by Tony Jones
It’s not easy taking over the throne from a king… especially one named Gary Haupert who reigned supreme at South Holland IL’s Thornwood High School for over 30 years. After all, he collected four boys 2A state championships from 2001-2004, which brings his total count to 10 state trophies.
Brian Evans took over during the 2006-07 school year and promptly placed his newly assembled team 8th in the ’07 Class 2A championship after a disappointing 56th place the previous season. However, that didn’t stop the criticism and controversy from raining down on the young coach. Evans, an art teacher at Thornwood, has done a great job hiding the pressure of living up to his mentor- though he admits he has work to do in order to get the program back to the glory days.
Recently, Coach Evans allowed himself to get cornered by the Illinois Prepster to answer some tough questions on the state of affairs in the T-Bird camp. He gets very candid at times to dispel truth from myth.
Illinois Prepster: Let’s start with your top guy star Kenneth Allen. What do you plan for him in his senior season?
Brian Evans: Well we graduated a lot of guys last season but we have some guys to build around Kenneth. He has some serious goals and things that he wants to accomplish. He worked hard over the summer and the fall with cross country. So, if things work out then it should be a good season for Thornwood.
IP: You did something unique last year where you took Allen, who was your best athlete, and ran him in back to back events (4x200r & 400) at the state finals.
BE: I heard the most of state of Illinois said I was the dumbest coach they have ever seen. I’ve done some crazy things indeed, but my decisions are never reckless, nor at the expense of an athlete.
If you recall, London Hawk (former T-Bird great) ran the 800 and 400 in 2011 at [state and had great success]. As with Kenneth, he is a special individual that we put through a battery of tests over the course of the season to see if was possible. He was able to split 20.8 on the relay, and with only 12 minutes of rest come within .03 of winning the 400 out of Lane 1! However, I have been open with other coaches about not doing something like this. But for Kenneth, it shows how unselfish he was in giving up a potential gold medal in the 400 so that he could help his teammates earn a medal.
IP: How do you see your team stacking up in the always competitive Southwest Suburban Conference?
BE: There are 16 teams that make up two divisions- Red and Blue. There is a lot of firepower and strengths from the league as a whole, across all 18 events. The quality athletes that come from Thornton High School make them one of the toughest teams to compete against, but I feel we are able to make each other’s teams that much stronger by pushing each other year in and year out. In that same 2011 season, you saw Hawk win the 400, Gary Ford win the 110 Hurdles from Thornridge, and Tim Faust win the 100 & 200 from Thornton. I think that says a lot about the strength of the South Suburbs. When it comes to the area as a while I can think of years where you may see Thornwood, Thornton, Thornridge, Bloom, Homewood Flossmoor, and Crete in a state final relay. With 6 of the 9 lanes coming out of the south suburbs it is a testament to the quality of competition. Add to the mix the depth and history that teams such as the Lincoln-Ways, Lockport, Bolingbrook have and it makes for great track & field.
IP: Let’s talk about facilities. Your indoor facility for one is very old and outdated. It appears to be in need of repair and upgraded. Has there been any talk among the powers that be to get things over there modernized?
BE: I don’t see our indoor track facilities being updated in any way during my coaching career.
IP: So how do you feel about that?
BE: We would love for that to happen. In fact, I hear that Homewood-Flossmoor is going to construct an amazing facility that
includes 200m track with FAT timing to complement their beautiful outdoor stadium which hosts both the Boys and Girls IHSA Sectional meets. But at the same time I do believe our current facility adds to the ambiance and the legacy that we have here at Thornwood- it’s very old-school. We have a 160y track that kids cannot wear spikes on. It’s opportunity for kids to introduced to the sport and its origins. They get to experience things like the 600y run or the 880y run.
IP: Many coaches find it hard to convert to meters in order to get on leaderboards or invited to post-season meets.
BE: I know that it’s difficult to convert and it’s also frustrating to our kids because they want to be among those things. I do understand the importance of qualifying times for elite type meets. Coaches and athletes all want to run on fast 200m tracks. It’s been hard to attract certain teams to our facility. It’s hard for our kids to make elite type meets because of how slow our track is. For instance, the field house record in the 440y is 51.0 held by Ryan Shields (former great from Chicago Leo). There have been numerous 400 Meter State Champions such as Shields, Jeremy Johnson and Dion Ballentine, yet the times are truly a reflection of the facility. It is gladiator sport when you come to compete at Thornwood – not to run a super-fast time, but more so man on man – the pureness of the sport – competing. Feel free to give me a call.
IP: Who is the best track athlete in your opinion to ever come out of Thornwood?
BE: In most people’s eyes it has to be Reggie Torian. He was a multiple state champion in many different events. The hardest thing for Coach Haupert was what event to put him in. He could high jump over 6-10, he triple-jumped over 49-feet, he long jumped over 24 feet (state champion), and was a state champion in both the 110 & 300 Hurdles. He then went on to win an NCAA Championship at Wisconsin, and in 1998 turned pro. That year he was the #1 US Hurdler and ranked #3 in the world (Track & Field News). In 1999, he won the silver medal in the hurdles at the World Championships. With a resume such as that from high school to the professional ranks, he MUST be the top track athlete to come out of Thornwood in my opinion.
IP: Why do feel your team should be competitive in the middle and long distance events?
BE: As a coach you are always examining the strengths and weaknesses of your program. I don’t necessarily feel a team should be competitive in a specific event. I believe every coach wants to work towards having a well rounded team that can be competitive in all 18 events that track & field offers in Illinois. Over the years we have addressed and identified particular event areas we feel that traditionally we have been weaker in. We are working from year to year on strengthening those weaknesses. A good example of this would be we identified we had never had a state medalist in the pole vault. We identified that and worked hard to take corrective action and in 2010 Thornwood had its first pole vault medalist. Shortly after we had to make a coaching change but we continue to have hope that we can continue to excel in that area. Recently I have also identified the distance events as a major weakness and we have tried to address that through our re-vamped cross country program.
This past cross country season we have won five meets (including a conference and regional title) and had three runners on the starting line of the state cross country meet. I hope that means we are headed in the right direction.
IP: Do you think that you can be competitive in the 4×8 relay with the likes of York, Lyons, Prospect, and the usual suspects?
BE: Thornwood has only made the finals once– 1976. I personally think it’s an event we can see success but the athletes need to buy into that idea. If they believe in their abilities I think we could see success in the future. Do I think we are at a level of York, Lyons, Prospect etc, no…it starts with first making the finals. That is our first goal– then to be making it consistently.
IP: Let’s talk about numbers and how a down enrollment has taken a toll on a school like yours.
BE: Our enrollment has dropped by at least 600 kids since I have started at Thornwood. In recent years, Hillcrest has won two state titles, Homewood-Flossmoor continues to be more competitive each year earning medals at state; TF North has shown great improvement with some recent state medals, Seton brings home girls medal consistently. I think there is direct correlation between our decline of enrollment and the recent success of programs in our area.
IP: Why do you think this is happening?
BE: Maybe parents are saying that they want their kids to go to a better school or environment. There may be better academic opportunities for parents to send their kids to; to improve their test scores because of the dollars going into those schools. Whatever the reason is it has helped those schools and hurt us. What parent would not want to send their kids to schools that may offer better opportunities for their kids? By no means am I singling out our school, It’s just facts. It happens everywhere in the state of Illinois. Look at the East St. Louis/Cahokia area, the Belleville schools, the Springfield schools, and most definitely in the city of Chicago. There are kids that want play sports at the best schools there, we can see examples of that at Simeon, Whitney Young, etc.
IP: Speaking of kids wanting to play sports in the best possible situation, there is no love lost in your own back yard with the feud with Seton Academy. Do you mind explaining what’s going on with that situation?
BE: It’s hard for me to give respect to a program that bad mouths us. I mean they have had coaches that openly try and recruit our kids, telling them how we at Thornwood don’t know how to coach, and then they turn around to use our facilities because they do not have an indoor or outdoor track. The real truth of the matter is: if I was able to recruit or handpick just a few of the faster kids in the area, and then train that small group in very specific and select events, it would not be hard to bring home a 1A trophy – EVERY YEAR.