MILFORD — John Spezia, Hall of Fame coach, can talk about basketball.
He knows the game inside and out. He has coached the sport at the high school and junior college levels. He even took a one-year leave of absence to coach a professional team in England.
There’s something the Bismarck-Henning High School graduate knows even better than basketball.
The value of commitment and a strong work ethic were lessons he learned long before he got a college education.
Spezia’s grandfather was an Italian immigrant who worked in the coal mines when the family relocated to Perrysville, Ind., where his sister, Donna Prather, still lives.
Neither Spezia’s father, Camille, nor his mother, Anna, had a high school diploma. His father was a coal miner who also worked at Chanute Air Force Base and served as the Westville recreation director.
He started a dairy farm on 175 acres where Spezia’s brother Ron — who is 16 years older — worked. Ron Spezia stayed on the farm and didn’t go to college.
It wasn’t the life he wanted for his little brother.
“Ron encouraged me to go to college,” John Spezia said.
The youngest of three children, John Spezia had a head start because of one of his mother’s passions.
“My mom was an avid reader,” he said. “I read a lot because of my mom.”
John Spezia went away to Eureka College after two years at Danville Area Community College, but he didn’t lose touch with his roots.
Even now, at age 62, he talks frequently with his brother.
“About every morning,” he said. “I’m blessed to have an older brother. He is my moral support. I bounce things off of him. He thinks I don’t listen, but I do.”
As the coach climbed the ranks, as his reputation grew and he was sought out as a clinician at camps throughout the world (he was in the Philippines working with former Duke star Phil Henderson from Dec. 25 to 31), his brother always offered one reminder.
“He said, ‘Return something back to your community,’ ” John Spezia said.
He took the message to heart. He is on the Board of Trustees at Danville Area Community College — the school he coached to a basketball national championship in 1991 — and he is also on the Board of Directors for the Palmer Arena as well as for the Illinois Basketball Hall of Fame, which is in the process of opening at the Danville Civic Center.
Until August, he is the president of the NJCAA Coaches Association, a position he has held nearly four years following a four-year stint as vice president of the national organization.
At an age many folks are considering retirement, John Spezia took on new and expanded duties in August.
He joined the faculty at Milford High School as the dean of students, high school and middle school athletic director and the boys’ varsity basketball coach.
Spezia has pretty much come full circle. His first head-coaching job (1980-82) was at Sheldon. That district is now part of a consolidation with Milford.
Two students whom Spezia coached nearly three decades ago in his two years at Sheldon — Joel Davenport and Mark Portwood — now have sons involved with basketball at Milford.
“Who’d ever thought that would happen?” said sophomore Alex Portwood, whose dad is the person Spezia replaced on the Milford sidelines. Mark Portwood resigned when he became principal this school year at Cissna Park.
It’s a change that’s OK with Alex Portwood.
“Coach Spezia is pushing not only me but my entire team to its highest potential,” Alex Portwood said. “He knows so much more than all of us combined. We’re learning all the time, working on fundamentals and getting better.”
To understand the process that returned Spezia to the area he got his start, it’s necessary to revert back to his retirement from DACC in June 2006.
“I wasn’t going to retire from coaching,” Spezia said, “but it was one of those times where maybe it was time to shut things down.”
The long road trips for decades had taken a toll.
“The travel beats you up,” Spezia said. “Being in those vans for 21/2 hours is tough.”
He wasn’t particularly fond of Illinois winters, either.
When an opportunity opened at a junior college in Scottsdale, Ariz., Spezia was intrigued.
“Scottsdale has a much better climate,” said Spezia, who planned to fill a counseling position and join the men’s basketball staff as an assistant.
Spezia intended to leave in September. A month before his departure, his 92-year-old mother became ill. He remained in Vermilion County.
In November 2006, Anna Spezia died.
John Spezia made it to Arizona for the February and March portions of the Scottsdale season and stayed through summer camps.
“I hadn’t been an assistant coach for 30 years,” he said.
Unsure that he wanted to continue in that capacity, Spezia looked into opportunities back in the Danville area before accepting the position of head coach and athletic director at New Mexico Military, in Roswell, for the 2008-09 school year.
He quickly learned that situation was far from ideal. Spezia was required to keep the previous assistant — who wanted to be the head coach but was not interviewed — and, he said. “It started affecting my health.”
When his blood pressure rose, he took a leave of absence 15 games into the season.
“I had to slow down,” he said. “That about put me out of coaching.”
Back in Danville, Spezia said, “I was down and out.”
The coaching fraternity provided him a pick-me-up.
During his tenure at DACC, Spezia allowed numerous area coaches the chance to work his summer camps. One was a budding young prospect at Potomac, Jeff Millis.
By 2009, Millis was an established veteran coach at Westville. Millis, along with Westville Principal Guy Goodlove, encouraged Spezia to work in the district as a substitute teacher.
“That’s why you network,” Spezia said.
In the meantime, he became determined to start a series of summer camps and sought an ideal location. One with available dormitories would be perfect, he believed.
That led Spezia to Olivet, a few miles south of Georgetown, where he spoke with La Salette headmaster Father Michael McMahon.
Before he knew it, Spezia was the head coach of the Lions’ basketball program for 2009-10.
Once again, Spezia had his traveling shoes with him. When the La Salette season ended, he received an offer to be interim athletic director at South Mountain Community College in Phoenix. The opening was from May 1 to July 1, 2010, but there was the possibility it could be extended.
Again, Spezia went West.
Again, it didn’t work out. The people who hired him left or were replaced. By midsummer, Spezia was back living in Vermilion County, but he wasn’t out of basketball for long.
Millis recruited him as a volunteer assistant with the Tigers “and gave me some money out of his own pocket, which he didn’t have to do,” Spezia said.
For two years, Spezia joined Goodlove and Joe Brazas as Westville assistant coaches. It was an enlightening experience.
“I saw the camaraderie with the kids, I saw the impact those guys made and thought if it was the right situation I might get back into high school coaching,” Spezia said. “It made me think, ‘Maybe this is something I need to do.’ ”
Coincidentally, it was Millis who was responsible for a departure from his Westville staff for this season. While Spezia was operating a basketball academy last spring in Tampa, Millis told him about the Milford opening.
In a reversal of roles, the person who years earlier was recommended for the Westville coaching job by Spezia now put in a recommendation for his good friend with Milford Principal Steve Totheroh.
Milford could have hired a younger coach, one who would have commanded a smaller salary, but it opted for Spezia and also put him in control of the junior high feeder program.
The coach is ready to settle down.
“I’ve set a minimum of five years (as the coach),” Spezia said, “and see where it goes from there. Maybe 10 years.”
Taking over a program that had 12 total wins the past three years, Spezia is joined on staff by former Milford head coach Dave Caldwell, the winningest basketball coach in school history.
“He’s a good asset,” Spezia said. “We’re fortunate to have him.”
Former Nokomis athlete Greg DeWerff is another valuable coach. He’s a first-year basketball assistant who will assume the head-coaching position in the spring with the Bearcats’ baseball program.
“He is very enthusiastic,” said Spezia, who is in his 40th season since he took his first coaching job (at Sheldon) as an assistant coach for the 1973-74 school year.
The Bearcats are 9-10 and have exceeded last year’s total output (eight wins).
Spezia is putting his stamp on the team. Sophomore Jake Rogers — a Division I prospect in football — is impressed.
“He has definitely taught us a new type of game,” Rogers said. “We knew he was here to make us win, and we’re already showing improvement. We’re showing teams we’re one to be reckoned with.”
Like at DACC, Spezia places an emphasis on discipline.
“What he says goes,” Rogers said. “There’s no backtalking.”
Mark Portwood said Spezia was a good choice as his successor.
“All of the players will have the opportunity to learn from a great coach,” Mark Portwood said. “Coach Spezia has a real passion for basketball. He can teach all of the players about the game of basketball.”
Mark Portwood not only played for Spezia for two seasons but also spent another two seasons playing against his teams. Portwood attended Parkland College and went 3-1 against Spezia’s DACC teams. Portwood played for the Cobras’ 1986 national championship team.
At DACC, Spezia coached a national championship team. His hope is to take Milford to the ultimate pinnacle.
“In 1A basketball, you have a shot to win a state championship,” he said. “That’s the huge carrot at the end.
“These kids want to be successful. They’re hungry to get better. We’ll settle in, develop the program and see where it progresses to.”
Though he is drawing a pension from DACC, Spezia figures it’s too soon for him to settle into total retirement.
“I don’t play golf, and I’m not a big fisherman,” he said. “Basketball is almost like a hobby.”
When the time comes that he steps away from Milford, Spezia said he doesn’t expect to walk away from basketball.
“I’ll probably continue to be involved with camps and as a consultant until I pass away,” he said. “When I go to practice, everything else shuts down for me. I love teaching and seeing the guys improve.”
Fred Kroner is The News-Gazette’s prep sports coordinator. He writes a weekly high school-related column throughout the school year. He can be reached by phone at 217-351-5232, by fax at 217-373-7401 or at firstname.lastname@example.org . Follow him on Twitter @fredkroner.