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A Half-Century Football Odyssey

 

This season will be Coach Al Marks’ golden anniversary on the high-school sideline.
To mark the occasion, expect his offense to rack up a lot of points -- as they always have.

 

By Mark Vruno

Conservative estimates put the number at 2,000. At a bare minimum, that is the number of times that Alan “Al” Marks’ football teams have kicked off in the past 49 autumns, based on an average of scoring three touchdowns per game, including kicks to open games and second halves, of course. Nobody really knows for sure – at least no one has taken the time and effort to tally up all the point-after attempts, most of which were good.

Anyone who has followed a Marks-coached team, however, knows the real number is much higher. That’s because a trio of TDs per week is not a stretch for Marks’ boys. It is unusual for his teams – particularly those at Ridgewood High School in Norridge, IL (near Chicago) – to score fewer than four times during the course of a typical four quarters. During 23 seasons as head coach (following 10 as an assistant), several of his high-flyin’ Rebels squads were among the state’s offensive powerhouses in the 1980s and ’90s, averaging close to five “tuddies” (35 points) per game. The enrollment at Ridgewood, which is a public, co-ed school, peaked at some 1,500 Baby Boomer in 1972-73 but hovers between 800 and 1,000 students most of the time.

The ’92 Rebels (9-1), led by All-State running back Tom Pagliaro (1,842 yards, 22 TDs), averaged 43 ppg. Among blockers paving the way for Pags was 240-pound guard Frank Trentadue, who later enjoyed a professional career in the Arena Football League. “Get your four scores,” long-time defensive coordinator Tony Pappone used to tell Marks and his offense.” It was almost a given.

Marks’ record at Ridgewood was 138-80 with seven playoff qualifiers, two quarter-finalists and only five losing seasons as the head coach from 1978-2000. It is notable that RHS played an independent schedule for most of that time, lining up against bigger schools many a Saturday afternoon and Friday night. He returned to coach in the playoffs four more times: once with Mundelein, twice with Wauconda and, most recently in 2014, with Estrella Foothills High School in Goodyear, Arizona.

That’s a substantial amount of W’s (and points) for a guy who grew up playing basketball in Albany Park, Chicago, the son of Russian-Jewish parents. At Roosevelt High he lined up on the hardwood against, among others, Cazzie Russell from Carver High. Marks started college at the University of Illinois’ Navy Pier campus and finished at DePaul. (Later, his master’s degree in counseling came from Northeastern Illinois University, Chicago.)

Interestingly, Marks himself never played football. As a young teacher in 1970 he met Mike Mariani, the new head football coach at Ridgewood, by way of St. Francis in Wheaton, who would become a mentor and dear friend. Marks’ introduction to the game that would become his true passion came atop a scaffold three years earlier, when he filmed games using a Kodak Super 8 (8mm) movie camera. “AD/Coach [Dick] Martwick talked me into doing it,” he recalls with a laugh. “It could be windy up there!”



A Football Man

Nearly two decades have passed since Marks’ 1998 induction into the Hall of Fame of the Illinois High School Football Coaches’ Association in Champaign. In 2001 he retired from running the “Green Machine” at Ridgewood, where he also had taught business and economics, served as a guidance counselor and coached basketball during a 33-year career. All he has done since then is to score more points – as the offensive coordinator for three north suburban Illinois high schools: His first OC gig was up in Mundelein (2001-03).

In 2004 Marks began forging a professional relationship with former Chicago Bears wide receiver Glen Kozlowski, who had taken the football reins at Wauconda High School. They coached together there for five years, along with offensive line coach Mike Liacone from Ridgewood and Driscoll, before moving to North Chicago, where Marks only stayed one season. He returned to Wauconda for four more years under former colleague and new HC Dave Mills, then went west as an assistant for one season at Estrella Foothills in Arizon, and then came back to Chicago/River Grove to run the offense at Guerin Prep (formerly Holy Cross) in 2015. Marks spent last fall at Odyssey Institute, a private school in Buckeye, AZ, which is where he’s back now, fine-tuning the offense for his golden, 50th campaign.

Most “snowbirds” go to the desert to play golf, but not Marks: He is there primarily to coach football, what else? In addition to speeding around his Goodyear, AZ home in a golf cart, the 72-year-old enjoys the sunshine in the off-season and has taken in more than a few Cubs spring-training baseball games in the past few years. He and his wife, Sue, sold their home in Lake Barrington last year and are in the process of downsizing in Illinois, where their children and grandchildren live, while spending more time in Arizona.

Marks coached five All-Staters at Ridgewood (three as head coach): a center (the aforementioned Liacone in ’71), a linebacker (Dominic Forte ’74), a quarterback (Mark Vruno ’80) and two running backs (Pagliaro and Brian Rzewnicki ’97). He has sent players to college programs including the University of Illinois, Eastern Illinois, Western Illinois, Elmhurst College and myriad smaller, Division III schools. Ten years ago, Wauconda halfback Brad Wisniewski (6’2” and 230 lbs.) rushed for 4,200 yards during his three-year varsity career and committed to the University of Wyoming.

He also coached over 240 games alongside defensive coordinator Pappone. “Paps and I coached every varsity game [at Ridgewood] together from 1974 to 2000. He followed me to the [IHSFCA] Hall of Fame in 2004,” Marks says proudly. Other loyal assistants for many years were Bobby Muti, who was Pappone’s right-hand man, and fellow teacher/counselor Arnie Norris, with whom Marks has been friends since their high school days at Roosevelt.

More than a handful of his former Rebels players returned to coach with him, starting with Gene Nudo -- now the head varsity coach at Fenwick High School in the Chicago Catholic League -- way back in 1979. Nudo went on to lead Driscoll Catholic (Addison, IL) to its first 3A state championship in ’91, then became an Arena Football League coach and executive in Phoenix for some 20 years before moving back to Chicago in 2012. Former All-Stater Liacone, meanwhile, oversaw the offensive line at Ridgewood in the ’90s, before moving on to Driscoll and Wauconda (with Marks again).



‘Time it up!’

Football is like fashion, Marks likes to joke. “If you hang around long enough, everything comes back in style. Remember wide [neck] ties,” he jests? How about lining up with two running backs and/or a tight end? The NFL and some college teams still do it, and the old trend is new again in high-school football.

From cross-bucks and trapping schemes, unbalanced lines and the “mouse” formation, Marks has seen and run it all. Fenwick’s Coach Nudo played for Marks in the mid-1970s and took his Friars team to the 7A semifinals in 2016. He claims he has been running some of the same plays from 40 years ago. “Why wouldn’t we? They worked in the late ’80s and early ’90s for the Highlanders at Driscoll, and they still work today,” Nudo says, respectfully. “We have different names for the formations and sets now, but they’re the same basic strategies. Football is football.”

Marks’ offensives are far from aerial circuses, as casual fans might expect with so many points being registered. His advice to younger coaches is that you have to run the ball. “If you want to talk about offense and don’t listen to Coach Marks, there is something wrong with you,” cautions another former player turned assistant on Marks’ coaching staff, who wishes to remain anonymous. “He has so much knowledge, especially when it comes to running the football.”

Timing can be everything, especially between the lines of the football field gridiron. Marks is a master of “running timing,” which means getting plays as near to perfection as possible in practice. Nudo has adopted this philosophy as well, going so far as to scrap plays that aren’t being well executed mid-week. “If it doesn’t look good on Wednesday, we’re probably not going to run it on Friday night,” the Fenwick coach admits.

Careful not to play favorites, the elder coach diplomatically says each of his 50 teams was important to him, including the Minotaur squad he’s fielding this year. (Their first game is August 18th.) Marks has touched approximately 1,000 young lives as a football coach, and “I appreciated and cared about all of my players,” he stresses. When pressed, however, his elephant-like memory is amazing, keenly remembering games and plays as if they happened yesterday. Career highlights include these six victories:

  • A contest in 1978, his first year as a head coach, when the Rebels came from behind to beat East Aurora: “We went 85 yards in two pass plays from ‘Captain Courageous’ Tommy Valin to Drew Dammeier.”
  • The 1979 game at Rantoul: “We won on a double-pass from [Tommy] Fendley to [Tony] Portincaso,” whom Marks nicknamed “Golden” after Dallas Cowboys’ star receiver John “Golden” Richards and his hands of gold.
  • “The Sullivan first-round playoff game in ’79 at Hanson Stadium,” a 40-8 victory vs. 6’8” Cedric Alexander. (Ridgewood lost to undefeated Wheaton North’s Chuck Long and Jim Juriga, both future NFL players, in the quarter-final.)
  • Beating Class 3A powerhouse Kankakee Bishop McNamara in 1981, and then going to the quarter-finals five years later, when the Rebels “broke Bishop Mac’s two-year winning streak.”
  • “Winning three games in eight days in ’87,” when first-round playoff games kicked off Wednesday afternoon.

“We had some great games at Wauconda, too,” he adds. Evening practices continue next week in Arizona, when the baking sun is lower in the sky; Marks already has logged more than 2,900 of those sessions, mostly humid and crisp sessions on the Northwest Side of Chicago. By the end of fall as the temperature cools, that number will approach 3,000.

So fire up the scoreboard in the desert because more Al Marks-style football is coming your way, and that means a lot of points: some 12,000 to date … and counting.

Mark Vruno is a free-lance writer, head freshmen football coach at Fenwick High School in Oak Park, IL, and former All-State quarterback at Ridgewood in Norridge, near Chicago, where Al Marks paced the sideline for most of his career. Vruno fondly remembers his coach as a motivating force in his life.

Congrats Coach Marks on your Golden Year!