Chad Hetlet was the perfect choice to follow in the tradition of Bill Duchon and Jim Covert as the head football coach at Glenbard West. Since the 1960s, the Hilltoppers have been known as the "Hitters," a reference to their smash-mouth and bruising style of play.
After Duchon built the program into a state power and Covert, his handpicked successor, picked up the torch and carried it to another level, winning state championship in 1983, the Glen Ellyn school fell on hard times, producing only one winning team from 1996 to 2006.
Duchon, who played for legendary coach Tony Lawless at Fenwick in the 1940s, was 9-0 in 1968, 10-1 in 1975 and finished second in the state in 1976 with his last team. In his last 11 years, he didn't field a losing team.
Covert was 132-58 in 19 years, a .695 winning percentage. He had only two losing teams. His 13-0 team won the state title in 1983.
Hetlet arrived in 2007 to right the sinking ship and restore the program's flagging prestige and tradition. It didn't take long. After a 6-5 start, his last four teams have gone 12-1, 13-1, 10-2 and 10-1. His 2009 team finished second in the state. This year's squad is 10-0 and ranked No. 1 in the state in Class 7A.
In Saturday's 49-21 victory over Elk Grove, the Hilltoppers were led by quarterback Henry Haeffner, who completed 7 of 11 passes for 188 yards and two touchdowns, and running back Scott Andrews, who rushed for 96 yards and two touchdowns. Linebacker Joe Marconi intercepted a pass go set up another touchdown.
They'll play at Libertyville in the second round of the Class 7A playoff.
"They're playing physical again," said Covert, a frequent observer at Saturday home games. "That element of the game was lost for a while. But now it's back. He (Hetlet) has them playing hard all the time. It's the way it used to be."
Hetlet, 40, described his hiring at Glenbard West as "a perfect marriage." He came from an old-school background where players listened to their coaches talk and kept their mouths shut. He learned that running the ball with a physical presence up front and stopping the run on defense was a surefire recipe for success.
"The selling point for me was they always were a smash-mouth style of football team," he said. "You want to go into a program that is similar to yours. It may not be the only way to do it but it's the only way I know. We won't finesse people. We will be successful as long as we are physical and stop the run."
Hetlet came to Glen Ellyn by a back road. A graduate of Zion-Benton in 1990, he played linebacker on the football team. At Northern Illinois, however, he played rugby because he liked the physical aspect of the game. After his freshman year, he changed his major from computer programming to physical education. He wanted to be a coach.
He began teaching at Libertyville and learned Xs and Os under Dale Christenson, Randy Kuceyeski and Tony Monken. Then he got a job at Johnsburg and assisted Bob Bradshaw for eight years. He was head coach at Johnsburg for one year, then went to McHenry for two years, was Mike DiMatteo's defensive coordinator at Hinsdale Central for one year, then moved to Glenbard West.
"I knew Glenbard West had a great history before I came to the western suburbs," Hetlet said. "I knew Duchon and his history. I knew Covert, too. The more the interest level rose, the more I learned.
"So many former players live in Glen Ellyn. We had instant approval from them as to how we played the game. We kept the Hitters program that Duchon established. What we talk about all the time and remind the kids is they come from a long line of great physical football players. It started with them making a name for themselves. When kids buy into being physical, they are tough to stop."
It's all about putting a big green G on the side of your helmet. Duchon had gold helmets and Covert had 100 percent helmets. That was their thing, their trademark. They were Hitters, all of them. The style of football was the same, a bunch of tough kids.
"I believe in that. That's what we have to do to be successful," Hetlet said. "Our kids have to earn their Gs on the side of their helmets. They don't get it until they go through the off-season. Their parents come to the ceremony. It goes with the tradition, who we are. We don't want to pretend that we are the Duchon or Covert era. We want people to think we want to replicate what they did. We don't want to steal what they did. We want
people to talk about us."
Hetlet said his plan for rebuilding Glenbard West's program was borrowed from Bradshaw, who won a state championship at Woodstock in 1983 and then turned around a program at Johnsburg that was 0-9 and produced five playoff qualifiers in eight years.
"I had to go on what I learned from Bradshaw--outwork your opponents, establish a weight lifting program in the spring, hire good positive coaches, establish a work ethic, get the kids to buy into the idea that we are blue-collar and we will outwork and out-physical opponents."
Hetlet admits that if his 2007 team didn't buy into his old-school philosophy, "then the rest of this doesn't happen." The 2007 squad came off an 0-9 season and finished 6-5, losing to Morgan Park 34-27 in the second round of the state playoff.
"They had the worst record but it made them believe that they could win," Hetlet said. "They were physical. We got lucky and made the playoff. We won the last game of the season against Hinsdale Central to qualify. Our confidence rose. The kids said to themselves: 'Hey, we can do this.' Then we started to get talented players to come out, tough, hard-nosed kids."
Other things haven't changed, either. Duchon Field still has natural grass and no lights and looks like a Norman Rockwell painting on a crisp Saturday afternoon in the autumn. The players still ring the victory bell on the hilltop after winning a game.
And the Golden Eagles youth football program is "a huge deal," according to Hetlet. The youngsters are coached and supervised by many former Hitters who grew up in the same program. "Our kids come ready to play at the freshman level--and our freshmen are very successful," he said.
"But now we are different because the kids in the DuchonCovert era were a Glen Ellyn team. Now the boundaries have changed. We're a Glen EllynGlendale Heights team."
But they're still Hitters, make no mistake about that.