By J. Thomas McNamara, Tribune Sports Editor
“It’s about us (the Panthers football team, coaches and school), I may have the title, but it’s not about me. “It’s about our kids, it’s about us showing them we care, it’s about their families knowing we have their kids best interests at heart, it’s about making it fun again. “It’s about us getting into the hallways to encourage these young men to come back out.” These are among the points Eisenhower’s new football head coach Steve Thompson made in his interview with the Decatur Tribune following his hiring at the recent school board’s meeting.
“It’s going to be a challenge,” admitted Thompson, adding that his staff will help out considerably with spreading his message since several of his assistants are in the building. Changing the culture all coaches speak of when they are hired where there are failing programs and Eisenhower is no different, said the new Panthers head coach. Former head coach Drew Wagers (who took the Panthers to their last two back-to-back playoff appearances) and baseball head coach and former football assistant Kevin Hale are going to run the offense as co-offensive coordinators with Tim Seider, Dajuan Johnson and Thompson himself will run the defense. Michael Phillips is also joining the staff. “I’m going to utilize their skills.”
Despite their recent health issues which have been well-chronicled on these pages and in other media outlets, Thompson says they are ready to go, who have good rapport with their students, recalling the outpouring of support from all sectors of the community when Hale needed a kidney which he received and is doing well. Prior to the Eisenhower at MacArthur Hall of Fame game last Friday night we spoke with him where he advised he is excited about once again being healthy enough to coach football, a sport he knows much about since he coached it at Argenta-Oreana, Warrensburg-Latham and assisted at Eisenhower previously. He’s not only talking to students about returning to the sport, he’s also trying to lure retired Panthers football head coach, Steve Smith, out of retirement to assist Thompson, Wagers and him with the others. He offered that Smith could coach special teams.
When Hale coached the Bombers and Cardinals he was one of the more cooperative, enthusiastic and informative coaches we spoke with each weekend for our weekly previews/reviews that are widely received. Before last Friday’s luncheon where the sixth Hall of Fame class was introduced, Smith opined to yours truly and Justin Conn of the daily that Thompson’s hire was a good one, along with having Hale and Wagers, because that’s the way programs are built, having their coaches in the building. I’m looking forward to have them back on the sidelines with me. I pray it is at Alexander Field, but that’s not a given, pending developments and a future progress meeting in sometime this spring, informed Thompson. Eisenhower is a neighborhood high school that needs their athletic teams games at their facility for their fans and students can walk to the game as parking is limited there.
Thompson’s hiring shouldn’t have come as a surprise since the Panthers new grid coach has more than 16 years football coaching experience, including four years as head coach at Oakland of the Little Okaw Valley Conference which is now Tri-County Oakland. He also served seven years as defensive coordinator at Chicago suburb’s, Romeoville. He also coached Bement in 2010 and assisted retired LSA head coach Craig Bundy four years. What some forget is he actually began his football coaching career at Mount Zion as freshman coach in 1994. So, Eisenhower didn’t hire a neophyte to take over the Panthers struggling program when it comes to numbers. He’s had experience at building numbers as that was one of the challenges he faced and met at Oakland. He and his assistants are in the building which will help out in a myriad of ways, including being familiar with the students and able to confront early any academic or discipline situations their athletes in which they may be involved. “I’m familiar with the kids, they’re familiar with me, they’re familiar with Drew, they’re familiar with Kevin,” said Thompson.
In our interview, Thompson reiterated, “Throughout my playing and coaching career, it has been my good fortune to work with some outstanding coaches and players. I have learned a lot from all of the. The best part of the game of football is the relationships that are formed while competing in such a demanding team sport. “Our mission at Eisenhower will be to develop quality student-athletes and create a positive experience for all involved. We believe that we have a solid plan in place to grow our football program in the coming years,” said Thompson. He will continue as Eisenhower’s athletic director. Thompson succeeded the retired Greg Collingwood as Eisenhower’s AD. One of his first tasks will be to encourage able-bodied boys walking the halls who have given up on football to return to the game in order to bring Panthers football back to the level it once was.
Thompson knows, as do most fans, football is a numbers game and that he needs those numbers to increase from the 22/24, who finished the season last October. Without question, if those numbers don’t increase their junior varsity program could be in jeopardy. His message to them will be simple, “We do care and that’s why we’re doing this, we’re going to go up and down the hallways, talking up football, but also to build interest in our other athletic programs, softball, track and field, wrestling. We want multi-sport athletes. We have good young athletes with speed, who could help our track program,” said Thompson. District 61’s top administrators–Superintendent Dr. Paul Fregeau and assistant Dr. Fred Bouchard–played roles in this decision for Thompson to take control of the program that is going through some tough times.
Principal Amy Zahm-Duncheon said, “Our program will benefit from having the familiarity of a current staff member, who students feel comfortable with and will work hard to continue the rich Panthers traditions of our past teams. Coach Thompson firmly believes in the work ethic and sportsmanship that is expected of every student-athlete and values the virtues of teamwork and good citizenship to serve our district and community.”
A year ago Eisenhower introduced Curtis Graham with considerable pomp and circumstance. But that appointment didn’t work out as the Eisenhower administration fired him at the end of last season, less than 10 months after he was hired to take over the program from Wagers, who resigned at the end of the 2017 campaign.