TOLONO — Don Akers didn’t arrive at Unity High School until 1980.
Between 1969 and 1979, he coached and taught at Mahomet-Seymour, then an Okaw Valley Conference rival of the Rockets.
During the 1977 football season, the competition for the Okaw’s top spot turned into a three-way tie between Unity, M-S and Monticello. Back at that time, Akers said, only one program could advance to the IHSA postseason from the league.
Oscar Hicks had coached the Unity football team from 1955 through 1973. He held a different role during that 1977 deadlock.
“Oscar drew Mahomet’s name out of a hat,” Akers said. The Bulldogs went on to win a Class 2A state championship under coach Frank Dutton. “Oscar and I kind of started a closer relationship with that scenario.”
Hicks died last Thursday at his daughter’s home in Tolono. The long-time Unity coach and administrator was 93.
“I was able to spend quite a bit of time with Coach over the years here. I was very fortunate to be able to spend time with him,” said Scott Hamilton, Unity’s football coach since 1994. “Probably one of the most respected guys that I’ve come to know and been around and heard people talk about.”
Hicks was an Allerton graduate who earned degrees from Eastern Illinois and Illinois, and he also served in the Army during World War II.
He spent 29 years at Unity High as a coach, athletic director, principal and teacher. Hicks is known by many for his 19-year stint overseeing Unity football, during which the Rockets posted a 99-57-5 record. That included an 8-0 mark in 1967 and a 7-0-1 ledger in 1963.
“He set a good example of what you should do as a human being,” said Lyle Hicks, Oscar’s nephew. “Treating other people in the right way and showing respect — that’s the thing I took with (me) as I went into my head coaching.”
Lyle spent time coaching numerous sports — primarily basketball — at various local high schools and Danville Area Community College, most recently serving as Oakwood’s golf coach. Lyle said that he wouldn’t have gotten into the profession without his uncle.
Lyle was coaching the Ridge Farm boys’ basketball team one season when Oscar Hicks and his wife, Marjorie, entered the gymnasium.
“I got up and yelled (across the gym) just as they came in,” Lyle said. “My Aunt Marge stopped right next to me and said, ‘Your uncle would not yell like that.’ And that stuck with me.
“I had just come out of the service (in the Army). It was my third year of coaching. It dawned on me, ‘Hey, if I’m going to be like him, I don’t want to be yelling during the game across the gym floor.’ That’s just he way he was.”
As Unity’s athletic director, Hicks brought Akers to the Rockets’ coaching lineup in 1980. Akers remained with Unit 7 until 2002.
“The staff that Oscar hired at Unity High School, nobody left. Everybody stayed,” Akers said. “He spent his whole career at Unit 7, so he was pretty committed to the community and the kids.”
In addition to leading the football program for nearly two decades, Hicks spent time at the head of Unity boys’ basketball (14 years), track and field (11 years), baseball (10 years) and cross-country (eight years). He’s a 1979 inductee into the Illinois High School Football Coaches Association Hall of Fame, the same year Unity’s football field was named Hicks Field.
Akers also was impressed by Hicks’ commitment to girls’ sports in a time when they were fledgling at some high schools. Akers cited as an example the start of Rockets volleyball in 1973 under Liz Osborn, who went on to lead the team to three state trophies in 23 years. Fittingly, Unity’s gymnasium carries Osborn’s name.
“Oscar taught me all the kids that come to our school need to be treated with respect and treated the same,” Akers said.
Lessons that his nephew, Lyle, still carries with him to this day.
“I’ll never forget him talking in general about what I should expect and what I should do as a coach and as a teacher,” Lyle said. “Stay positive, believe in what you’re doing and treat the student-athletes with a lot of respec. Treat them like an equal, yet have the discipline and be in charge.”