Within our area, mention great high school football coaches and one name will usually come to mind, Bishop Mac’s Hall of Fame Coach, Rich Zinanni, the coach with the third most wins in Illinois history.
But if one were to travel just twelve miles south, through all that corn, to Central High School, they would find an unassuming former science teacher, virtually unknown to anyone outside of the Central area or High School coaches circle, who is becoming one of the best football coaches within the area’s history. If he stays coaching 3-4 more years, he will be in the top 50 all-time in Illinois wins himself.
Sporting a goatee and his trademark khaki shorts throughout the football season, regardless of the weather, former Idaho boy, Brian Spooner is quietly amassing an incredible record with Central football, where the sport is king. (Central is my alma mater but I somehow managed to graduate, long before Spooner’s arrival.)
Central just completed another extraordinary year, going undefeated for the season before losing to Fieldcrest in the 2A quarter-final playoffs by a score of 37-19. It didn’t help that three of Central’s players were out with injuries, but Coach Spooner would never complain. They wound up with a sparkling 11-1 record this year.
Spooner, also Dean of Students, has been coaching football for 25 seasons, 22 of them at Central. He has guided the Comets to 158 wins, more than double any former Central coach. Additionally, he has been at the helm for ten conference titles, 2 state semifinals and 5 quarterfinals appearances. He too is a member of the Illinois High School Football Coaches Hall of Fame.
Having grown up in Chebanse, I know the football teams at Central are predominately made up of the sons of hard-working farmers and blue-collar workers from the small Otto, Chebanse, Clifton, and Ashkum areas. Life is simpler in those areas where everybody knows everyone else. There are no special “recruits” coming to Central, nor anyone going on to play football in major college programs. The last one to do so, Bill Burrell, was over 60 years ago. They are young men destined for the workforce after school and/or college.
Yet, year-after-year, Spooner takes kids “from the corn” under his wing and molds them into near championship caliber. He hasn’t quite gotten to the big game yet in Champaign, but often gets close. He will have another opportunity next year as many on this year’s team will return. Spooner does this by the force of his own nature — those kids will run through a wall for him. He can be tough, but they love him because he always has their back.
I witnessed that force of nature, first-hand, back in 2008 when my son, Zach played football for him...begrudgingly, in his senior year. Zach had been playing football with the same boys since they were in Pee-Wee football, and quite frankly, they were never very good. In the previous eleven years of playing football for dads posing as coaches, winning seasons were rare. There was no reason to think anything would be different in 2008.
The season started out with Central surprisingly winning its first two games. They went to Chester next, south of St. Louis, and lost a game they probably should have won. Next on the schedule was St. Joe, a team with a long history of beating this Central class. Somehow, Spooner willed those boys to win that game in a squeaker; and the fire was lit. They realized then if they could beat St. Joe, they, as a team, could beat anybody. You saw it in their eyes.
That marginally talented team stomped their way to a 10-3 record, coming within one game of going to the big dance in Champaign, losing to the eventual State Champion, Immaculate Conception. That season will always be one of the highlights of their lives, directly attributed to Spooner. After that last loss to IC, Zach came to me, tears in his eyes, thanking me for encouraging him to keep playing football.
To this day, he and his friends speak often, both fondly and reverentially about the “Coach.” Spooner’s credo of “fifteen minutes early is fifteen minutes late,” has stayed with them, teaching them to always be prepared.
Central doesn’t always get as much press as the more “local” teams. You probably would be hard-pressed to find many people outside the area who could name the football coach at Central. That’s a shame as Central is fortunate to have a real jewel in Coach Brian Spooner.