(Note: My fourth book, "Dusty, Deek, and Mr. Do-Right: High School Football In Illinois," published by University of Illinois Press, is currently available online through University of Illinois Press, Borders, Barnes & Noble and Amazon and at your local bookstore. To my knowledge, it is the only book ever written on the subject. So I wanted to cover everything. I wrote 150,000 words. The publisher wanted closer to 100,000. So, regrettably, I had to delete several stories from the first manuscript. Beginning last week and continuing for the next several weeks, I will print those stories. I hope you enjoy them--and the book, too.)
To this day, Mike O'Neill hasn't gotten over it. He is retired after coaching football for 20 years at Andrew High School in Tinley Park but he still remembers that day in 1977 when, as an assistant at St. Laurence, the heavily favored Vikings lost 14-0 to Deerfield in the semifinals of the state playoff and coach Tom Kavanagh quit.
"We were an outstanding team. We were playing our best football. We had played so well the week before to beat Elk Grove (34-15)," O'Neill recalled. "But Deerfield did some things that we didn't figure out. They were much better than we thought. Emotionally, we just didn't have it that day."
Losing to Deerfield was unexpected. But what came afterward was unimaginable.
"When we got back to the school, he told us: 'That's it for me.' We had no hint that he was quitting. He wanted to go out and build homes," O'Neill said.
Kavanagh had gotten married. His teaching salary wasn't enough to support his family. He had a side job, contracting to build new homes, which he did before and after school. He just walked away from coaching. He never attended another football game at St. Laurence.
So ended a short but brilliant coaching career. The Chicago Catholic League peaked in the late 1960s and 1970s as Kavanagh and fellow coaches Pat Cronin of St. Rita, Lou Guida of Mendel, Bob Spoo of Loyola, Tom Winiecki of Gordon Tech and Tom Mitchell of Brother Rice took the conference to another level and into the state playoff.
Kavanagh coached for only eight years. His teams won 80 percent (67-17-4) of their games, won a state championship in 1976 and three consecutive Prep Bowls from 1972 to 1974. He inherited a program that was 17-41 in its first seven years and went from 1-8 to 4-3-2 and the school's first-ever Catholic League playoff victory in his first season.
"He was a genius, ahead of his time in football. Whatever he did, coaching football or teaching math or building homes, he thought he could be the best," O'Neill said. "But he used to laugh when people called him a genius. He'd say as long as our players were better than the other team, we will be geniuses. Coaching can't win games, he said, but it can lose games. He believed when St. Laurence started to get talent, they started winning."
Jerry Skizas was the first talented football player to enroll at St. Laurence in 1968. It was the first year that the Burbank school offered leadership scholarships, which paid tuition for 15 to 20 athletes. Skizas was recruited as a quarterback. He chose St. Laurence over Brother Rice, St. Rita and Leo. It was a coup for coach Frank Minik. After graduating in 1972, Skizas earned a scholarship to Tulsa.
Minik was fired after going 1-8 in 1969, Skizas' sophomore year, and Kavanagh was hired. "I cried when Minik was fired But it only took a little time around Kavanagh and you knew him. When I left, I knew Kavanagh was going to do great things. He was brilliant. I was in on the ground floor of the program. More than anyone, he was responsible for building the St. Laurence program," Skizas said.
Kavanagh was an enigma. He had played football for Mike O'Neill's father at Leo and had been a member of the Irish Christian Brothers order that ran Leo, Brother Rice and St. Laurence. He was athletic director at Leo when Mike O'Neill was a student. Then he left the order, taught math at Loyola Academy, then moved to St. Laurence in the spring of 1970.
He was a warm and fuzzy guy. He was intimidating and demanding. He had brutal one-liners for his players. He didn't socialize. He didn't have social graces. He once invited a coach for dinner, then itemized the bill. He was a very private person. No one knew him well. He seemed cold and arrogant and distant and aloof. He didn't have a wide circle of friends. He didn't hang out with coaches. He drank coffee by the pot. He didn't have a retirement party.
He also was an epileptic. Few people were aware of his illness. After one practice, he confided in assistant coach Ray Konrath. "You know when we left the films last night at 11? I left and wound up in Joliet," Kavanagh told Konrath. Some players said he had a seizure in the overtime of the 1976 state championship game. In 1985, he suffered a seizure, drove his pickup truck into a retention pond and drowned.