralia, the legendary Arthur Trout. Longtime sportswriter Marty Maciaszek of the The Daily Herald in Arlington Heights said Schnake was "a man of big accomplishments with little flair or fanfare." He would have appreciated that epitaph.
Schnake, who posted a 100-74-1 record at Elk Grove from 1968 to 1987, died last week (June 17) of lung cancer. His1972 team, led by quarterback and Sun-Times Player of the Year Jeff Stewart and fullback Jeff Schroeder, was ranked as the No. 1 team in Illinois by the Sun-Times. After a 2-5-1, 0-8 and 3-5 start, he also produced outstanding teams in 1971, 1976, 1977, 1979 and 1981 with running backs Jack Walsh, Tom Napholz, Don Weadley ("my best all-around player," Schnake said) and Jim Meyer.
"I knew we had arrived when St. Rita coach Pat Cronin, the king of the Catholic League, walked across the gym at a coaching clinic to shake my hand and say he was glad to meet me," Schnake said. "I felt we were with the big boys. On the heels of that, the rest of our conference began to believe, too. Then Buffalo Grove won the state, then Hersey, then Prospect. We couldn't do it but we helped to pave the way."
Never one to toot his own horn, Schnake always claimed that the key to Elk Grove's success was its three coaches--Schnake, Brendan Flynn and Britt Farroh. Flynn, a life-long friend, coached defense. Farroh was the offensive line coach and handled special teams. Schnake supervised the offensive backfield. Meanwhile, Larry Peddy coached the junior varsity and Fred Gaines and Norm Lovelace developed the sophomores. For 19 years, the preached the same gospel.
"It was the three of us together for all of those years," Schnake said. "We leaned on each other. We didn't let anyone interfere. We didn't have many staff meetings. We saw right away when we started doing this that with so many coaches at other schools, teaching so many ways, it won't work. We had only one voice--Flynn on tackling, Britt on blocking and I'll take the runners and throwers. We had a lot of stability. The kids knew it. We had continuity in the program."
Elk Grove dominated the 1970s in the Mid-Suburban League. The Grenadiers won eight conference championships and recorded two undefeated seasons.
Schnake grew up idolizing Centralia's legendary Dike Eddleman, arguably the most outstanding athlete in state history. He played on Arthur Trout's 1946 state runnerup basketball team and was a 149-pound tackle on offense and defense on Trout's football team.
He didn't want to be a coach. Instead, after graduating from Bradley University, he worked construction. But he spent all of his savings traveling in the West. So a $2,800-a-year contract to teach at Charleston High School with $300 to assist in football, basketball and track was too good to pass up.
After three years, he wanted to be a head coach. He really liked working with kids. His old coach at Bradley, Forddy Anderson, recommended him as head basketball coach at Aledo. After three years, a friend in Vandalia called. He was football coach at Vandalia for eight years and basketball coach for seven years before moving to Elk Grove in 1966.
Despite his success at Elk Grove, Schnake made his reputation at Vandalia. His 1963 squad featured five players who he insisted could have played on any team he ever coached--quarterback Mike Steinhauer, fullback Dennis Whitten, end Keith Wright and running backs Ted Smith and Larry Pruitt. He never forgot the 30-mile-long motorcade from Pana to Vandalia after the last game that was greeted by the entire town of 10,000.
"It was "Hoosiers" before the movie "Hoosiers," Schnake recalled. "To an old Marine, a photo taken after the final game (showing Schnake being carried off the field by his players) seemed like planting the flag at Iwo Jima."
But he never forgot his roots in Centralia. "There is too much Trout in me," he said. He didn't pay attention to records. He didn't keep scrapbooks. He conducted tackling drills in practice but never scrimmaged. The first two games were designed to find who the hitters were, who really wanted to hit, because he wanted to establish a physical game.
In retirement, Schnake wrote and self-published three books: "Trout: The Old Man and the Orphans," an ode to his old coach; "Coaching 101: Guiding the High School Athlete and Building Team Success," and "Building an Aggressive, Efficient and Explosive High School Offense."
"(Trout) was everything to me," Schnake told me. "When my dad took me to games, he was like a perfect storm. All the planets lined up. It was the end of the Great Depression, people were looking for entertainment, Eddleman came in, the new gym opened, there was an oil boom in the area, the Wonder Five was so exciting, all things came together. Trout had a presence about him. When he spoke, you believed in what he said."
At Elk Grove, Don Schnake earned the same measure of respect.