No one does revivals like Danville's Luke
For more on prep sports, click here to read Fred Kroner's latest chat.
Darrell Mudra received the nickname "Dr. Victory" during his football coaching tenure at Eastern Illinois in the early 1980s.
Danville coach B.J. Luke needs a similar moniker. He has made a living out of rebuilding struggling programs and turning them into perennial playoff competitors.
His high school tenure began at Heyworth, where he was 21 years old when he signed the contract and 22 by the time the season opener arrived.
The Hornets improved their win total each of his four years at the school.
"I was so young, I don't know if I knew what the heck I was doing, but I had a lot of enthusiasm," Luke said. "The first year in, instead of taking care of the X's and O's and techniques, you lay the groundwork: be on time, work hard, be good citizens.
"There are expectations to meet first, and when you meet those, you have the chance to develop a good program."
Following a 5-4 record in 1980 – Heyworth's fourth winning season in a 14-year stretch – Luke left for Yorkville.
"We inherited groups that were not too good as freshmen and sophomores, but together they fit," Luke said. "Our first year, we lost in the (state) semifinals.
"I could have stayed forever and won a bunch of games, but I was looking for another challenge."
He found one at Kankakee, where he guided the school to its first winning season in a decade in Year 2.
"We had a good group of young coaches," said Luke, whose staff included Alec Anderson (who coached at Urbana from 2000 to '03) and Dick Duval (entering his 22nd year as St. Joseph-Ogden's coach).
Luke had planned on staying at Kankakee longer than two years but was tempted by the chance to coach collegiately with Bob Otolski at Illinois State University. Prior to the 1987 season, he resigned from Kankakee and was replaced by Anderson.
Otolski was fired after Luke's first year with the Redbirds, but the experience was beneficial though short-lived.
"I learned to be an assistant and how an assistant feels trying to have input," Luke said.
In the fall of 1988, Luke resurfaced at Waubonsie Valley, in Aurora. The school had won 13 games in the five years before Luke was hired and had never qualified for the playoffs.
His third team reached the postseason and his sixth team was undefeated until losing in the state semifinals.
In what turned out to be his last season at Waubonsie (2004), Luke received a call from former Danville athletic director Terry Hill as he was preparing for a Class 8A playoff game.
"He wanted to know if I knew of any young coaches who might be interested in coming to Danville," Luke said.
He thought about it during the weekend – which included a three-point Waubonsie loss to top-rated Naperville North – and the following week recommended himself to Hill.
What followed was perhaps his toughest challenge, resurrecting a program in his hometown which had gone 0-9 two times in the previous four years before he was hired.
Had Luke listened to the buzz around town, he would have declined the opportunity.
"People said you can't win in Danville anymore; kids won't get in the weight room," he said. "I'd heard those things before."
That made him more eager to prove the doubters wrong.
"You have to come in and believe," Luke said, "and know it will be a hard job, a tough job, and have people around you who believe. It's the climate that has to be changed.
"I don't have a secret recipe, but I just know the kids will do the things they need to do to get better. I wanted the kids to feel what I felt when I was a kid in Danville, and I had such a passion for football."
His second year at his alma mater, the Vikings reached the playoffs. This year, his fifth at Danville, some coaches in the Big 12 Conference consider Luke's team as the one to beat.
"We now have kids who are recruitable (by major colleges)," Luke said.
The program has reached the point he had envisioned when he accepted the job.
"I said I wanted to compete for the Big 12 championship and compete with anybody in the state our size," Luke said. "I think some people thought I was this old nut coming back."
Tackling the challenge
With three successive playoff appearances, Danville has accomplished a feat that no football team at the school has done since teams in 1988, '89 and '90 earned postseason berths.
"We're not afraid to get on the bus and go anywhere," Luke said. "Does that mean we'll be 9-0? I don't know, but we could be. People in town are excited, and the kids are excited."
There are two phases to getting a program completely turned around.
"It's a struggle to become a team that can win, and then it's a struggle to become a team that can handle winning," Luke said. "You can have slippage when kids aren't used to winning games.
"We've made it to the point where the kids understand what it takes to win and they handle it pretty well."
There's a bit of irony that Luke and his wife Holly – the daughter of former UI assistant coach Walt Anderson – settled down in Danville.
"Thirty-one years ago, before we were married, I said, 'Where do you want to live?' and she said anywhere but Danville," Luke said. "Now, it's her favorite place she's ever lived."
Luke, who has a 178-133 career record in 32 seasons as a football head coach, turned 55 during the first week of double sessions but has no plans to retire.
"I'll coach until I don't feel like coaching anymore," he said. "This has been real special for me. It has fired me up and sparked my career.
"I had thought about what it would be like to coach in my hometown. It was a good move for me. I'm proud to be coaching at the place where I went to school."
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 at 217-351-5232, by fax at 217-373-7401 or at email@example.com.