Wednesday, February 19, 2014

A conversation with Gene Nudo.

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 football."

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 years.

How, I asked, did Nudo first get into coaching?

“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 by it.”

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.’  "

Nudo laughed.

"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 Fenwick.)

"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 Football League. 

"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 Fenwick.

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