Four days before he coaches in his fourth state championship game, Unity football head coach Scott Hamilton sat in his office with Prep Sports Coordinator Fred Kroner to discuss everything from family to football to life in Champaign County:
As a child what was the first thing you can remember wanting to be when you grew up? In junior high I was going to be an electrical engineer. As I got older I started questioning that. I enjoyed stuff with mathematics and my dad (Rich) was a high school math teacher (in Collinsville). After my first semester in college, I realized that wouldn’t be it for me.
What sports did you play and where was football on your list of favorites? I was a football/basketball/baseball guy; a seasonal guy. It may have been easier to be that when I was growing up. There was not as much specialization. We were very successful in football (at Roxana). It was very big in our town. When I was a junior (1985) we made the 4A state semifinals, and my senior year we made the 4A state quarterfinals. Football was my favorite sport.
What were your strengths as a football player? We were a ball-control offense and my strength (as a quarterback) was being able to distribute the ball and get people in the right places. I was a free safety, but I wasn’t known as a physical safety. I’d be the last line of defense.
What got you hooked on coaching? Out of high school, I helped with our high school team and enjoyed that. In college (at Eastern Illinois), I officiated a lot of basketball. After I got my degree, my first teaching and coaching job was at Hardin-Calhoun. I was a football/basketball/baseball assistant. I was fortunate enough to be with back-to-back state championship (football) teams (1992 and 1993).
How did you wind up in Tolono? I knew football was where I wanted to go. In the spring of ‘94, I was hired (at Hardin-Calhoun) as the boys’ basketball head coach. I felt it was important to get head coaching experience and basketball would help me with that, but two months later I took the head position here in football. Football was what I wanted to settle into. There was a connection between our coach (Ric Johns) and Coach (Steve) Thomas at Arcola, with whom we had a big rivalry. Coach Johns told me that the (Unity) position was open.
When you arrived at Unity, did you think you’d still be here 19 years later? When I interviewed, I interviewed with three different people and thought it went well. I was pretty young (24) and naive. Our high school had great success, winning two state championships, and I thought I’d have the position. My goal was to be here two or three years, hope to win some games, and go back to what I called home to what I thought would be great jobs. We were able to win some games early, the community and the administration were extremely supportive and the two jobs I thought would be great have both been open, but I declined the opportunity to interview for those positions. This became what we refer to as home.
Was there a defining win for you here at Unity? The best win we had was Week 9 my first year here (1994). Our seniors had to win against St. Joe to make the playoffs. Eric Tempel had a huge interception, and making the playoffs allowed us to build on the momentum and get it snowballing.
How have you changed as a coach in 19 years? I’ve mellowed out a lot. I’ve learned to manage situations better, not be so emotional in certain things. When you have passion, it’s a tough thing to channel that emotion. I understand better how things work. I understand the media’s role. I don’t always agree with a lot of things that are said and done, but I understand everyone has a job to do. I’ve worked for great administrators and bosses. I’ve learned how to handle people, and continuing to control some emotions has made me a better coach.
What are some of the reasons for 19 straight playoff appearances? First and foremost, that group of seniors my first year, in the fall of ‘94, bought in and were able to do that (qualify for the postseason). The second thing that is right up there is that we’ve had great administrative support from the board, superintendent and principal, all the way from the top down. This community appreciates hard work and appreciates success. Another thing is the stability and loyalty we’ve had with the coaching staff.
Besides football, what do you hope your players learn from you? I truly believe that hard work and persistence will help you be successful as a husband, father, employee, boss. When you stick together and do the right things, usually good things happen. I hope the lessons learned are worth it.
You’ve taken teams to state title games in 2000, 2005, 2009 and this year. How are those four football teams similar?
All four teams had well-established running games and also did a good job being able to move the ball around to multiple people. They had great players at running back or quarterback. The first two years we were under center. The last two we’ve been in the shotgun, but it’s very similar in what we’re trying to do. On the defensive side they’ve been physical and aggressive. Those are characteristics of all four teams and also of all the teams we’ve had. Having done this as long as I have you realize your best teams don’t always make it to state. You have to catch breaks, be healthy. We’ve had awfully good teams that didn’t make it.
Besides seeking a state title, what keeps you in coaching? Ultimately, everybody’s goal is to win a state championship. More than that, I’m competitive. I love the challenge, love trying to bring a group of people together. At my age, you don’t get to compete and this is a way to stay with that competitive edge. There are days you look in the mirror and wonder why you leave your success with 16- and 17-year-old kids when they make decisions you don’t like when you’re not around, but when they come back and thank you, you know what you’re doing is worth it.
How tough is it to have family time during the season? It is difficult, especially as the girls get older. Lauren is a sophomore, Taylor is an eighth-grader and Anna is in second grade. I try to get home and have dinner at home and do things, but you’d better have a wife who understands. Kim and the kids understand it’s a little more difficult (during the season). This isn’t for everybody. Several of us (coaches) are fathers and we do a great job working together.
How do you see the game (4 p.m. today) against Aurora Christian shaping up?
Obviously, it will be a very difficult challenge. They are extremely talented offensively with two good running backs, two good receivers and good size up front. They have the ability to run it and throw it. Our defense will face its toughest challenge, but we balance that with the fact that’s what we’re doing best right now. On the defensive side we’ve played well in the playoffs. In the past we’ve been more offense-oriented than defense-oriented. It’s a game where we will have to try and get turnovers and then try to capitalize. From the offensive standpoint we have to eat clock and take care of the ball. This is probably the first time we’ve gone into the title game healthy. Conner (Grace) and Mitch (Negangard) are the only ones who play on both sides, and they rotate (on offense). That has helped us with the grind. It’s a big challenge, but we’re excited about the opportunity. We’ll put the best game-plan forward and put all hands forward. This will be a game where we have to play awfully well.