On Tuesday, Nov. 2, Jim Nudera resigned from his position as head varsity football coach at Oak Park and River Forest High School after 12 abysmal seasons [Nudera says goodbye to OPRF’s gridiron, Sports, Nov. 10]. Nudera’s resignation is significant not only in that it marks the end of a truly embarrassing stretch for the OPRF football program. The fact that he had to resign instead of being fired in order for his position to become vacant illustrates that he was able to do what the OPRF athletic department would not: remove a coach who was simply bad at his job.
In the 12 seasons Nudera coached at OPRF, the Huskies went a combined 41-70 for a .369 winning percentage. The Huskies had a losing record in nine of those seasons, with only one winning season in 2006 when the team went 6-4. The three years the Huskies qualified for the playoffs (2005, ’06 and ’09), they lost in the first round. The combined score of Nudera’s three playoff appearances were opponents 120, Huskies 35. Nudera apologists can try to justify the man’s tenure at OPRF, but the numbers speak for themselves. He was a bad coach and he should have been fired for it years ago.
Undoubtedly, people in the Oak Park and River Forest communities are reading this and thinking to themselves that it is unfair to judge a high school coach strictly based on winning. And I agree. A football coach’s job is to oversee the physical, mental and social development of the young boys in his program, thus ushering them into young adulthood. But Nudera did none of those things. He failed as a motivator and leader of men. Perhaps Nudera’s most startling deficiency was his inability to get the boys at OPRF interested and committed to football. Opposing teams always dwarfed OPRF in total number of players, and much of this was due to Nudera’s lack of personal connection to the athletes he was being paid to coach.
When I began playing football at the high school as a freshman in 2002, a staggering number of freshmen, more than 90, came out to play football. By my senior year, that number had dwindled into the 20s. Numerous student-athletes at the school, many of whom had the potential to grow into incredible football players, left the program because they simply could not stand Nudera’s terse, unwelcoming approach to the sport. Rather than help these impressionable youngsters, Nudera was content to have them leave if they showed even the slightest lack of commitment. With all this said, I do not hold Nudera’s shortcomings against him. I respected his dedication, and he certainly worked his hardest to forge a successful football program. He was passionate about coaching football. Problem was, he was never good at it.
My biggest complaint is that the school and athletic department never made an attempt to replace him. By allowing a coach to keep his job despite continually underperforming, the athletic department (whether it was intentional or not) embraced mediocrity. For some reason, losing has become acceptable at OPRF, which is a dangerous atmosphere for more than just athletics. Failure happens, but we should never accept it. The great thing about sports is that it teaches you to strive endlessly for success in all facets of life, regardless of the challenges. Goal setting, discipline and work ethic are emphasized in high school sports not just because they help people achieve on the field, but because they can be transferred to whatever endeavor one may tackle in life. Winning is not important in and of itself; striving to do so no matter what the outcome is important, however.
I hope that athletic director John Stelzer considers this when deciding upon a new head football coach. It would be a shame for them to hire another inept leader who will once again fail to inspire his players to do their best as athletes, students and citizens. Needless to say, one coach can change everything. For proof of that we need only look at what happened at the school Nudera coached at prior to OPRF.
From 1995 to 1998, Nudera was the head coach at Prospect High School in Mt. Prospect. Over the course of four seasons, he accumulated a record of 8-28, including a winless 0-9 season in 1996. Brent Pearlman took over the head coaching job in 1999. That year Pearlman went 4-5. The next year he went 6-4 and lost in the first round of the playoffs. The next two years, Prospect won back-to-back state championships.
It’s time for a comeback.
John McDermott graduated from the University of Illinois with a journalism degree this past May. In 2006 he graduated from OPRF, where he was a captain on the football team all four years. Jim Nudera and John Stelzer were given an opportunity to respond to this letter but declined.