Gene Nudo has been a winner everywhere he has been. He is good at building things, wearing different hats, juggling different jobs and turning chicken feathers into chicken salad. Now he hopes to restore the glory to Fenwick's once glorious football program.
Fenwick is synonymous with the Chicago Catholic League. The Oak Park school was dominant in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s under legendary coach Tony Lawless and in the early 1960s under John Jardine.
Johnny Lattner, who later was a Heisman Trophy winner at Notre Dame, played on two of Lawless' Prep Bowl teams that lost only two games in two years. Today, his grandchildren wear the Black and White.
Jardine's 1962 powerhouse, led by Jim DiLullo, was one of the best teams in state history. DiLullo rushed for a record 224 yards and five touchdowns as the Friars crushed Schurz 40-0 in the Prep Bowl before 92,000 at Soldier Field.
But Fenwick has been fair to middling to mediocre to downright disappointing ever since. Eleven coaches have come and gone. The last moment of glory was 1995, when Paul Connor's 12-1 team lost to eventual state champion Maine South 24-21 in overtime in the state semifinals.
Nudo, 53, hopes this is his last job. He resigned as president and general manager of the Chicago Rush in the Arena Football League on Dec. 12 and was hired as Fenwick's new football coach on Dec. 15. He actively pursued the job. "I got the itch," he said. The man who started Driscoll's dynasty wanted to get back into coaching.
"I like the challenge that Fenwick presents," Nudo said. "I want to write my own chapter in the history of Fenwick football. I have always admired the Chicago Catholic League. I know we have a long road ahead of us. But I'm excited about the challenge. I will try to do at Fenwick what I did at Driscoll. Now the challenge is to get the kids in the weight room and get them in tune with what the new coach is all about."
As he did at Driscoll -- he coached the Addison school to a state championship in 1991 and left a legacy that two of his disciples, Tim Racki and Mike Burzawa, used to win seven state titles in a row in the 2000's -- Nudo plans to re-brand Fenwick's football program.
"At Driscoll, they looked like egg yolks with yellow jerseys and black pants. So I changed to Pittsburgh Steelers uniforms, black helmets, gold stripes," he said. "At Fenwick, I want to move the (black and white) colors around, give them a different look, maybe silver helmets. And I want to incorporate the school's coat of arms shield, too."
Another major change could be coming. School officials are exploring the possibility of building a football stadium to call its own instead of playing its home games at Morton in Berwyn or other sites. A Lawless Stadium or Lattner Field would honor what those icons have meant to the Oak Park community and Fenwick football.
In the meantime, Nudo is preparing for Jan. 3, which will be his first day at Fenwick and his first meeting with the football team. He already is evaluating tapes of the 2011 season. He is excited about coaching Pat Hart, a 220-pound All-Catholic running back. He will be running behind three 270-pound offensive linemen.
"I met all the boys at the football banquet last week," Nudo said. "My message on Jan. 3 will be: 'Hard work isn't an easy thing but if we can't have fun with football, there is no need to be out for football.' I have always been able to laugh at myself with other people. But there is a time for hard work and we will try to blend both."
Nudo knows the assignment won't be easy. But he has been there before. There was turmoil in Fenwick's program last fall. Coach Joe DeCanio was asked to resign after the third game and was replaced by athletic director Scott Thies. DiCanio was 45-38 in seven years.
"We need to put the turmoil of last fall to rest and have everybody rowing the boat in the same direction," Nudo said. "They did some good things last year but they didn't do them long enough. They lacked consistency."
Nudo's philosophy? "We will play football like our hair is on fire. We will fly around. The kids will get dirt under their fingernails. I think I'm a better coach than I was 20 years ago. Defensively, we will hit everything that moves. We will force people to make quicker decisions," he said.
"Some people say that Fenwick can't win because its academics are too strong. But I believe you can be an athlete and still be a student. We will coach the kids we have."
Born and raised in Norridge, Nudo is a 1976 graduate of Ridgewood. He played football for Mike Mariani. After attending Triton College for two years and Illinois State for two more, he left 11 hours short of a degree. He got into the business world for six years, selling windows and doors and working for Kellogg's food division.
From 1979 to 1983, he was a volunteer coach for Al Marks at Ridgewood. In 1981, he became head coach of the River Grove Cowboys in a minor league football league. He won the national semi-pro championship in 1985 and was runnerup in 1985 and 1986.
In 1986, he got a call from Jim Foster, founder of the Arena Football League. Foster was looking for players to fill rosters in his new league. Nudo liked what he saw of the venture -- 8,000 people showed up for a game in Rosemont and ESPN televised the inaugural 1987 season -- and became an assistant coach of the Chicago franchise.
When the Arena League almost folded in 1988, Nudo decided he needed more security. He joined Rich Marks' staff at Driscoll. When Marks left, Nudo became became head football coach in 1989. He guided Driscoll to the state title in 1991. In 1995, he left to become director of football operations for the Arena League.
Later, Jerry Colangelo and his son Bryan convinced Nudo to come to Phoenix to be an assistant coach with the Arizona Rattlers in the Arena League with an assurance that he would move into the front office after one year. He was with the Rattlers for 13 years, the last two as head coach, until he was fired in 2007.
He got back into the private sector, running camps for kids in the Phoenix area and selling industrial equipment before the building industry went south with the economy, then was hired as president of the Dallas Vigilantes in the Arena League in 2010. He also was an assistant varsity coach at a high school in Phoenix.
Then the phone rang again. The Chicago Rush was calling. They offered him a job as president and general manager of the Arena League team. When ownership walked away from the Rush and the league took over the team, Nudo knew it was time to move on. "I didn't like the way things were looking for me. I began to look for something else to do," he said.
He heard that Fenwick was looking for a football coach. He called, visited with athletic director Scott Thies and met with principal Peter Groom, who was a player at Marmion when Nudo was coaching at Driscoll. "We rehashed old war stories," Nudo said. A week later, he accepted their job offer, then talked to the parents and players from all three levels of the program at the football banquet.
"I spent 25 years in professional football and it was wonderful up until the end," Nudo summed up. "Now I have an opportunity to help young people again and teach them that hard work and sacrifice generally equates to success. I believe in my ability to lead young men."