Throughout his coaching career, Don Mathews took several high school teams with losing records and turned them into winning programs. Now, he enjoys watching his son, Eddie, coach the Peoria Notre Dame basketball team.
Don Mathews is a prolific storyteller.
He remembers the details of basketball games from the 1950s and 60s with remarkable detail, and most of his stories end with a heartfelt laugh.
“There was the one game at Brimfield,” he said, already smiling and holding back laughter. “My team got called for a 10-second violation. That wouldn’t have been that big of a deal, except the other team was sitting back in a zone defense! One of my players dribbled it off his foot, and then he tried to pass it to somebody who wasn’t even looking, so it hit him in the back. That’s how bad we were. The next game, I felt like going to the bathroom after the national anthem, so I wouldn’t have to be introduced as the coach.”
That Brimfield team went 1-22.
Four years later, Mathews led Brimfield to the state tournament. Nobody was laughing at his team anymore, and he stood proudly as the coaches were introduced.
Mathews, who was inducted into the Greater Peoria Sports Hall of Fame in 1993, earned 278 victories during his 30-year coaching career.
A big part of the turnaround at Brimfield in the 1970s was his son, Eddie, who was a senior on the 1979 team that reached the Elite Eight.
He said coaching Eddie at Brimfield is still one of his most treasured memories.
“I had people tell me, ‘Never coach your own son. It will never work.’ But, I never had a problem coaching Eddie,” he said. “We had a rule. We would never talk about the game until the next day. We were able to have a strong father-son relationship without letting basketball get in the way of that.”
Eddie is now the coach of the Peoria Notre Dame boys basketball team.
Father and son still talk every day, but the Hall of Famer does not interfere with his son’s coaching.
“I don’t have to tell Eddie to do this or do that,” Don Mathews said. “He’s an outstanding coach on his own. We’ll talk about the games, but he doesn’t need my advice. He’s a far better coach than I ever was.”
Don said he often cries after Notre Dame games, win or lose.
“I’m just so proud of Eddie. I get a little emotional sometimes, just watching him coach,” he said. “I’m very proud of all my kids, but watching Eddie become a coach has been truly special.”
Mathews grew up on the South side of Peoria. When he was a young boy, he played basketball at the Proctor Center almost every day.
He attended St. Patrick’s Grade School and started for the eighth grade basketball team as a sixth grader.
He later excelled at football and basketball at Spalding Institute High School.
He credits Spalding basketball and football coach Ennio Arboy for cementing a strong work ethic and setting him on a path toward a career in athletics.
He received scholarship offers from Bradley, Xavier and other schools, but decided on Bradley so he could stay home near his father, who was in poor health.
“Coach Arboy and my father died within 11 days of each other the September after I graduated from high school. That was a difficult time for me.”
Mathews played at Bradley, but did not start many games.
“I only got to play if somebody ripped the pants on their uniform, or of the game was really out of hand,” he said, laughing.
Bradley coach Forddy Anderson entrusted Mathews with coaching the “B” team and he relied on Mathews’ scouting reports on opposing teams.
“That was helping me learn to become a coach, even if I didn’t realize it at the time,” he said. “I would look over the other team’s zone defense and come up with a game plan so we could attack the zone in practice.”
Mathews was a member of the 1954 Bradley team that lost to LaSalle in the national championship game.
“I’ll always have this,” he said proudly, as he held up his big, shiny national runner-up ring.
He spent three years in the Air Force before taking his first head coaching job, at Woodruff in 1959. He was only 26 years old.
He took Woodruff to two Regionals and, in 1964, he beat a Richwoods team that was ranked second in the state.
He also coached at Bergan (1968-71), Spring Valley Hall (1971-72), Brimfield (1974-79) and Peoria Heights (1984-87). He compiled a 278-243 career record and was named the Illinois Basketball Coaches Association District 10 Coach of the Year three times.
Mathews, 75, now spends much of his time with his children and grandchildren, and he is a founding member of the ROMEO Club (Retired Old Men Eating Out), which includes Bob Bouthit, Gary Trotter, Gale Youngman, Lee Youngman and Hal Fuson.
“We have a lot of fun,” he said. “We talk about all kinds of things, mostly sports, and, of course, we tell a few jokes.”