Lee Cabutti coached basketball in Champaign for 29 years, won more games than any coach in history in the district, earned a spot in the state Hall of Fame and has the court named for him at Central High School.
He realized long ago fame is fleeting.
In one of his final years on the faculty at Central, Cabutti was walking down the hall after the second bell had rung, signaling that all students should be in class.
A girl was standing by her locker and appeared grateful as he approached.
“She said, ‘Mr. Janitor, would you open my locker?’ ” Cabutti said. “You think you’re the coach and everyone knows the coach.”
When Cabutti got new neighbors, he went over and introduced himself. He didn’t expect the response he received.
“They said, ‘We’ve heard all about you,’ ” Cabutti said. “I thought it was something about coaching. They said, ‘We hear you sell the best tomatoes in town.’ ”
People will be reminded about his tenure Saturday. The school’s Hall of Fame banquet at Jupiter’s at the Crossing also will serve as a celebration honoring “the Cabutti years.”
Seeds of success
Cabutti now has tended a garden plot longer than he coached basketball in the Unit 4 school district. Thanks to his coaching position, he was able to make the purchase near White Heath in 1972.
“We were going to Lincoln for a basketball game,” Cabutti said. “Two men were putting up a ‘For sale’ sign. I told the bus driver to pull over.”
Cabutti spoke to the sellers and, within minutes, had negotiated a purchase price and agreed to return the next day to sign the paperwork.
“At one time, I had 150 apple trees, I grew raspberries, blackberries. Now, I’m better known for selling tomatoes than I ever was as a coach.”
The son of an Italian immigrant, Cabutti is from a generation most people now only know through stories.
“I started school at a one-room school,” said Cabutti, who will be 88 on his next birthday. “Later it was two rooms, then three and finally they added a fourth.
“We played basketball on outdoor courts. I had not used an indoor toilet until I was in high school and never had a sitdown (restaurant) lunch until I was in college. We had no running water in the house or electricity until I was in ninth grade, but we survived. That’s how poor people were in the 1930s.”
When he attended Johnston City High School, Cabutti said, “the school was 31/2 miles from where we lived. There were no buses. I had to walk — or run — to get to school.”
Cabutti’s father was a coal miner, and that was the life he envisioned for his son.
“My dad thought sports were a waste of time,” Cabutti said. “He thought you should be working.
“Boys in that area ended up as coal miners, and the girls ended up as coal miners’ wives.”
Mother knows best
Though he was cut from his freshman basketball team, Cabutti eventually earned a spot and was being recruited before he graduated. He was seen, he said, because “college coaches reffed high school games to make some extra bucks.”
One who was impressed was Glen Martin. He faced a tough job.
“My dad got me a job in the coal mines when I was 18,” Cabutti said. “He chased him (Martin) out a couple of times, once with a hammer. He said, ‘He’s not going to college.’ ”
Fortunately, the teenager had an ally.
“My mother begged him to let me go to school,” Cabutti said. “Thank God for my mother.”
As a sophomore at Southern Illinois University in 1946, he played for the NAIA national champions, beating Indiana State in the final game John Wooden coached at the school in his home state.
Point of emphasis
Cabutti remembers an eighth-grade basketball game where he scored 10 points and “I thought I played pretty well.”
“The coach told me I didn’t play very well,” Cabutti said. “I didn’t shoot a free throw.”
That point was reinforced years later when he was coaching at Champaign Central and Bob Knight, then the Indiana University head coach, called.
“He wanted to know if we’d played Normal U-High. He was interested in Jim Crews,” Cabutti said.
The teams were not scheduled, but on a night off, Cabutti went to Normal and watched Crews and the Pioneers.
“I called him (Knight) the next morning and the first thing he wanted to know was, ‘Did he shoot any free throws?’ ” Cabutti said. “I told him he was 10 for 11. He said, ‘I want him.’ ”
Cabutti was fortunate to have a productive athletic career. Near the start of his freshman year, he and a friend came across an unexploded dynamite cap while walking through a coal-mining yard.
“We lit it, but it didn’t go off,” Cabutti said.
He hit it with a stick. That did the trick.
“Four pieces went through my (left) eye and into the optic nerve,” he said. “I was blind for six years in that eye.”
He required medical treatment that wasn’t available where he lived. For the next year (1939-40), he lived with a family in St. Louis and had twice-a-week appointments with an eye doctor, but he did not attend school.
The following year, when he returned to Johnston City, he re-entered school as a freshman. From then through most of his sophomore season in college, Cabutti participated in sports with the ability to see only out of the right eye.
Annual salary: $1,800
Cabutti’s first teaching and coaching job in 1948 was for $1,800 and, he said, “that included coaching three sports. Back then, you were paid what the principal thought you were worth. There was no salary schedule.”
After eight years at Herrin, Cabutti’s annual salary had climbed to $3,500. His request for a raise wasn’t appreciated.
“He (principal) said, ‘We gave you a $100 raise last year. What would the other teachers think?’ ” Cabutti related. “I said, ‘They go home at 3:15 and I stay and have another job (coaching football, basketball and track).”
One of his football standouts, Charlie Hamilton, made The News-Gazette All-State team. At the annual banquet in Champaign, Cabutti was seated by Champaign’s coach, Tommy Stewart, and his All-Stater, Bill Ohl.
They formed a friendship and when Harold Jester retired as the Champaign basketball coach, Cabutti said, “Tom Stewart had a lot to do with me coming here.”
He received a significant raise — to $5,500 — to move to Champaign and only had coaching responsibilities in two sports: football and basketball.
“If the principal (at Herrin) had offered another $300 or $400, I never would have left,” Cabutti said.
The first year he was away from Herrin, a senior-laden squad, which formed the nucleus of the 28-3 team as juniors in his final season, won the IHSA state championship.
Cabutti retired from Central in 1985 — and has been retired almost as long as he coached in the community — but he didn’t become a permanent fixture in the rocking chair given to him by the Stephen Decatur staff to mark his prolific career.
He has stayed active.
“I still do 20 minutes of calisthenics every morning,” he said. “Your body works, if you keep using it. I’ve never had any knee or hip problems.
“I have a series of exercises I do for the shoulder, hips and knees. I do some in the shower when hot water is running on me.”
And then, there is the gardening, which he discovered was much more pleasurable the second time around.
“I helped my dad when I was a kid, and I hated it,” Cabutti said. “Now I grow tomatoes, and some of them are 9 feet tall.”
Cabutti became a fixture in Champaign because he and his wife, Jo Anne, liked the community.
“I about left here after two or three years,” he said. “We had to disconnect the phone, and word got around that I was unhappy.”
The harassing phone calls were because of the number of African- Americans Cabutti was playing.
Music to his ears
During Cabutti’s entire coaching tenure, he and his colleagues were not allowed time in the summer to conduct practices or coach his returning players.
For 40 years, he had a different offseason pursuit. He was a camp counselor at Interlochen, Mich., site of an annual music and arts camp.
“The year we won the NAIA championship, there was an ad on the window of the AD office,” Cabutti said. “A national music camp needed two counselors for the summer.”
Cabutti and a teammate at SIU, Mike Sortal, accepted the challenge.
“We hitchhiked up there, 520 miles,” he said.
Room and board was provided at no cost. Their salary for working with the 8- to 11-year-old age group?
“We made $50 apiece,” Cabutti said.
His biggest learning experience came in the subjects of dedication and determination.
“We’d get them up every day at 6:30 for announcements,” Cabutti said. “Some had already been up for two hours, to get in some extra practice. I never had kids get up at 4:30 in the morning to shoot free throws.”
Among the offers Cabutti considered was one at the University of Michigan (1958-59) to be the assistant basketball coach and ticket manager. The salary was $12,000.
“I said, ‘Pay me $15,000, pay to move me, and I’ll take it,’ ” Cabutti related.
Fritz Crisler, them the Michigan athletic director, nixed that deal.
“He said no way we’re paying that, so that took care of that job,” Cabutti said.
Southern Illinois University was looking for an assistant athletic director (1962-63), but Cabutti turned it down.
“I would have been interested in the basketball job,” he said, “but I didn’t want to be assistant athletic director.”
It all worked out well, he reflected.
“I’m glad we stayed,” he said. “We love Champaign. If I dropped dead today, I’ve had a good life and did more than I ever expected.”
Cabutti is not sure how long his coaching tenure would last if he were just entering the profession now in Champaign.
“I doubt if I could coach today,” he said. “I expected a lot out of kids, and I worked them hard.”
There’s also the incident that occurred in a physical education class in the mid-1980s. It indicated that the coach expected things to be done the way he requested, or there would be consequences.
Cabutti asked for quiet, but one outspoken individual wasn’t being cooperative.
“I asked three times,” Cabutti said. “Then I broke a clipboard over his head.”
Reflecting on his career, Cabutti doesn’t start with the third-place team he coached in 1969, the one featuring Clyde Turner, or his 1974 induction into the Illinois Basketball Coaches Association Hall of Fame or the 15 basketball regional championships or even the 2004 ceremony when Lee Cabutti Court was christened at Central High School’s gymnasium.
“The thing I am proud of,” he said, “is I never had a kid go ineligible in 38 years of coaching.”
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 email@example.com. Follow him on twitter @fredkroner.
Hall of Famer Lee Cabutti coached 908 varsity basketball games in 34 seasons as a high school head coach. His teams won 527 of those games. His career milestones:
WIN Opponent Score Date
1 x-Harrisburg N/A Dec. 2, 1951
50 x-Centralia N/A Jan. 14, 1954
100 Streator 50-36 Dec. 21, 1956
200 Danville 39-34 Feb. 1, 1963
300 Bement 87-41 March 4, 1968
400 Stephen Decatur 46-42 Jan. 26, 1974
450 Rantoul 48-41 Jan. 3, 1978
500 Rantoul 28-27 Jan. 22, 1983
527 MacArthur 52-50 Feb. 9, 1985
x-denotes games as Herrin H.S. head coach
In 29 years at Champaign and Champaign Central, Cabutti was the winningest coach in any sport in school history. His final basketball record was 434-335. Milestones with the Maroons:
WIN Opponent Score Date
1 Rantoul 48-39 Nov. 28, 1956
50 MacArthur 50-32 Jan. 31, 1959
100 Rantoul 45-42 Nov. 29, 1962
200 MacArthur 70-49 Feb. 3, 1968
300 Lincoln 38-36 Dec. 14, 1973
350 Decatur Lakeview 47-45 Nov. 22, 1977
400 Stephen Decatur 49-35 Feb. 5, 1982
425 Wood River 56-39 Dec. 27, 1985