When I learned that former Brother Rice football coach Tom Mitchell had passed away on Tuesday of an apparent heart attack at 72, I immediately recalled the first time I saw him. It was a snapshot of the kind of man he was and how he always will be remembered.
It was 1968, my first year of reporting high school sports for the old Chicago Daily News, and I was covering a Catholic League football game at Gately Stadium on a sunny Sunday afternoon.
I was standing on the Brother Rice sideline when I was forced to make way for a white-haired, hard-boiled, shouting, screaming man whom I assumed at the time was head coach Tom Mitchell. He had something to say to every player on the field who was wearing a crimson jersey and it wasn't very complimentary, often profane.
Standing a few yards away from him was a much younger man whom I assumed at the time was an assistant coach. He barely said a word or blinked an eye.
"Boy, the head coach really gets excited, doesn't he?" I said to someone.
"Oh, he isn't the head coach. He's Joe Johnston," I was told.
Indeed it was. Joe Johnston was Brother Rice's longtime assistant. He was a gifted line coach who, despite his age, would think nothing of going one-on-one with his teenage linemen during practice. He helped three of them to go to Michigan on scholarship.
In 1981, when Brother Rice won a state championship, I watched from the press box at Northwestern's Dyche Stadium as Johnston joyfully ran around the field hoisting the big trophy as the players gleefully trailed behind.
The Quiet Man? That was Tom Mitchell. The last thing he would ever think of would be to run around a football field carrying a trophy. That wasn't him. In 30 years of coaching, what meant most to him wasn't the W's and L's or X's and O's, but his interaction with players and coaches.
"My mission was to develop kids to the best of their ability," Mitchell said. "At Brother Rice, we didn't get the bulk of talented kids. We had to work hard to maximize their ability. I felt I helped a lot of kids. It my job worthwhile.
"When I first started coaching, we existed in a league where schools gave out scholarships to talented players. We didn't have the privilege of that so many of our teams weren't as talented as the teams in our league. We didn't have the most talented team but no one ever out-worked us."
In 26 years as head coach, from 1967 to 1992, his teams posted a record of 170-95-1, a .641 winning percentage. His Crusaders won a state championship in 1981, beating Reavis 14-0, and finished second in 1985.
He also won three Prep Bowl championships in 1976, 1980 and 1992. He produced such outstanding players as Mark Donohue, Tom Coyle, David Diehl and Jerry Szara.
Mitchell, a consummate gentleman, was one of the mainstays in a golden era of Catholic League coaches in the late 1960s, 1970s and 1980s that included St. Rita's Pat Cronin, Mendel's Lou Guida, Loyola's Bob Spoo, St. Laurence's Tom Kavanagh and Gordon Tech's Tom Winiecki.
A South Sider who played football at Mount Carmel, Mitchell always said the most fun he had in the coaching profession was to work with his players and his coaching staff, which included Johnston, Eddie Bara, John Langdan, Eddie Staron, Dennis Duffy, Dan Jocoby, Bill Gleeson and his son Tom, who played on his father's 1981 state championship team and later coached at the University of Chicago.
His other son, Tim, didn't play football but served as a statistician. He served as superintendent of the Chicago Park District from 2004 to 2011.
"Over the years there have been many great teams and excellent players that I've had the privilege of of coaching," Mitchell said. "They all had their own personality and it made coaching really special. But there was one constant in all the teams I coached. They all showed great work ethic and strong determination. They never gave up and always tried their hardest."
Donahue, a 1974 graduate who was a two-time All-America offensive lineman at Michigan and played two years in the NFL, recalled a recent reunion with Mitchell and former players.
"We were reminded of how great a coach and man Tom was," Donahue said. "It speaks volumes about a coach when former players reunite, hug and tell stories as if they had played together just yesterday. Coach was one of those guys who had the ability and cared enough to teach, coach and mentor many of us. What a special, special person. I am deeply grateful for having had Tom Mitchell as my coach."