GENEVA – Geneva needed its football tradition to return.
Not just a program, but a town that longed for football success ever since the departure of longtime head coach Jerry Auchstetter in 1986 saw its program hit “rock bottom” in current Geneva athletic director Jim Kafer’s words.
In came Rob Wicinski. The Ottawa native and former Northern Illinois University linebacker came to Geneva in 1999 after seven seasons as an assistant coach at his alma-mater, Ottawa, before seven more as an assistant at Niles North, where he later took over as head coach.
Not too many people would have believed that a head coach who went 3-24 in three seasons at Niles North – followed by a 5-31 record in his first four years guiding Geneva – would be inducted into the Illinois High School Football Coaches Association Hall of Fame.
But Wicinski has tended to shine most when people have doubted him. At noon today, Wicinski will join 15 other inductees at the annual luncheon at the Hilton Garden Inn in Champaign as the newest members of the IHSFCA Hall of Fame.
“I really didn’t expect it at all,” Wicinski said. “I’m very humbled, shocked, and it has really made me reflect on my time at Geneva. I couldn’t have done this myself, though. The administration was extremely patient with me, not having success right away, and I’m extremely grateful to Jim [Kafer] and [principal Tom Rogers] and to every single player that I have ever coached and will coach in the future.”
Wicinski has coached at Geneva for the past 17 seasons, compiling a 117-65 record and qualifying for the playoffs in 11 of the past 12 seasons. His most his accomplished season – although many stand out to former players – came in 2008, when Wicinski led the Vikings to a 13-1 record and a trip to the Class 7A state championship game. The Vikings lost, 33-14, to East St. Louis.
The administration’s patience with Wicinski was the first piece to the puzzle. His first few seasons at Geneva were about rebuilding the tradition that Auchstetter once instilled in every Vikings player. In fact, the longtime Geneva coach (from 1967 to 1985, then 1992 and 1993) has spoken with several of Wicinski’s teams and was actually on the Geneva coaching staff during the 2008 state run, something Wicinski is forever grateful for.
The next step was developing the foundation of the weight room. Wicinski said that’s where all the tradition started while noting that in high school, athletes can only believe so much until they start to see results on the field.
“I think the weight room was something that had kind of fell by the wayside in recent years before Rob got here,” Kafer said. “There was so much emphasis on that once he got here, and the kids really bought into it.
“With all that being said, you eventually have to have some success, or people lose sight of that belief. I think we won just enough in those first few years that people kept the faith. Then, once 2003 came around, that really got people excited.”
The Vikings’ 2003 season was the turning point for what is now considered one of the more successful football programs in Illinois.
After accumulating only five wins in his first four seasons, the first of which was winless, the Vikings finished 5-4 and gave themselves a chance to qualify to play in the postseason. That season included one of the more memorable games of Wicinski’s tenure thus far – a four-overtime thriller with rival Batavia that saw the Vikings on the losing end but built more positives than anything.
“I remember just sitting there, waiting to see if we were in [the playoffs],” Wicinski said. “We were all excited, looking at the brackets, and got nothing. We ended up being the first team out of the 6A playoffs. I felt so bad for those seniors, but I’ll tell you what, the juniors watched that happen. That was the catalyst. We always like to think we have strong offseasons, but that one was something special. The whole program got locked and loaded for a special season.”
It was fairly easy for players to begin believing because a team loaded with talent, one that believed in its head coach more than ever, finished 11-2 in 2004, starting a string of eight straight seasons with a playoff berth. But why did the players believe that success like this would eventually happen? Why did a guy who had won just eight games over seven seasons as a head coach get the players to believe that these types of seasons were right around the corner?
“He just came every day with this willingness to bring attention to the program along with showing an excitement for getting it back,” said Sean Grady, a junior on the 2008 state runner-up team. “That carried over to playing for him. I went to those games when the program got over that hump when I was in middle school, and you just saw this renewed excitement around the program and city when coach Wicinski got there. We didn’t question the way he did things after that because we knew if we followed him, we’d be in the best position to achieve what we wanted.”
For Pat Schiller, a former Geneva and NIU linebacker who explored NFL prospects, there was just something about Wicinski that players could see.
“He is one of the most relatable guys I’ve ever been around in my years playing football,” Schiller said. “He played at a high level, and I think anytime a guy comes in that has been there and done that, it helps the players follow suit. There was that respect there from the moment he got here. Buying into his system and program was something that just came naturally.”
That intensity was taken to a whole new level after a day of practice in Schiller’s senior season of 2006. Something that neither her nor Wicinski will ever forget, even if they tried, ensued as the linebacker group was responsible for picking up the equipment.
After finding a stray golf ball near the practice fields, a teammate dared Schiller to try and throw the ball to hit the top of a nearby water tower – seemingly a near-impossible task. Schiller wasn’t going to back down, though, launching the golf ball nowhere near the desired destination and into some evergreen tress that surrounded it.
The linebackers gathered the equipment and headed toward the school and, eventually, past the area where the golf ball would have landed only to see Wicinski with a hand on his head. You bet, that “one-in-a-million” chance that Schiller said could have resulted, did. Wicinski was drilled in the head with the ball.
“All I said was, ‘No way,’” Schiller said with a slight laugh. “We said, ‘Coach, what happened?’ He goes, ‘I got hit in the head with a golf ball.’ I just could not believe that of all the places it landed, it hit him square in the head. It always gets brought up every time we see each other. We’re able to laugh about it now, but he definitely needed medical attention afterwards.”
Wicinski doesn’t remember as much with the severity of the impact causing a slight concussion, but Schiller said he vividly remembers Wicinski showing up to practice the next day with a football helmet on his head and joking that he was ready for the season to start, although the Vikings had played five games already.
Wicinski was able to make jokes and have fun with his players because they were successful, sure, but he stresses his career has never, and will never be about wins and losses. It wasn’t about the publicity or the recognition, because he has always had an undeniable sense of humility that everyone in Geneva saw from the beginning.
“It’s an admirable trait,” Schiller said. “He’s not this ‘rah, rah’ guy who needs to get caught up in the high school antics. He didn’t need to do that kind of stuff to get us to buy in and believe. He’s such a humble guy. In my opinion, he’s the most successful coach in the history of Geneva football and you’d never know it.”
“You have to have an ego to coach sports,” Kafer said. “But it’s sincere humility and sincere lack of interest in all the extraneous things that go with position that makes Rob special. Like his coaches at NIU, Bill Mallory and Joe Novak, they just simply got the job done.”
Wicinski played with Mallory as his head coach from 1981 to 1983 before Mallory gave way to a coach that never shied away from a camera in Lee Corso. But Kafer said it was coaches like Mallory and his linebackers coach Novak that helped Wicinski embrace that sense of humility.
It also could have been a strong reason why the likes of Schiller and Michael and Daniel Santacaterina, among other Geneva alumni, ended up continuing their football careers at NIU.
Wicinski never pushed them, though. In fact, he said most of it all worked out on its own.
“It’s that natural connection of things for us to have a bit of a passion toward NIU,” Wicinski said. “I never was overly adamant about any of my guys going there. I bleed it, you know, but it was always that natural connection.”
How is it to coach against Wicinski? Schiller got that opportunity recently after taking the sidelines as a St. Charles East assistant this past season. Schiller said, “It was tough, for sure, but if I can end up being half the coach he is, I’d consider it pretty remarkable.”
Former Batavia coach Mike Gaspari coached against Wicinski for 12 seasons, from 1999-2010, and found himself on the winning end of eight of 13 matchups between the two schools. Gaspari said you could know what Wicinski wanted to run, and often did, but it didn’t mean you were going to stop it.
There wasn’t a coach that Gaspari wanted to beat more, with Wicinski helping bring the century-old Geneva-Batavia rivalry back to its glory days, but there was always a mutual respect.
“I have the utmost respect for everything Rob has done with that program and what he continues to do today,” said Gaspari, a 2011 IHSFCA Hall of Fame enshrinee. “His teams are always so fundamentally sound and he was, without question, one of the most difficult coaches to scheme for playing against. A lot of credit should be given to him for this honor because it’s extremely well-deserved.”
When asked how much longer he plans to be on the Geneva sidelines, coaching the sport that he grew up so enthusiastic and passionate about, Wicinski said he assesses it after each season.
However, his thoughts have remained the same after each of his 17 seasons with Geneva.
“I think it’ll be sooner rather than later with all the really good coaches in this program that deserve an opportunity,” Wicinski said. “But after every year, I ask myself, ‘Am I still enjoying it?’ The answer has never been no.”