Past Newsworthy Dads

Coaching Character

By Gerald Korson

The late Vince Lombardi, the first Super Bowl champion coach with the Green Bay Packers, said famously, “Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.” But the Jesuit-educated football legend knew also that character and sportsmanship must come before victory, and his strong Catholic faith guided him through life.

It takes a special coach to make the character connection clear, and to show that the skills learned through athletic competition are a foundation for success in life. It takes a coach who is willing to serve as a role model and mentor to the athletes in his charge, and such coaches are often found in successful Catholic high school sports programs.

One example is Morgan Wootten, who retired in 2002 as the nation’s top basketball coach, compiling an astounding 1,274-192 record over 46 seasons of boys’ basketball at DeMatha Catholic High School in Hyattsville, Md. A still-active legend is Jack Curran, now in his 51st year as head baseball and basketball coach at Archbishop Molloy High School in Queens, N.Y., who has led his teams to numerous conference titles.

Fathers for Good recently caught up with two other coaches, both generals of the gridiron, who form good athletes as well as young men of faith and character: Coach Chris Svarczkopf of Bishop Dwenger High School in Fort Wayne, Ind., and Coach Todd Kuska of St. Rita High School in Chicago.

‘Teacher and Learner’

Svarczkopf’s coaching philosophy is holistic. He and his staff strive to develop their athletes spiritually, emotionally, mentally, and physically.

 

Coach Svarczkopf talks with quarterback Trevor Yerrick, who is bound for Notre Dame in the fall.

“We look at athletics as a vehicle,” said Svarczkopf, who has a 77-17 varsity record and also serves as Dwenger’s dean of students. “Our primary goal is that they become better young men because they were involved in our program. The first thing we want them to develop is faith, because life is not easy and they need to know that there is always a greater Power looking out for them who is responsible for their success, in good times and in bad times.”

Football runs in the family. His oldest son is an elementary-school coach, his middle son is a walk-on at Indiana University, and the oldest of his three daughters is married to a high school coach.

All three of Svarczkopf’s sons have played at Dwenger for him; his youngest, a junior, still does. “I’m sure it’s difficult for them to be a coach’s son,” said Svarczkopf, who has been married to his wife, Jane, for 30 years. “But in talking with the two who have graduated, they wouldn’t have it any other way.”

As a coach who seeks to form the whole person, he sees his role in the terms of a father-son relationship. He takes an active interest in his students and athletes, their goals and ambitions. Sometimes they come to him with personal issues. Whatever the concern, he makes himself available.

After heartbreaking losses in the Indiana state semi-finals in 2006 and 2007, the 2008 Bishop Dwenger “Fighting Saints” won their conference for the third year in a row and took a 14-0 record into the state championship Thanksgiving weekend at just-opened Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, the new home of the Indianapolis Colts. In a tight defensive battle, however, the Saints lost to Indianapolis Cathedral 10-7.

As the game ended, the Dwenger coaches called the team together and instructed the players to accept their runner-up award with pride and dignity. Every loss, Svarczkopf believes, can make one a better player, a better team. “Every game has a winner and a loser, and every game has a teacher and a learner,” he said.

Faith is a key element in the Dwenger athletic tradition. Each practice ends with prayer, and each game is preceded by a visit to the campus grotto the celebration of Mass. Prayers for a safe journey are offered before each bus trip, and a prayer of thanksgiving follows every game, win or lose.

“We had Mass in the locker room at Lucas Oil Stadium before the state finals,” he said. “That might have been the first Mass there, I don’t know.”

Ultimately, athletics is education, Svarczkopf explained. “Because it is education, and we feel a very important part of education, it is a teaching process,” he said. “We want all of our coaches to be teachers.”

Unity, love, truth

In his 11 seasons as head football coach at Chicago’s St. Rita High School, Todd Kuska, a graduate of the school, has ensured that the values of the Augustinian school find their way to the gridiron.

“At St. Rita, we follow the core values of St. Augustine: Unitas, Caritas, Veritas [unity, love, and truth],” he said. “We really and truly believe in that and we try to represent that in everything we do, not just in the classroom but in all our athletics and in the overall approach we take with all the students.”

 

Coach Kuska stresses teamwork and character

That means putting sports in context: It’s only a game, but it’s a game that can teach life lessons.

Prayer and a pre-game Mass are integrated into the football program at St. Rita. So are family and fellowship. On the eve of each game day, players, coaches, and families come together for a pasta dinner prepared by the parents. “I want our parents to realize they are just as important to our football program as their sons are,” Kuska said.

“We try to be more than just the coaches on the field,” he added. “Some of these guys are looking for role models, and that’s something that my faith has played a role in making me realize.”

This past season, the 2006 state champion “Mustangs” compiled a dominating 10-1 record, more than doubling the point totals of their opponents, before their season came to abrupt end with a loss to East St. Louis in the state quarterfinals.

They took the disappointment in stride.

“With our staff, we try to make our kids realize that they’re not there just to play football after school. We’re there to continue the teachings that we start throughout each day in the classroom,” said Kuska, who is married and has two young sons of his own. “We try to teach them to be good, moral young men.”

Gerald Korson, a veteran journalist, lives with his wife and their 11 children in Fort Wayne, Ind.