A winner: then and now

Tom Batters
Jeff Alderman led Dunlap to a 9-2 record last year.

As Jeff Alderman drove home from football practice on the desolate country road, which offered an endless view of corn fields on both sides, he must have asked out loud, “What the heck am I doing?”

Alderman accepted the head coaching job at Piasa Southwestern, a small high school in rural southern Illinois, in July of 1994. July is late for a football coach to get started, especially at a new school that won only six games over the past five years.

 He and his wife, Cindy, bought a farm house “out in the middle of nowhere,” and Alderman drove the lonely road into practice every morning, sometimes before the sun came up, so he could get to work and try to turn the struggling program into a winner.

The team went 1-8 in Alderman’s first season, just as it had done many times before.

But something was different.

Alderman sensed that the hard work at two-a-days and the daily hammering of the “give it your all” mantra were getting through to the players.

The team went 3-6 the next year, 6-4 in each of the next two years, and 9-1 in Alderman’s final season. Piasa reeled off 24 straight conference wins and made the playoffs three years in a row.

“Out of all the places I’ve been, I’d say I’m the most proud of what I accomplished there,” said Alderman, who enters his 10th season as Dunlap’s head football coach. “It was a challenge, but those kids worked so hard, and they were so fun to coach.”

Early in his tenure at Piasa Southwestern, some players wanted to attend an Aerosmith concert, which happened to be the same night as a football game. Alderman laid down the law. Anyone who skipped the game would be dismissed from the team.

“Some players went to the concert. Some stuck with the football team,” he said. “I had to do it. You have to sell the work ethic and commitment to the kids. If you don’t, then they will never put in the work necessary to win.”

One of the players who went to the concert later came back to the team.

A couple years later, that player wore his Aerosmith T-shirt to school. Alderman approached him and said, jokingly, “I see you have your letter jacket on.”

Alderman could have scorned the kid. He could have reminded him that he once chose to attend a rock concert instead of a big football game.

But that is not what Alderman is all about. His mandates and strict rules are just a necessary part of the job. They are not what define him as a coach.

He said his genuine concern for his players outweighs anything football-related.

“I still talk to a lot of players from those teams at Piasa,” he said. “They come up to our games at Dunlap, and that means a lot to me. That’s really what it’s all about. Winning football games is very important to me, and I want my players to be as good as they can be on the field. But, a single game is not nearly as important as the long-term relationship with the players. They are like family to me.”

That was apparent after Dunlap lost a heartbreaking overtime game to St. Teresa in the second round of the Class 4A playoffs last year.

Alderman fought back tears as he hugged many of the seniors and thanked them for their commitment.

“Those seniors gave me and my staff all they had all year long,” he said. “We lost the game. That was tough to deal with. But, they were not losers in my book. I will always remember them as winners.”

Alderman, 50, was born in Jacksonville, Ill. He grew up in Petersburg and played football, basketball and baseball at PORTA High School.

He said he was a decent football player, but baseball was his favorite sport.

“If I had a player like me on my football team, I would get on him pretty good,” he said, laughing. “I was just a ham-and-egger offensive lineman. I wasn’t a great skill player by any means.”

He still appreciates offensive linemen.

“I was in their shoes. I know what they’re going through,” he said. “I make sure I give them the credit they deserve.”

He attended Bradley University with aspirations of becoming a sports broadcaster. He then changed his major to education with a minor in English.

“Broadcasting just didn’t motivate me enough,” he said. “I wanted to be more involved in the action. Coaching was a good fit for me.”

He transferred to Illinois College, and, after earning his degree, got a student-teaching position at Springfield Sacred Heart Griffin.

He worked as an assistant football coach under Robin Cooper, a man who would have a profound impact on Alderman’s career for many years to come.

“He taught me a lot. He was intense and organized. He helped me learn all the things you have to have in place if you’re going to put a winning team on the field,” he said.

Alderman also coached the freshman basketball team for one year, and brought home a city championship.

“We were a physical team,” he said, smiling. “At least we had that going for us. Let’s just say I’m glad I stuck with football.”

Alderman left Sacred Heart Griffin to take a full-time teaching job at East Peoria High School, where he worked as an assistant football coach under Pat Cassidy. The football team never won more than three games in a season, but Alderman said he learned valuable lessons.

“I went from a winning program to a program that struggled,” he said. “I learned how to be patient. That helped me later in my career.”

In 1984, Cooper was hired to start the football program at MacMurray College in Jacksonville. Alderman jumped at the chance to join Cooper’s staff and return to his hometown.

He lived in the dorm and served as head resident.

“I got to eat in the cafeteria for free. I guess that contributed to my build,” he said, grinning.

Cooper left MacMurray after two years. The following year, Alderman, who said he was “frustrated” with coaching at MacMurray, resigned and went to work for a radio station in Jacksonville.

His return to broadcasting lasted only three weeks.

Routt Catholic High School in Jacksonville called and gave him the opportunity he had been waiting for: a head coaching job.

He led Routt to an undefeated regular season and No. 1 ranking in the state, before losing a nail-biter to Astoria in the playoffs.

“With one minute to go, we were going for the winning touchdown, but we lost a fumble at the goal line,” he said. “You talk about a tough loss. That one was as tough as they get.”

Two years later, Cooper, who was the head coach at Evansville University, came calling again. Alderman left Routt and joined Cooper’s staff.

At Evansville, he met former basketball coach Tim Crews and current basketball coach Marty Simmons, who is still a close friend.

Crews once gave Alderman some advice that made a strong impression.

“He said, ‘Do you think Jimmy Johnson (former Dallas Cowboys coach) is any happier after a win than you are after coaching a high school team to a win?’ That helped me realize that I wanted to coach in high school again. It was what I truly loved doing,” Alderman said.

After three years at Evansville, he took the job at Piasa Southwestern.

He said he might have stayed there, but he and his wife wanted more for their two children (their son was 2 years old and their daughter was 3).

“We were very happy there,” he said. “Those were great kids to coach. But, we wanted to look at a larger school where our kids could be challenged.”

In January of 1999, when he heard that Dunlap had a head coaching vacancy, he called Pat Cassidy, who was the principal at Dunlap. Alderman worked for Cassidy at East Peoria in the early 1980s. Cassidy offered him the job.

He went 5-4 in his first season with the Eagles.

“I felt like that was a sign of good things to come,” he said. “We played a tough schedule, but we still had a winning record. I felt good about the future.”

Alderman is now in his tenth season with the Eagles. He led Dunlap to six playoff appearances since 1999, including a 9-2 record last year. The Eagles defeated Mt. Zion, 45-16, before losing to St. Teresa in the second round.

Several starters graduated, but Alderman said he is excited about the upcoming season.

“Every season is a new challenge. We have a lot of good players coming back, and I like what I’ve seen so far. We might surprise some people.”

He said he still has a passion for coaching, even more now than earlier in his career.

“I love being around the kids first and foremost,” he said. “There is a bond between players and coaches. I hope I can give them a positive experience while they are here, and after they graduate, that bond is still there. I really enjoy hearing from former players. Many of them have their own families now. It means a lot to me when they come back to say hello.”

When Alderman is not at the football field, he enjoys spending time with his children.

“My son loves baseball, and my daughter just finished 12th in the state in gymnastics,” he said. “I’m so proud of both of them.”

He also enjoys following his beloved St. Louis Cardinals.

“My secret ambition is to be the manager of the Cardinals, but I don’t think that’s likely to happen,” he said. “A great summer night for me involves sitting by the grill and listening to John Rooney and Mike Shannon on the radio.”

After the Cardinals lost four straight close games to the Milwaukee Brewers a couple weeks ago,

Alderman said he became even more anxious to start the football season.

“That was hard. They could have won all those games, but they lost them all,” he said. “I said to myself, ‘OK. I’m really ready for football now.’”