Timeout Football: Russ Radtke returns to the Boneyard tonight
By Mike Hutton 648-3139 or email@example.com August 23, 2012 11:16PM
Russ Radtke, head football coach for New Prairie High School, watches his team practice Tuesday August 21, 2012 in Rolling Prairie, Ind. ( Sun Times Media Photo~Joe Raymond)
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Updated: September 25, 2012 10:56AM
NEW CARLISLE — When Russ Radtke made his first trip to New Prairie High School, before he was the Cougars’ coach, before he knew he was going to pull the plug on his 19-year run at Griffith High School, he drove his big red truck in front of the brand new middle school, a sparkling multimillion dollar facility with shiny glass windows, fresh new concrete sidewalks and a towering American flag that waves proudly in front of the main entrance.
The high school and middle school are adjacent to each other, accessible by a confounding maze of narrowly paved roads.
The place was just perfect for Radtke, a coach hell-bent on making an immediate impact for a program that had won just 11 games in the last three seasons. New, old, seasoned coach with plenty of ideas, an inner furnace that still burns hot and top-notch resources.
“I thought that is where I was going,” Radtke said.
Radtke relays the story from his office, which is adjacent to the stripped down football locker room, which sits outside of gate N9 in a school that was built 44 years ago. He got the old building.
A constant stream of players and coaches move in and out, interrupting him with questions about equipment or whether it’s OK for a player who missed school to watch practice while Radtke excitedly talks about how they’re refurbishing the locker room and about how he pushed hard for and got new blocking sleds and dummies. The building story is a faded memory now. Radtke is too immersed in building his football program to worry about what he doesn’t have.
It’s early in the week but the buzz of activity and the elevated pace from coaches and players has morphed into its own little chaotic storm already. No one — players, coaches or fans — needs to remind anyone that Radtke is going back to Griffith this week to play the Panthers. The man who led Griffith to its only state title. The coach who was the face of that program for nearly two decades, with his legendary in-game tirades, his epic intensity and those brush-by postgame handshakes (only if the Panthers lost) is going to look up from the opposing sideline and see a swarm of Griffith fans — the majority of whom used to adore him — glaring at him.
The game itself was an odd quirk of scheduling fate that likely won’t happen ever again. New Prairie replaced Valparaiso for Griffith in a two-year deal that is done this year. Griffith athletic director Bill Crowley expects up to 5,000 people. Next year, the schools go in different directions.
If the Panthers are lucky, they get half that many people for an early season nonconference game. The early line is that the place will be hopping.
Radtke shrugs off the thought of it.
“It’s football — that’s all I care about,” he said. “It’ll be interesting to be able to look at those stands from the opposite sideline. I know it’ll be a great atmosphere. They’re a great team.”
Luke Stanisci, a linebacker, said the game does mean a lot to Radtke even though he doesn’t show it. Griffith won 49-7 last year.
“The emotions are there,” he said. “You can see it by how he draws up the game plans and how much it means to him.”
Radkte knows Griffith is a great team because he coached everyone of those guys and he knows they had eight offensive starters returning from last year and he knows they beat Morton, a great team last week, in a shootout. He knows because he and his staff have already spliced the Morton film up a dozen different ways. He knows because he knows that Jim Pickett, the Panthers coach who was an assistant for 20 seasons, knows the wishbone like the inside of his house.
Radtke has already raised the stakes. New Prairie beat LaPorte 42-14 last week in a stunningly good display of football, scoring 35 straight points after falling behind 7-0. The loss prompted LaPorte coach Bob Schellinger to tell the Herald Argus that “we just got our butts kicked.”
The full house crowd at Amzie Miller Field, enthusiastic but subdued in the beginning, got more and more amped up when they started to realize that Radtke wasn’t lying when he promised improvement. It was only the sixth time that New Prairie has defeated LaPorte and the largest margin of victory in the series. The students, starved for good football, stormed the field after the victory.
New Prairie principal Ben Ingram, a North Judson graduate who used to hang out with Radtke’s kids and who played football at Judson right after Radtke left, was there. And he wanted to go get a pair of pads and some cleats on after he watched.
“It reminded me of being 10 years old and seeing North Judson go undefeated in the solid gold uniforms,” he said. “The wishbone offense and the excitement. It was just amazing.”
Ingram knew Radtke from different perspectives. He was an assistant principal at Lowell when Kirk Kennedy and Radtke were dueling. He had almost reeled in Kennedy for the job, offering it to him before Radtke. Kennedy, the coach at Bloomington South, thought about it for a few days before deciding to stay there.
Ingram was just as excited when he heard about Radtke’s interest. Radtke has rebuilt or elevated programs at Connserville, North Judson and Griffith. Radtke whizzed through the interview and then rolled his sleeves up and went to work.
The redo is a complex operation. Radtke has hired two consultants to teach his new assistants the wishbone. He brought back Bo, his son, as offensive coordinator. Bo lost his job a few years ago at Griffith after he was arrested for possession of prescription drugs. He even has his assistant, Melanie Scheeringa, who helped him at Griffith, working. Scheeringa gets a ride with an assistant to New Carlisle a couple times a week and then Radtke takes her back to her house in Highland before heading back to his house in Valparaiso. The school has 875 kids, drawn from LaPorte and St. Joseph County. New Prairie is on Central standard time but some of his players live in St. Joseph County, which is on Eastern standard time. Practice started at 5 a.m. for some players this summer.
The transition for the players was made easier because the Cougars ran the option last year. All Radtke has had to do is install new terminology and teach the differences between the flex option and the wishbone option.
New Prairie does have a football tradition, winning a regional in 2004 and a sectional in 2006.
Ingram said the community fit for Radtke was perfect — much like what he came from in North Judson, a rural, agricultural setting. He grew up idolizing Radtke, who emblazoned LPD (Loyalty, pride and dedication) on the back of the program — a tradition he started at North Judson.
“This is a football community. They are hungry for good football. They want it and they rally around LPD. I grew up with it. I was brainwashed by it,” Ingram said.
All of the swirling details about Radtke and his new program are interesting, but they fall short of describing what game time will be like tonight. No one really knows what to expect when the teams run through the gate.
Alex Brandon, an assistant with Radtke for 10 years and now an assistant principal at New Prairie, is headed back for the game, knowing that it’ll be an “emotional time no matter what. When I walk back in there, I’ll be smelling that shish kabob which covers 10 years of nostalgia.”
Crowley isn’t sure if the fans will boo or salute when Radtke walks in.
“It’s kinda of split,” he said. “There were people that were loyal to Russ and some that thought it was time for a change.”
Stanley Dobosz, a season-ticket holder for 40 years, a Radtke guy who wished him well when he left, who is excited about the game, said there are no hard feelings. But in football, there are paybacks.
And he hopes Radtke gets his smack down tonight for “leaving us.”
He can win somewhere else but not at the Boneyard, anymore, a place that is bigger than any one coach, even one named Radtke.