The Super Bowl is over. And all we're left with now is curling, figure skating and something called "skeleton" (yikes!). But high school football starts in six short months.
With that in mind, I paid a
visit recently to Gene Nudo, the head coach of Fenwick. I arrived at my dad's
alma mater (Class of '37) on a cold Monday afternoon. After signing in at the
desk in the lobby, I was escorted by the president of the school, Father
Richard Peddicord, to Coach Nudo's office up on the third floor.
Nudo, 55, just finished his
second year at the helm of the Friars and has an 18-7 record with two trips to
the second round of the postseason. I remember reading about his background in
the Arena Football League when he was hired in 2012. I told my brother at the
time, "Watch out for Fenwick; these guys are getting serious about
So who is this Gene Nudo guy
anyway? I had to find out for myself.
The coach was sitting behind his
desk staring at a computer screen when I walked in. He stood up and shook my
hand. A stocky man with dark hair and a mustache to match his black Fenwick
coaching outfit, Nudo exudes the quiet confidence of someone who's been doing
this his entire adult life.
Gene Nudo grew up in Norridge on
the Northwest Side and played defensive end at Ridgewood High School under
Coach Mike Mariani. Before Mariani, Nudo played in grade school for Paul
Frerking and later worked under two of Mariano's assistants, Al Marks and Tony
Pappone. Nudo is quick to point out that all four of these coaches are in the
Illinois High School Hall of Fame and he credits them for his strong background
in the game.
After Ridgewood, Nudo played for
two years at Triton College, under Coaches Tom Crum and Ed Yonkus. He then went
on to Illinois State where he roomed with a guy named Joe Borsellino. Now, if
that name rings a bell, it might be because between Joe and his older brother
Lewis and their sons, Joey, Johnny and Mike (don't ask me who belongs to whom),
the Borsellinos hold a ton of individual records at Montini High School. Lewis
even worked as the offensive coordinator of the Lombard powerhouse in recent
How, I asked, did Nudo first get
“While I was at Illinois State I
started helping out at Ridgewood. The rules were very strict about summer
practices and Coach Marks asked me if I would oversee the conditioning in the
morning. When the season started I came back on weekends. I’d come back after
class on Friday for the games on Saturday.
"I guess I just got bitten
While coaching at Ridgewood,
Nudo found his way into the professional ranks.
“Mike Mariani, who had retired,
and I ventured into coaching a minor league team, the Chicago Lions. They were
supposed to pay the players but didn’t, so after one game we all walked.
“But then the River Grove
Cowboys contacted Coach Mariani. He told me ‘Go check ‘em out; see what they
have going on.’ The Cowboys were practicing at the Priory, where Fenwick
practices today. So I went out there to see what they had going on and they had
about 90 guys out there, with no equipment, and they were going full scrimmage
for, like, three hours. I went back to Mariani and said, ‘Coach, I think these
guys are crazy.’ "
"Mariani said to me, ‘Why
don’t you do it?’
"Me? I was only 22 at the
time and the youngest guy out there. My right guard, for example, was a very
successful real estate guy named George Cibula. Here I am 22, coaching this
36-year-old guy who ended up hiring me!”
(Cibula is a 1966 graduate of
"The Cowboys were a great
experience for me; I did that while helping out at Ridgewood, so I was getting
double the education as a coach.
"Then in ’87, during the
NFL strike, the Minnesota Vikings brought me out there for a month. [Seattle
Seahawks coach] Pete Carroll was the secondary coach at the time and I got to
know him -- great guy! The Vikings were the last team to put a strike team
together and I was helping their personnel guy. We weren’t very good; Minnesota
was 3-0 and after I left they were 3-3.
"It was at that time that a
guy named Jim Foster came up with the idea of arena football. The Cowboys were
national champions in 1987 and runners up in '85 and ’86. We were playing all
over the world. He told me, 'If you've got some players, I got this idea to
play arena football.'
"So we went over to Triton
College and put a piece of trainer’s tape right down the middle of the field.
They started to look at playing 7 on 7, 8 on 8, 8 on 9, three linemen, four linemen,
all kinds of different things; it was really in its infancy. I got lucky. As
the thing developed, Jim brought me along and I spent 22 years in the Arena
"A lot of my coaching
career was doubling up. That was in ’87; I started at Driscoll in ’88. I was
the coach of the Chicago Bruisers in ’87, the first year of the arena league.
Sean Payton, the coach of the New Orleans Saints, was on that team as well as
Jimbo Fisher, the coach of Florida State.
"In ’88 I volunteered to
help out Rich Marks, the head coach of Driscoll. At the end of the year, Rich
decided to go into private business. The arena league didn’t look like it was
going to come back after that second year and Driscoll hired me. It was a good
run. We were lucky, though; we had great kids. I was in the right place at the
right time. The first year we made the playoffs, the second the semifinals,
and the third we were undefeated and state champs. We had some spectacular
kids, including the former head coach’s son, Richie Marks, a very good tight
end. My tailback on that team was Mike Burzawa, the current head coach of
Evanston; Tim Racki, the coach of Nazareth, was student teaching at the time.
Driscoll turned out to be a little cradle of coaches, like Miami of Ohio.
"It’s hard in different
communities to get kids to buy in 100%. When we were at Driscoll we felt we had
the kids but we didn’t think they knew how to sacrifice, how to get a bloody
nose and react to it. They wanted to win but we felt they didn’t know how to
win. I took all my Cowboy coaches with me to Driscoll. We had won 25 in a row
at one point and we thought, if we ever had a team we could coach every day, we
could really be good. It turned out that, yes, we could."
If Coach Nudo's career is hard
to follow it's because he's done a lot of double-duty.
"I was the head coach of a
semi-pro team while I was coaching at Ridgewood, I was coaching at Driscoll
when I was the league director of football operations for the Arena Football
League and the head coach of the Arizona Rattlers and my son's Pop Warner team.
Luckily I have a wife who is very understanding; she knew it was my passion."
And all that experience hasn't
come without some serendipity.
"We saw Jacobs play against
Marmion last year. Coach Bill Mitts had a great little player that caught my
eye. He was playing recklessly!
"Turns out his father used
to play for me."
Next: Coach Nudo arrives at