MUTKA: Gary’s nomadic Uzelac thrived as gridiron coach
By John Mutka email@example.com May 25, 2014 10:48PM
Updated: June 27, 2014 6:36AM
Most football coaches work their way up from high school to college. Elliot Uzelac chose a round-about route by sandwiching Division I experience between high school stints.
During his 45 years of football Uzelac was named high school coach of the year in two states and once in the Mid-American Conference.
The Gary native — he played basketball and football at Tolleston High School for Joe Vance and Vince Kaye — started his coaching career in Chesterton as an assistant to Ray Banary in 1964, was the West Virginia high school coach of the year in 1967, then moved up to the Division I level from 1968 to 2000 before returning to high school in St. Joseph’s, Michigan. There, he revived a stagnating program, posting a 45-13 record before retiring in 2011.
“They were something like 2-and-7, 0-and-9, 0-and-9 before I got there in 2006,” said Uzelac, whose resume includes being head coach at Western Michigan and Navy, which beat Army during his three years there. He also toiled as an assistant at four Big Ten schools, primarily as an offensive coordinator, and hooked up with such nationally known coaches as Colorado’s Bill McCartney, Michigan’s Bo Schembechler and Ohio State’s John Cooper.
After going 6-and-5 in his first year at St. Joseph’s, Uzelac guided the Bears to 12-and-1, 10-1 and 10-1 records. In 2007 he was named Michigan’s high school coach of the year after advancing to the Final Four.
“We won three district titles and two regionals,” said the well-traveled and often controversial old-school mentor. Only the state title eluded him. “We could never get past Grand Rapids.”
His longest stint was at Western Michigan, his alma mater. During his six years (1975-81) he guided the Broncos to five straight winning seasons and was named the Mid-American Conference coach of the year in 1976.
You might say Uzelac and his wife, Wendy, lived out of a suitcase since they seldom spent more than two years at the same college. He shrugged when asked about his nomadic lifestyle.
“In the coaching profession, the only time you really have control is when you’re the head coach. Otherwise, you’re at the mercy of everyone else, but I wouldn’t have traded it for the world.”
During his two stints with Schembechler, Michigan won several Big Ten championships. Uzelac has nothing but praise for the crusty coach. who compiled a 234-65-8 record.
“Absolutely wonderful man, a fierce competitor,” he said. “ Bo treated us super well. I can’t say enough about him.”
Because of his strong Michigan roots Uzelac was reluctant to move to Ohio State in 1991, but Schembechler encouraged him to go ahead. Uzelac was a volunteer coach for Bill Mallory at Indiana when the Buckeyes pried him away.
“I had mixed emotions because of my Michigan background,” he said, “but Bo pointed out that he coached in Ohio (assistant at Ohio State, 1952; head coach at Miami, 1963-68).
Uzelac, a type-A personality with a reputation for being a no-nonsense coach, was hired by Cooper in 1991. Their relationship was brief, but mercurial. Running back Robert Smith, a pre-med student quit, blaming Cooper and Uzelac for discouraging his academic concerns. After Uzelac was fired Smith returned, then went on to play pro ball for the Vikings.
“He (Smith) said I didn’t want him to go to class,” said Uzelac, who heatedly denies the accusation. “That was completely opposite of what I said. The president (Gordon Gee) and athletic director (Jim Jones) knew it wasn’t true. No coach would tell a kid not to go to class.
“Kids like to think about being a pro, but you need a meaningful degree because 97 to 98 percent never make it.”
In 1993-94, Uzelac hooked up with McCartney, who shared his Michigan background. With him serving as offensive coordinator in 1994 the Buffalos went 11-1. Their only loss was to Nebraska. In the Fiesta Bowl they walloped Notre Dame, 41-24.
“We were ranked second in the country,” said Uzelac. His quarterback was Kordell Stewart, who spent eight years with the Steelers.
His last college job was as offensive coordinator of the Georgetown Hoyas in 2004-05.
Asked why he returned to high school coaching, the 73-year-old coach offered a candid explanation, also hinting at age discrimination.
“It was very difficult to find a job,” he said. “A lot of it was my age.”
St. Joseph’s tempted him with an opportunity he couldn’t refuse. Convincing Ike Muhlenkamp to join his staff sealed the deal. A coaching legend, he came out of retirement after piling up 233 victories in 34 years.
“The talent was there, but we had to restore the pride, get back the work ethic,” Uzelac said. “Ike really helped. Sometimes we felt like we were grandparents to the kids.”
In retirement, Uzelac and his wife are focusing on being grand parents to five children. They live on Main Street in St. Joseph’s.
“It’s a beautiful condo, used to be a funeral home,” he said. “We’re a couple of blocks away from the lake and downtown. It’s ideal.”
He’s still got a few relatives in Northwest Indiana, including a cousin, Paul Jancarich, a Wirt alumnus who lives in Valparaiso.
“Paul and I played against each other in high school,” said Uzelac, who keeps his physical engine running with golf, lifting weights and jogging.