Friday, February 28, 2014

A conversation with Gene Nudo, Part II.

Coach Nudo took over the Fenwick football program in the fall of 2012. In the prior year, the Friars had compiled a 4-6 record, finishing with a 37-0 loss at the hands of Brother Rice. What on earth, I wondered, was going through his mind back then?

"Like Driscoll, we were very lucky with the kids who were already here when I arrived. All of them bought into what we were doing. We lift weights at 6:30 in the morning starting January 15. And it’s a hard thing to do. Everybody does it. But it galvanizes the team.

"We don’t cut people here. If you’re willing to sweat and get tired and bleed with your friends you have a right to wear that uniform and be out there and be part of it. Some people ask, 'Why are you on the football team? You don’t even play that much.' And the answer is: because you’re part of something. You have to put in the effort to be part of it. Even if it’s for only one minute during the season."

I asked Nudo how he went about building a team like Fenwick's.

"We don't recruit. In fact, we can't even use the word 'recruit.' 

"Actually, we try to watch them on Sundays. We’ll play on Saturday night, we have the kids come in on Sunday morning at 6 am, lift from 6 to 7, watch the game films from 7 to 8, send them home and work on our game plan from 8 to noon. The coaches go out and watch schools play. The rules are very strict. We don’t approach anybody. If parents approach us we recommend they go through the proper channels: contact our admissions office, and if they’re interested set up a shadow. I talk to a lot of wonderful youth football players but they have to pass an entrance exam and pay tuition. There are scholarships at Fenwick but they're based on need, not on athletics. Tuition is almost $13,000 a year and you’d better test pretty high because the kids that come here are off the charts. We’re not going out and getting 45-50 football players, which is okay. Like at Driscoll, I encourage these kids to play multiple sports. It’s important for them to be well-rounded when they come out of high school. But they’re going to get a great education here. Our average ACT score is over 27. That's double what I got!"

"Me too!" I said. We both laughed.

"We always want to try to have 300 students in each class at Fenwick, and about 550 take the test. So we only accept a little over half the kids who apply. It’s the same way with the other top schools in the area. We’re here to offer academics. If we can do something great and give them a great experience athletically, that's fine." 

Coach Nudo pointed to the wall behind me.

"That’s my favorite picture right there. That’s the end of the St. Ignatius game, which we won. They're a natural rival for us; they believe they’re the better academic school." 

(He didn’t look like he agreed with that assessment.) 

"It looks like a mob scene. Our students were dressed in togas. They charged the field after the game, but they didn’t go near any of the Ignatius guys. They just kneeled and prayed with our guys in the middle of the field. It embodied everything we're trying to accomplish with our program."

I asked Coach Nudo if he had any plans to play his old Driscoll buddies, Mike Burzawa at Evanston or Tim Racki at Nazareth, in the near future.

"We play Evanston every year in 7-on-7. It’s a lot of fun. I call out plays that Burzawa is going to run before he runs them and he’ll do the same to me and we just laugh. He’s got some of the Driscoll guys that coached during their seven state championship run helping him. 

“As for Nazareth, there’s a lot of community talk. We have a lot of kids from Western Springs and LaGrange and those areas that come here. Our kids know their kids. But I really don’t like playing friends. It’s not like Tim and I are social, but we like each other. To me there’s no easy way to go and do that. Somebody’s going to win and somebody’s going to lose. I guess I’m just not a big enough guy to accept if I lost."

What about Oak Park River Forest?  

“They used to play and it’s, uh, been … interesting. We played them in basketball this year." 

(The Friars won, 51-40.) 

"It’s pretty potentially explosive, I think. Emotions run very high. We have good people with this place, they have good people with that place. From a fan’s standpoint, it would be great. The community would be electric, particularly with Oak Park having been as good as they’ve been the last few years."

I wondered if Fenwick would ever have the same football culture as a Loyola or a Mount Carmel.

"Hey, look, we got to the second round the last two years and we lost two one-point games. For us, I know we could have won both of those games. Maybe we should have. Some of it was me, some of it was the football gods. It certainly wasn’t the kids -- they played with heart. We’re not at the point where we can’t go any further."

Next: How has the game changed in recent years?

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