By Dave Krider
Because of a 66-year-old head coach and a 67-year-old assistant, St. Joseph, Mich., High School football has been revitalized and again is a "fun" program in which to be involved.
"If you can't have fun, why do it?" head coach Elliot Uzelac reasons. "If I don't get at least one good laugh on the field a day I'm in the wrong business. We give every kid a nickname. We have a receiver named Grasshopper because he has the longest, skinniest legs. A defensive back we call Puke because he throws up before every game."
The most fun in any sport, however, comes from winning. The Bears were coming off a 0-9 season - and were 7-29 during the four years after legendary coach Ike Muhlenkamp had retired - when Uzelac took the head job in 2006.
Uzelac, who had been head coach for seven years at Western Michigan University and three at the U.S. Naval Academy, hired Muhlenkamp as his chief assistant and the Bears' success has been just short of miraculous. His initial record was 6-5 (first winning record since 1999) with a surprising state playoff berth, while this year's record of 12-1 was outstanding, to say the least.
The Bears got all the way to the Division 3 state semifinals before losing to defending champion East Grand Rapids, 28-7, on Saturday. "I can't tell you how broken-hearted they are," Uzelac said. "They played their hearts out. We just made mistakes (six turnovers) that we had not been accustomed to making. We had only made eight turnovers (previously) all year. We know what we have to do now to win at that level."
Longtime St. Joseph Herald-Palladium sports writer Al Arend believes Uzelac's greatest asset is his "game preparation. I don't know how many high school coaches can have a team prepared like this guy. He was an offensive line coach (in college) and his technique is just solid. He's a very positive guy. Winning breeds winning and the kids seem to love him. He and Ike have so much fun. They remind me of a couple grandfathers with their grandsons."
Uzelac agrees, "We have more fun than two guys our age should have."
Muhlenkamp, who coaches quarterbacks and linebackers, calls Uzelac "a good guy. He can be very serious or very funny. He knows a tremendous amount of football. He's been through it all and the kids have faith in him. We've taken decent athletes and made them into very good athletes. We've taken that (age) gap and shortened it as much as possible, because we love these kids."
Returning the compliment, Uzelac stresses that Muhlenkamp "has made a phenomenal difference. The kids love Ike. I could never have done this without Ike. I like to tell him, `The only reason I hired you was because I had to have someone older than me.' He understands St. Joe because he built the program."
Uzelac grew up in Gary, Ind., and graduated from Tolleston High School in 1959. He was a two-way tackle in football at 6-foot-2, 200 pounds. He also was good enough in track to take second in the state shot put. He earned a football scholarship to Florida State, but after one year transferred to Western Michigan. A knee injury the first year ended his football career, but he continued throwing the shot in track and graduated in 1964.
As often is the case, Uzelac was greatly influenced by his high school coach, Ed Devitt. "He was a real person in my life and kept me going in the right direction," he pointed out. "He was always there for me and gave me good advice. I always liked athletics and realized how much I enjoyed being around kids."
His 43-year coaching odyssey started with one year of freshman football (1964) at Chesterton, Ind. Over the years he has coached at 11 colleges (two of them twice) and three high schools. He was an offensive line coach at such places at Michigan (where he roomed on the road with current coach Lloyd Carr), Ohio State, Colorado and Maryland. He learned under the likes of Bo Schembechler, Bill McCartney, Don Nehlan and Bill Mallory and even spent a few months with Bill Belichick when he coached the NFL Cleveland Browns.
In seven years as head coach at Western Michigan, Uzelac compiled a 38-39 record, including three 7-4 seasons. His first 7-4 team came on the heels of a 1-10 debut and earned him Coach of the Year honors in the Mid-America Conference. In three years at Navy he posted an 8-25 mark. As a head coach in high school, he had two years at Logan, W.Va.., and two at St. John's in Washington, D.C.
Uzelac had lost his job as an assistant coach at Georgetown University when he heard about the opening at St. Joe. The timing was perfect because he and his wife, Wendy, had been thinking about returning to the Midwest because they have family in Michigan and Indiana.
His first call was to Muhlenkamp, who made the Michigan Hall of Fame by compiling a 211-109-1 record with seven undefeated teams during his 34 years as head coach at St. Joe. He asked him if it was a good school, if they had good discipline and if they could win. Given the affirmative, he took the job.
Uzelac's initial act, of course, was to coax Muhlenkamp away from the golf course and out of retirement. He also added some young coaches, giving the staff a "perfect mix." He then met with every returning player individually, followed by a team meeting.
"I found out the kids never took responsibility and did not have a good work ethic," he related. "They had to get the understanding that they had great tradition at one time and we wanted to bring it back. We rolled up our sleeves and jumped into the weight room. I've got those dumbbells still ringing in my ears.
"I said that we've got to trust each other. A couple of kids were hesitant. The good news is that the seniors bought into it and the rest of the kids came along with it. Our two-a-days were very demanding, but they liked it because they were so sick of losing. They said, `What the heck. What have we got to lose? We might as well listen to what this old man says,' '' he laughed. "Our practices are very quick and hard. To be honest, they're just like at Michigan."
The veteran coach installed a two-platoon system on offense in which only one or two players go both ways. The Bears will spread the field or they will come at opponents with a strong Power-I, providing a good balance of passing and running. Defensively they "like to attack and be very aggressive" with everything built on speed and quickness.
Uzelac's 2006 debut came against Battle Creek Central, which had crushed the Bears, 40-7, the previous year. This time, however, St. Joe posted a stunning 24-21 upset victory.
"The stands went crazy," the veteran coach recalled. "I never saw a locker room like that. Kids were just crying. I didn't know what to do. Nobody had expected them to win more than two or three games. It was phenomenal. I'll never forget that first win at St. Joe."
The Bears had not beaten arch rival Stevensville Lakeshore (five miles apart) since 1991 and their first meetings under Uzelac ended in 34-14 and 28-20 losses. The latter loss - a true gut-wrencher - was in the district playoffs.
Interviewing him on the field after the playoff defeat, Al Arend noted, "I saw a tear come off Uzelac's cheek. That said to me this guy wants to win."
The veteran coach explained, "I'm very close to these kids. I knew they gave everything they had. We had to help some of them undress (in the locker room). There was nothing left. I knew then we were going to beat them (eventually)."
This fall the Bears continued their winning ways, but early in the season Uzelac had some chest pains which resulted in brief hospitalization and the insertion of a stint. (He had open-heart surgery 16 years earlier.) "I'm very blessed to be around," he admitted. Doctors told him to take two weeks off, but the stubborn coach returned to practice two days after the delicate surgery. "I may not be as vocal or have enough energy," he conceded.
A 19-18 victory over Battle Creek Central was big, but nothing is bigger than beating Lakeshore. During the regular season the Bears stuffed Lakeshore, 21-3, vanquishing the great burden of a 17-game losing streak.
Uzelac recalled, "I looked at Ike and said, `Football is important again.' The kids were all crying. The seniors never had beaten them. The seniors (from last year) came back this year. They were in the locker room - singing and laughing."
The Lakeshore games drew crowds as high as 8,000 to St. Joe's 5,500-seat stadium.
The Bears then chewed up Lakeshore, 49-14, in the district playoffs to put an exclamation point on their brilliant season.
Their 42-27 regional victory over Lansing Sexton was particularly amazing because they had to overcome a second-quarter 21-0 deficit.
With spirits soaring to great heights, Uzelac looks forward to his third season with seven offensive and six defensive starters returning for 2008. The Bears drew a turnout of 121 players (grades 9-12) his first year, 156 this year and he looks for even more next year.
After buying and selling 11 houses - not to mention the many rentals - and raising two kids over the years, Elliot and Wendy, his wife of 45 years, just finally may have found a permanent home.
"We're not budging, I assure you," Uzelac vowed. "My next stop will be the Starks Funeral Home (in St. Joseph)."