TOLONO — Since 1994, Unity football has only had one head coach roaming the sidelines: Scott Hamilton.
He’s a staple with the Rockets’ program he’s built up, leading Unity to 261 wins, 26 playoff appearances and five state runner-up finishes across his decorated tenure.
A Hall of Fame tenure, though, that has seen a constant of long-time assistant coaches connected with the program and its success.
Hamilton has a chance to qualify for his sixth state championship game if top-seeded and host Unity (12-0) can fend off second-seeded Mt. Carmel (12-0) beginning at 2 p.m. Saturday at Hicks Field in Tolono.
It would also mark the sixth state championship game for Dave Fink as part of Hamilton’s staff, too.
The fifth one for both Tony Reetz and Rich Bonnell. And a fourth one for Patrick Striegel.
Longevity is a calling card of Unity’s coaching staff. It factors into the Rockets’ frequently positive results as much as the players performing well during the regular season and playoffs.
“You see it in some schools that have been successful for a long time,” said Fink, Unity’s defensive coordinator who’s in his 25th season with the team. “You saw it at St. Joe, where they had a coaching staff that stayed together for a very long time (under the late Dick Duval).
“I’m fortunate that I get to coach with all of my best friends. It’s easy to stay together as a staff when you enjoy what you do and you’re all in a position where you get to coach.”
Hamilton said he came to understand the value of longevity in a coaching staff through his own high school career at Roxana in the mid-to-late 1980s and as an assistant coach at Hardin Calhoun in the early 1990s prior to arriving at Unity.
“I’ve done everything I can to keep these guys,” Hamilton said. “It’s important for me to take care of these guys and make sure that they stick around.”
Or return, in some cases.
Chad Eisenmenger is in the midst of a second stint on Hamilton’s staff after serving as head coach at Argenta-Oreana between 2011 and 2016. Collin Davis, Austin Bonnell and Mitch Negangard all played on at least one Unity team that reached a state title game, with Negangard part of two.
“It shows the personal nature of the program,” said Rich Bonnell, Austin’s father and an 18th-year assistant at Unity. “We do this on our own time, and we want to do it and enjoy doing it.”
Striegel is in his 14th season on the Rockets’ staff. He previously spent a few seasons at Monticello before seeing a job open up at Unity.
“There were two jobs open in the state of Illinois, and this was one of them,” Striegel said. “Being here as long as I have, this is all I know. What we do and how we do it, it’s all I know. ... It’s hard to think about leaving and going somewhere and struggling.”
Reetz is in his 18th season alongside Hamilton on the sidelines.
But Reetz acknowledged that wasn’t part of his initial plan when accepting a role with the Rockets.
“I thought this would be a great place to get my foot in the door in education and coaching ... and then I’d move on to bigger schools,” Reetz said. “And then 18 years later, here I am, still here. It’s just been an awesome ride, so why would you leave it?”
Reetz and Hamilton both point to stability beyond the football field as an appealing reason to remain at Unity.
“It’s more than just the staff or more than just the program or more than coaching with me,” Hamilton said. “It’s that this is a great place to be.”
This group has cultivated plenty of memories inside the white lines and beyond them. On the former front, Striegel points to a 2015 Class 3A semifinal game versus rival St. Joseph-Ogden as an especially fun experience. The 10th-seeded Rockets stunned the top-seeded Spartans 30-8 on a snowy and cold afternoon.
“They beat us in the regular season, and we ended up getting half a foot of snow, 30 mile per hour winds (for the semifinal),” Striegel said. “We were big underdogs. ... That’s the one we talk about all the time is the snow bowl.”
Rich Bonnell, a Unity graduate himself, always enjoys looking back on the four state championship games he’s been involved with.
“One of the great ones would be coaching my son, and at the same time, I had my nephew (Colton Reed) on the team, too. They were both captains. It was a pretty awesome experience,” Rich Bonnell said. “Just the way I (am) treated ... Scott’s been awesome.”
On the latter front, Hamilton said a majority of the staff will head to Florida this coming summer to vacation with their families. They all went down to Destin, Fla., when Reetz got married and before the COVID-19 pandemic started, they would take an annual trip to St. Louis to take in a Cardinals’ baseball game.
“Any time we can be together and hang out,” Hamilton said, “it’s always a good time.”
Fink said one of the aspects that keeps him with Unity as an assistant coach — besides his close bond with those around him — is the understanding of what Hamilton goes through as a head coach during each season.
“People don’t appreciate, unless they’ve been in this game coaching, that the game is the easiest part of Scott’s week,” Fink said. “If somebody outside of this business knew what his week looked like leading up to coaching a game, it would scare a lot of people off ever wanting to leave.”
Fink said the staff’s familiarity with getting this far in the playoffs can pay dividends in big games like Saturday’s against Mt. Carmel.
“It’s definitely helped,” he said. “Having four games at home has really helped, too. But knowing what we’re going to be doing Saturday, knowing what each week looks like in the playoffs, is always going to be an advantage.”
Hamilton and his assistants also are happy for this return to November football because of what has transpired in recent years.
Not only did the pandemic prevent a postseason last school year, but the Rockets missed out on a playoff berth in 2018 for the first time since 1993 by finishing 4-5. The 2019 team made it back to the playoffs, but lost in the second round.
As Reetz describes it, “it’s good to be back.”
“We’ve been talking about getting back to normal. ... But if there’s one thing that’s normal around here, I think it’s making deep runs in the playoffs,” Reetz said. “We all expected to be here, and the fact that we’re actually here, it just feels right. It feels normal. It feels like this is where we’re supposed to be.”