CHAMPAIGN — Andy Place was, for a time, an assistant coach on Jeff Finke’s Champaign Central boys’ basketball staff.
Beyond that, the 40-year-old’s seven-year stint with the Maroons has seen him teach health, physical education and driver’s education and serve as a dean of students.
Yet the Heritage High graduate possesses a tangible connection to all of Central’s sports teams.
By his own choice, and without being asked to provide his presence.
“I always identified with athletics. That was kind of my path,” Place said last week while standing outside the Maroons’ McKinley Field football/soccer/track and field facility. “I could tell a lot of the kids, that’s how they identified, as well. It provided an identity for them, but then it also gave them a lot of motivation to do well in school and in life.”
Place ended the previous school year connecting with outgoing seniors from all of Central’s athletic programs — more than 30 of them.
His goal: to conduct exit interviews and make being a Maroon even better for the next group of kids.
“It really gives you an understanding as to what they truly think,” Place said. “As educators, teachers, coaches, administrators, if we’re not listening to them as they’re exiting, we’re really doing a disservice to all the future students that are coming through.”
Central volleyball coach Justin Tomaska utilizes an exit interview process with all of his athletes. But he was impressed by and grateful for Place’s interviews, as well.
“Just seeing the overall balance of what we need to improve on in athletics as head coaches, as an athletic department, it helps us make our athletes better,” Tomaska said. “I was so happy to hear he was doing that.”
Place confirmed that no one asked him to conduct exit interviews. And he added that not every bit of information he received was positive, though much of it was.
“There were also some things that really need to be improved on,” Place said. “Sometimes that’s a ... tough thing to see, but that’s how we get better.”
After graduating from high school in Broadlands, Place went on to play college basketball at St. Ambrose University in Davenport, Iowa. He then coached basketball and track teams — the former at both the college and high school levels — in Iowa before returning to Illinois.
Place oversaw the Villa Grove/Heritage boys’ basketball program between 2006 and 2015, compiling a 146-123 record in the process.
“I remember when I first started coaching, (I was a) young coach needing support,” Place said. “(Central’s coaches) want to come and bounce ideas off (me) about what they’re thinking.
“It can be ... one of their student-athletes they’re having trouble with. ... And they have some ideas, and they know I’ve been around enough to where I’ve just kind of experienced a little bit of all of that and can kind of help them.”
Place also recognizes that “kids want to be seen” and uses connections with the Maroons’ coaches to impart wisdom upon the athletes.
“Not everyone will go to college unless athletics helps provide that, and I feel like I’ve tried to be a conduit between kids and college programs,” Place said. “It just comes down to helping kids ... and what’s best for the kids.”
During his seven years with Central, Place also has taken a spin as public address announcer for football games.
“I help out at athletic events — whatever they ask me to do,” Place said. “We had a lot of fun with that up in the press box.”
Place wishes Central varsity games could be played at McKinley Field. Despite the new turf setup being in place, the Maroons contest their home events at Centennial’s Tommy Stewart Field.
“We have an amazing, beautiful facility here,” Place said. “So it’s really unfortunate.”
Place’s time with Central may be coming to a close, as he said he and his family are looking to relocate. But Place certainly left an impact on a sports scene he joined not too long ago.
“You really don’t see someone who is so invested in all those different athletes, all those different sports,” Tomaska said. “He goes out to tennis matches. He’ll see some swim meets. He’s at the football games, at basketball games. He’s been at volleyball games. He really makes his way around.”