Nudo hopes to restore magic at Fenwick

620708.png

Nudo hopes to restore magic at Fenwick

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."

Fast Break Morning Update: White Sox, Cubs both drop series openers

Fast Break Morning Update: White Sox, Cubs both drop series openers

Here are some of Monday's top stories in Chicago sports:

Preview: Cubs look to bounce back vs. Giants tonight on CSN

White Sox fall to Diamondbacks in series opener

Cubs can't complete another miracle comeback against Giants bullpen

Should Blackhawks' next assistant coach be Joel Quenneville's choice?

How Bears are using veteran videos to school rookies on NFL way

Luis Robert the latest high-end acquisition for White Sox

For Joe Maddon, Cubs winning World Series came down to Giant comeback in SF and avoiding Johnny Cueto in elimination game

Carlos Rodon 'getting closer' but still without time frame for return

Have the Cubs found their new leadoff hitter in Ben Zobrist?

MMQB's Peter King's thoughts on Trubisky, Howard, White and the Bears offense

Theories on why Cubs haven’t played up to their defensive potential yet

Theories on why Cubs haven’t played up to their defensive potential yet

“That’s what we’re supposed to look like,” Joe Maddon said Monday night after a 6-4 loss where the San Francisco Giants scored the first six runs and Wrigley Field got loudest for the David Ross “Dancing with the Stars” look-in on the big video board, at least until a late flurry from the Cubs.

But for a manager always looking for the silver linings, Maddon could replay Addison Russell’s diving stop to his right and strong throw from deep in the hole at shortstop to take a hit away from Christian Arroyo. Or Albert Almora’s spectacular flying catch near the warning track in center field. Or Anthony Rizzo stealing another hit from Brandon Belt with a diving backhanded play near the first-base line.

The highlight reel became a reminder of how the Cubs won 103 games and the World Series last year – and made you wonder why the 2017 team hasn’t played the same consistently excellent defense with largely the same group of personnel.

“Concentration?” Jason Heyward said, quickly dismissing the theory a defensive decline could boil down to focus or effort. “No shot. No shot. It is what it is when it comes to people asking questions about last year having effects, this and that. But this is a new season.

“The standard is still high. What’s our excuse? We played later than anybody? That may buy you some time, but then what?

“The goals stay the same. We just got to find new ways to do it when you have a different team.”

FiveThirtyEight.com, Nate Silver’s statistical website, framed the question this way after the Cubs allowed the lowest batting average on balls in play ever last season, an analysis that goes all the way back to 1871: “Have the Cubs Forgotten How to Field?”

Even if the Cubs don’t set records and make history, they should still be better than 23rd in the majors in defensive efficiency, with 37 errors through 43 games. The Cubs have already allowed 28 unearned runs after giving up 45 all last season.

“We just got to stay on it and keep focusing and not let the miscues go to our head,” Ben Zobrist said. “We just have to keep working hard and staying focused in the field. A lot of that’s the rhythm of the game. I blame a lot of that on the early parts of the season and the weather and a lot of difficult things that we’ve been going through.

“If we’re not hitting the ball well, too, we’re a young team still, and you can carry that into the field. You don’t want to let that happen, but it’s part of the game. You got to learn to move beyond miscues and just focus on the next play.”

Heyward, a four-time Gold Glove winner, missed two weeks with a sprained right finger and has already started nine times in center field (after doing that 21 times all last season). Zobrist has morphed back into a super-utility guy, starting 16 games at second base and 15 in two different outfield spots.

[MORE CUBS: Have the Cubs found their new leadoff hitter in Ben Zobrist?]

Maddon has tried to drill the idea of making the routine play into Javier Baez’s head, so that the uber-talented second baseman can allow his natural athleticism and instincts to take over during those dazzling moments.

The Cubs are basically hoping Kyle Schwarber keeps the ball in front of him in left and setting the bar at: Don’t crash into your center fielder. Like Schwarber and Almora, catcher Willson Contreras hasn’t played a full season in The Show yet, and the Cubs are now hoping Ian Happ can become a Zobrist-type defender all over the field.

“I’m seeing our guys playing in a lot of different places,” Heyward said. “It’s not just been penciling in every day who’s going to center field or right field or left field. We did shake things up some last year, but we did it kind of later in the season. We had guys settle in, playing every day. This year, I feel like we’re having guys in different spots.

“It’s May whatever, (but) it seems like we haven’t really had a chance to settle in yet. Not that we’re procrastinating by any means, but it’s just been a lot of moving pieces.”

The Giants won World Series titles in 2010, 2012 and 2014 with a formula that incorporated lights-out pitching, airtight defense and just enough clutch pitching. The Cubs are now a 22-21 team trying to figure it out again.

“Defense comes and goes, just like pitching,” said Kris Bryant, the reigning National League MVP, in part, because of his defensive versatility. “I feel like if you look at last year, it’s kind of hard to compare, just because it was so good. We spoiled everybody last year. Now we’re a complete letdown this year.”

Bryant paused and said: “Just kidding. Different years, things regress, things progress, and that’s just how it goes sometimes.”