Legendary coach reflects on all things football
January 24, 2014 2:16PM
Jeff Manes | Sun-Times Media file
Updated: February 27, 2014 6:20AM
“Back in the ‘60s, Bernie Krueger was Hammond’s greatest football coach.”
— John Mutka
My interview with former Hammond High School football coach Bernie Krueger took place on Jan. 14 at his condo in Highland two days after his 88th birthday and one day after he’d had surgery on his face. He has battled skin cancer many years.
Coach Krueger lives alone now that his wife Kitty has been placed in a nursing home.
There are four teams left in the NFL playoffs. Who’s going to win the Super Bowl?
“I don’t know, it’s tough this year,” he said. “I think the team with the momentum is Seattle. They (complain) about that Pete Carroll, but, boy, wherever he is, he’s a winner. Would you like some coffee?”
No thanks, Coach. Where were you born?
“In a house in Hammond. The house is no longer there; it’s a big gas station now on 165th Street right across from Oak Hill Cemetery. It was a cement block house that had been a farmhouse. There was farmland back then, south on Hohman (Avenue).”
Back in the day, you were quite a football player for Hammond High School.
“Like Pete Rucinski’s teams at East Chicago Roosevelt, we were a single-wing team. I played halfback.”
Did you run track for the Wildcats?
“Yes, I was a sprinter, hurdler and part of the 880 relay team. My track coach when I was a freshman and sophomore was Whitey Wonsowitz. He was a (Gary) Froebel grad who went on to be on the same track team as Jesse Owens at Ohio State.
“Wonsowitz held the state record in the pole vault, going almost 15 feet with a bamboo pole. He was drafted into the Armed Forces by the time I was a junior.”
What year did you graduate from Hammond High?
“In ‘44. I went right to the Navy. A week after I graduated, I was up at (Naval Station) Great Lakes.”
“University of Illinois. They made a quarterback out of me. I really preferred halfback because I was fast and loved to run the ball.”
Why did you opt to go to U of I?
“Ray Eliot had spoken at a banquet my senior year. He was the coach. I was impressed with him, so I committed to Champaign. We won the Rose Bowl and Big 10 championship my freshman year in ‘46.”
My buddy Jerry Edmonds is a Hammond High grad. He told me to ask you about a man named Julius Papais.
“Oh, yeah. He was one of my heroes. Julius was about eight years older than me and became my assistant coach at Hammond High. On the team that Papais was on, nine of them went to big schools. Big 10, Notre Dame, West Coast... .”
At Hammond High, you were known to have your quarterback set up in shotgun formation when it wasn’t really in vogue.
“That’s when I had Jim Arges. He was Greek — good kid. We didn’t have a lot of good blockers on our offense. So, we figured it was easier to teach pass protection. That’s what we did; we went to the shotgun. Arges was quick and he could improvise.”
Was Hammond Tech the big rival when you were coaching?
“Not really. (East Chicago) Roosevelt and (East Chicago) Washington. (Hammond) Morton, too. Morton won the mythical state championship in ‘61. We won it in ‘60 and ‘62. We were 10-0 both years.”
You must’ve been coaching when former Cincinnati Reds infielder Darrel Chaney played quarterback for Morton?
“Yes. Chaney was a heckuva athlete.”
Coach, I don’t want to put you on the spot, but who were a couple of the best to have played for you?
‘There were a lot of good ones. On offense, there was John Boyajian who was quarterback on our undefeated ‘62 team. John went on to play for the University of Wisconsin and eventually became a doctor. So many of them went on to be doctors and lawyers.
“I’d have to say the toughest high school kid to play for me was Ted Kaegebein in the late ‘50s. He lettered as a freshman. Yeah, I had him and Brumm and a kid named Schwingendorf. After we beat LaPorte pretty bad one year, I remember Stan Klimczak calling me the next Monday asking, ‘Bernie, where do you get all those (gosh-darned), tough Germans?’ We were 8-0-1 in ‘58.”
“Tremendous. Irv was probably the finest defensive player to ever play for me. He developed into a great offensive player, too. When he went to Northwestern (University), he became a wide receiver under Ara Parseghian. Then Irv played with the Rams and Eagles in the NFL. He probably would’ve played longer, but he had his bell rung several times. Irv was a smart kid. I coached his brothers Ray and Sammy as well.”
“We all have things we wish we would’ve have done differently, but for the most part, I wouldn’t trade my life for anything. I got the opportunity to be in World War II and I got the opportunity to play for a Big 10 school where I was the starting quarterback my junior and senior years. Football has done such wonderful things for me.”
When asked, Coach Krueger rattled off the correct and difficult spellings of any players or coaches for me during our conversation. Some of those peers and colleagues go back more than 70 years.
The son of a German stonecutter and monument maker with a sixth grade education has come a long way. Krueger was drafted by the New York Giants, but declined. He wanted to be a coach. And coach he did.
From 1954 through 1972 his record was 113-45-12 at Hammond High, good for a winning percentage of .700. In 1962, the Indiana Sportswriters and Sportscasters Association named him High School Football Coach of the Year. He was inducted into the Indiana Football Hall of Fame in 1976 and Hammond Sports Hall of Fame in 1989.
Since 2005, if you drive by Hammond High School, you’ll see a large sign above the gridiron he once played on and patrolled.
It aptly reads: Bernie Krueger Field.