400 wins and counting for Farragut's Nelson

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400 wins and counting for Farragut's Nelson

William "Wolf" Nelson, to his everlasting disappointment, will forever be remembered as the coach of one of the best high school basketball teams never to win a state championship.
 
It happened in 1995, when Farragut, ranked No. 1 in the state with a lineup that included future NBA star Kevin Garnett, three-time All-Stater Ronnie Fields and Michael Wright, lost to Thornton 46-43 in the Class AA quarterfinals.
 
"That was my most disappointing moment in coaching," said Nelson, in his 22nd season. "I'll never forget that team. It was our first trip to state and I was the new kid on the block. I wasn't prepared for all the hoopla, the circus surrounding the state tournament."
 
Nelson didn't scout Thornton. He didn't think he needed to. He thought his team was invincible, that it could overcome any adversity and overpower any opponent. "My first chance was my best chance at winning the state title. Now I regret it," he said.
 
"If I could have it to do all over again, if I knew then what I know now, I wouldn't have lost that game. Before the game started, there were things to do and we didn't follow through. I wasn't totally prepared. I didn't know what to expect. I thought who we were and what we were was enough. But it wasn't. You have to do what you need to do to be ready."
 
Nelson, 52, has learned from his mistakes. On Jan. 12, he recorded the 400th victory of his career as Farragut rallied to edge Thornton Fractional North 63-60 at the Bob Hambric Coaches Against Cancer Shootout in Calumet City.
 
The Admirals, who started 0-3, defeated Crane 58-52 on Wednesday to extend their winning streak to nine games. Last Thursday, however, they lost to top-rated Whitney Young 77-63, then lost to Gary (Indiana) West Side 61-49 on Saturday, and to North Chicago 69-65 on Sunday. They'll try to snap their three-game losing streak against Orr on Wednesday.
 
Nelson never has been skittish about playing tough competition. Playing in the Public League's Red-West Division, one of the strongest conferences in the state, is a given. But Nelson always has sought to fill his schedule with other state-rated or nationally ranked opponents.
 
"We had so-so teams but the turning point was when I got Curtis Ganes and Ronnie Fields to go to Farragut. Until then, we lost kids who lived across the street from the school to Marshall or Crane or Westinghouse. I wanted to get kids to stay in the neighborhood," Nelson said.
 
A 1978 graduate of Farragut, Nelson admired basketball stars Billy Lewis, Sonny Parker and Anthony Brown. But he didn't play basketball. He was captain of the chess team. He had his own fan club.
 
"I was one of the top chess players in the city," he said. "Chess players had fans, too. I had a following around the city, like a big basketball star."
 
He played basketball at a youth center. As a seventh grader, he was introduced to the game by Ron Dunlap, a 1964 All-Stater at Farragut who went to Illinois. "I wasn't good enough to play on the varsity. But I was a student of the game. I could explain how you played the game. I just couldn't do it," he said.
 
Nelson studied electrical engineering and math at Illinois-Chicago and Northeastern Illinois. As a college student in 1983, he began serving as an assistant coach on Farragut's frosh-soph basketball team. In 1989, he began teaching math at his alma mater. When head coach Thomas Peppers left in 1990, Nelson became head coach.
 
He knew the history of the program. From the outside looking in, he recalled the powerful Lewis/Parker teams that coach Wardell Vaughn produced in the 1970s. As good as they were, however, they weren't good enough to beat Crane or Marshall or Hirsch or Phillips or Morgan Park or Vocational.
 
"Something was missing," Nelson said. "I didn't have war stories to tell to motivate kids."
 
So he persuaded Ron Eskridge, who had been an assistant under Vaughn, to join his staff. Eskridge was an invaluable addition. If nothing else, he accomplished two things that led to Farragut's rise. He persuaded Garnett to enroll at Farragut for his senior year and served as Fields' Svengali.
 
Meanwhile, Nelson sought to build a reputation as one of the most successful coaches in the Public League. He looked up to Vaughn, Marshall's Luther Bedford, King's Landon Cox and Simeon's Bob Hambric. He wanted to accomplish what they had accomplished--and more.
 
"I asked myself: 'When will I be able to go out to big tournaments like Proviso West and persuade good players to come to Farragut?' When we finally were invited to Danville for Thanksgiving, and Proviso West for Christmas and the KMOX Shootout in St. Louis, I knew we had arrived. We were doing what Simeon and Whitney Young are doing now," he said.
 
Nelson has built a well-founded reputation as "the best big man coach in the state." He has a knack for taking big kids who never played basketball before or couldn't walk and chew gum at the same time, and developing them into well-coordinated and athletic virtuosos on the court...players such as Ganes, Garnett, Wright, Elliott Poole, Ollie Bailey, Mike Dunigan and Rashaun Stimage.
 
"I'm a student of the game and I can tell you what you are doing even if you don't know," he said. "I've always been a teacher, even as a chess player."
 
The All-Nelson team? His all-time starting five? Garnett, Fields, Wright, Poole and Theotis Owens, who played on his first team in 1991 and later played at Kankakee Community College.
 
"[Nelson] has never gotten the level of respect that he deserves for the job that he has done at Farragut," said recruiting analyst Roy Schmidt of Illinois Prep Bulls-Eye. "His longevity and track record are testament to his ability as a coach.
 
"Most importantly, he does things the right way. We have never heard of any allegations of him recruiting players. We can truly say that we have as much respect for him as any coach in the Public League and there is no question that he is one of the best."
 
Nelson will continue to coach as long as he is having fun, as long as he believes he can develop young men and make a difference in their lives. But he admits it isn't as much fun as it used to be, before Garnett arrived at Farragut and brought street agents with him.
 
"We had to watch kids all the time. They are very fragile," Nelson said.
"Today, a lot of them are driven by AAU coaches. Other guys try to take over your program. You aren't in control as much as you would like.
 
"Young coaches don't have as much morals as old-time coaches. They don't develop kids as much as they used to. So many are in it for the wrong reasons. They don't respect the game. Coaches, parents and officials think the game is about them and not about the kids."
 
As president of the Public League Basketball Coaches Association, Nelson said he is trying to figure out what he can do to get young coaches to be more respectful of the game. He also wants the coaches to have a better relationship with the Public League's sports administration.
 
"I definitely would like to have more involvement with the sports administration," he said, "It is more of a dictatorship. We have problems with scheduling and officials and transfers and eligibility. We have no say in what is going on.
 
"We want a better relationship with (sports supervisor) Calvin Davis. We want to make it a smooth running machine. What are the rules? I have been coaching for 22 years and I still don't know the rules. Why is this kid eligible and this kid isn't?"
 
All Nelson knows for sure is (1) he isn't thinking of retirement, (2) he won't attempt to win 900 games (like St. Joseph's Gene Pingatore) but (3) he would like to win 500.
 
His current squad figures to move him closer to that goal. "It is a carbon copy of all my teams. We have pieces but we lack depth. We only have 11 players on the roster," Nelson said.
 
Most critics talk about 6-foot-6 junior Sire Carroll (16 ppg) but Nelson insists the best player on his roster is 6-foot sophomore point guard Ernest Johnson (12 ppg, 9 rpg, 4 assists). Two other starters are 6-foot-4 junior Ashawn Jones (12 ppg) and 5-foot-9 sophomore Joshua Adams (13 ppg).
 
"I would love to add a post player to this group and we could compete with anybody," Nelson said. "Next year's team will be one of the best I have coached."
 
Checkmate.

Chicago native Brandon McCoy returns home for McDonald's All-American Game

Chicago native Brandon McCoy returns home for McDonald's All-American Game

The 2017 McDonald's All-American Game will be without an Illinois high school basketball player for the second consecutive year.

While the local drought for elite IHSA talent continues, this year's McDonald's game at least has a Chicago native in the mix as 7-foot big man Brandon McCoy is returning home to participate in the game. McCoy is considered the No. 15 prospect in the country according to Rivals.com.

A native of the West Side of the city, McCoy moved to San Diego during his middle school years, but he still has a lot of family and friends in Chicago supporting him.

A five-star prospect who is deciding between Arizona, Michigan State, Oregon and UNLV, McCoy has already been back to Chicago once during his high school career to compete at the Proviso West Holiday Tournament as a junior.

McCoy will take the floor with the West Team at the United Center tonight as he's one of six uncommitted prospects in the game.

Why Illinois football players are making verbal commitments so early

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Rivals

Why Illinois football players are making verbal commitments so early

How early is the State of Illinois Class of 2018 already starting to fill up and make verbal commitments?

According to the early Rivals.com Class of 2018 Top 25 recruit rankings, 10 out of the Top 15 names are already verbally committed. I fully expect nearly the entire State of Illinois Class of 2018 Top 25 to be verbally committed by the end of the upcoming spring evaluation period, which would easily be the earliest I can remember any State of Illinois football recruiting class being "locked up" in the over 20 years over covering recruiting in this state.

Marist junior three-star ranked tight end TJ Ivy (6-foot-5, 215 pounds) has 20 scholarship offers so far this early spring. So has Ivy begun to feel any added pressure to make an early verbal commitment since so many other names are committing earlier and earlier?

"I know that more and more kids are committing early," Ivy said. "I think I might be one of the last top ranked tight ends in state that hasn't committed yet. I'm looking at all of my options a bit harder now. I'll come up eventually with a top schools listing then I'll move froward from that point and get closer to a decision."

Ivy hopes to make spring unofficial visits to Iowa and West Virginia. 

Palatine junior outside linebacker recruit Cortez Hogans (6-foot-3, 190 pounds) has seen his recruiting stock take off over the past month. Hogans made a Tuesday unofficial campus visit to Northern Illinois University and came away with an offer from the Huskies. 

"I visited NIU (Tuesday) and they offered me," according to Hogans. "NIU was a really nice visit. I was able to watch a spring practice and also talk to the coaches at NIU. NIU offered me as an outside linebacker recruit."

Cortez, who now is holding offers from NIU, North Dakota State, Illinois State, SIU, WIU, Wyoming and South Dakota State has also drawn recruiting contact from several new schools.

"Syracuse, Boston College, Central Michigan and Wofford. Syracuse said they are going to visit my school in April. I'm going to visit Central Michigan soon and I'm going to talk to Boston College on Wednesday."

Fenwick junior wide receiver recruit Mike O'Laughlin (6-foot-5, 205 pounds) just wrapped up his basketball season as a key contributor to the Class 3A state runner up Friars. McLaughlin will now focus on his remaining school year along with his football recruiting.

"I have offers now from Central Michigan, Western Michigan, Miami of Ohio, Wyoming, Ball State, Toledo and Cincinnati," according to O'Laughlin. "I've stayed in touch with all of those coaches along with North Dakota State and South Dakota State. Several schools are still showing interest. Iowa, Purdue, Michigan State, Vanderbilt, Ball State, Penn State, Western Kentucky and Central Florida all have remained in touch. Almost every one of those schools are planning to visit my school this spring."

O'Laughlin is planning to visit Iowa on April 15th along with visiting Miami of Ohio and Cincinnati in April.