History

Legendary Ottawa football coach Bill Novak finished his Hall of Fame career 50 years ago this week

The Pirates’ gridiron mentor from 1947-1971, Novak stepped down after 168 wins and 7 undefeated seasons

It was the end of a tremendous coaching career – and era of football in Ottawa – 50 years ago.

On November 12, 1971, legendary Pirates football coach Bill Novak left King Field – like he had so many times in his 25 years, with a victory in hand and a perfect season in the record books.

But this time, it was Novak’s last.

“I have always felt honored that I had the opportunity to play for Coach Novak.”

—  Former Ottawa player and Hall coach Gary Vicini

The 1971 Ottawa football team finished its season with a 46-0 win over crosstown Marquette that night. Along the way, the Pirates finished eighth in the final state rankings, captured the school’s 14th North Central Illinois Conference championship and finished the seventh perfect season (10th unbeaten) under Novak to give him a final coaching record of 168-45-11.

“We knew he was going to retire, but he never really said much about it, if I recall correctly,” said Gary Vicini, a senior on the team who ran for over 1,000 yards that season and later became the head coach at Hall High School (1984-2008) for 25 years, winning two state championships. “When you were coming up through the ranks, all you wanted to do when it came to your senior season is to continue the winning tradition that had been set by Coach Novak and the previous teams.

“We came into that final game with Marquette with a chance to not only finish off a perfect season, but also in a way send Coach Novak out in the best way possible. I have always felt honored that I had the opportunity to play for Coach Novak.

“It was a true honor.”

Novak was a graduate of La Salle-Peru High School, L-P-O Junior College and was hired as the Ottawa football coach and world history teacher in 1947 straight out of Western Illinois University. As a Cavalier, Novak played for Butch Nowak and picked up the saying, “Root, hog or die,” a phrase dating back to the 1800s, which was a call of war and a stern challenge. It was a snarled warning to the other side that this was a team to be reckoned with.

His rookie season, Ottawa went 7-1-1, then 14-18-4 over the next four before going 7-0-2 in 1952. In 1957, the Pirates ended the season unbeaten in nine games, a first in program history. Then during his last 13 seasons, he lost just seven games. He only had three losing seasons in his career.

“I’m still honored that I was part of that whole situation,” said Tom Miller, a senior in ′71 who missed a few games midseason but returned to gain 54 yards and score a TD against the Crusaders in the finale. “Coach Novak had so many great teams, undefeated teams over the years, and I don’t know if we were the best team he ever had in 1971, but we were the last and last undefeated. That’s pretty special to me.

“By the time I was a senior, Coach Novak had so many great teams before us, that in itself was motivation to just be another team in the winning tradition.”

Novak was a strict disciplinarian ... short hair and training rules a mile long ... old school.

It was his way or the highway, but the results didn’t lie.

“He was definitely hard on certain players, but looking back those were the guys that needed it,” Miller said. “That was one of the unique traits he had, to know who to be hard on and who kind of not to, but he always worked us hard in practice. He wanted us to be the most fit team, when the fourth quarter came, and darned if I don’t think we were.

“My junior year, he threw me my shoulder pads on equipment day and said, ‘Here ... use these and block like I know you can.’ I always tried to give him 110%, and I think he realized it and appreciated it.

“I don’t ever remember him yelling at me. So I guess I was one of the lucky ones.”

The week leading up to the game with Marquette was proclaimed “Bill Novak Week” in the city.

Storefronts had his photo plastered on windows. People wore “Bill Novak” buttons. The papers were printing stories with folks telling how much Novak had done for them, and radio ads from local business praised his accomplishments.

The Saturday night following the win over Marquette, more than 900 people – including many past players, coaches, friends and family – arrived at Kingman Gym to celebrate and honor his 25 years of gridiron greatness. Novak was given a glass bowl full of roses and informed he and his wife would be taking a trip to the Rose Bowl on New Year’s Day.

The following week, Novak was named the 1971 Illinois Prep Coach of the Year by the Champaign News-Gazette. In 2008, Novak was inducted into the OHS Hall of Fame, while the 1971 football squad was enshrined in 2016. He was inducted in the Illinois High School Football Coaches Association Hall of Fame in 1997.

Spring of 1972, it was announced that athletic director Gil Love was going to retire and Novak was going to be the replacement, giving up the reigns to the football program. Novak retired from teaching and AD in 1982 and passed away Oct. 19, 1988 at the age of 69.

“I think it’s fair to say when you were an Ottawa football player, you wanted to live up to the past,” said Bob Kistenfeger, a junior QB in ‘71 who saw time when senior starter Kevin Galley was hurt for a pair of games midseason. “The program’s past was high motivation to succeed.

“I know I looked up to all of our coaches, but for Novak, you respected him. He was tough. He wanted you to work and play hard and the seniors to lead by example. If you didn’t play hard or perform, he would call you out right in front of everybody. It wasn’t a, ‘Hey, we’ll get ’em next time.’

“There is an instance personally that I will never forget. It was in the Sterling game where I overthrew a pass to a guy that was wide open in a critical situation. I’m heading to the sideline, I can’t not see (Novak), he’s standing right there, thinking I maybe just cost us a chance at a perfect season. He says to me in his gruff voice, “Will you throw the ball?” and gave me a thump across the side of my helmet. He wanted to get my attention, he did, and back in those days it was OK. All I thought was, ‘I goofed and I need to perform.’

“He was always trying to get the best out of you, not only as a player or a student, but as a person. He taught us all about more than just football, he taught us about life.

“It was truly an honor to play for him.”