New ND coach hits the ground running

Tom Batters
Tom Gullickson

Tom Gullickson opened the door to the dingy storage room, which is tucked away in a dim corner behind the Peoria Notre Dame gymnasium.

“This is going to be a state-of-the-art film study room,” he said, pointing the cracked floor and dull brown walls. “We’re going to get all new carpet and paint, and video equipment. It will be an asset for all sports, not just football.”

Then he walked across the hall to the weight room where Sgt. Steve Starks, a stout man with biceps the size of tree trunks, led the football players through rigorous free weight repetitions.

“I brought in a military-style weight program,” said Gullickson, who was named Peoria Notre Dame’s new football coach in the spring. “Sgt. Starks will make sure these guys are hitting the weights the right way.”

Gullickson has been busy over the past few months. He said he is “totally committed” to turning around the ND football program, which has not had a winning season in six years. He acknowledged that it will take more than a spiffy film room and pumped-up weight program to make the Irish winners again.

“I realize it is not going to happen overnight. It’s going to take a lot of hard work from a lot of people, not just me,” he said. “But, I like what I see so far. The players have been great. I’ve brought in an outstanding coaching staff, and, after each day, I feel that we have made progress.

“I can say this. We are going to play extremely hard, and we are going to develop kids who have good character and who represent this school admirably. Will we win our first game, or our second game? I don’t know. But, I know we are going to give it all we’ve got and we’re going to do it the right way.”

Gullickson ordered new uniforms which display the traditional Celtic cross prominently on the front of the jersey. The helmets are a more conservative white and blue, similar to Penn State University’s.

This summer, he took full advantage of the time coaches were allowed to spend with players. He conducted 6 a.m. workouts, which he called “grueling.”

“Some of the players may not have been used to that, but that’s the kind of workout that winning programs have,” he said. “Winning high school football games, especially against teams like Richwoods and Woodruff, takes a lot of hard work.”

Gullickson took the players to the University of Notre Dame (he played college football for Notre Dame in the late 1970s) for a few days over the summer. The trip gave the players and coaches an opportunity to get to know each other.

 “We went to the Basilica and prayed together as a team, and we had some light-hearted moments, too. We didn’t just think about football,” he said.

Gullickson, 52, a devout Catholic, said he expects to have success in the win-loss column, but beating other football teams is not his main priority.

“We are focused on faith and family first,” he said. “That’s why I wanted the cross on the uniform. It shows that our focus is on Jesus first and foremost.”

He said the football part of the job looks promising.

“Don’t count these kids out,” he said. “We have some hungry, hard-working players on this team. They have done everything we’ve asked this summer. I can’t wait to get to practice, so we can keep making progress.”

Practice starts Aug. 13.

Gullickson, a 1973 graduate of Joliet Catholic Academy,  played on the offensive line at Notre Dame from 1973-77, the same time Joe Montana played for the Irish.

“I missed a block in a scrimmage game, and that caused Joe to get hit so hard that he separated his shoulder,” Gullickson said. “He missed the whole year and was given another year of college eligibility. A few years later, I saw him and said, ‘Do you remember me?’ He said, ‘How could I forget you, Gully?’ I think he should send me a portion of his income, since I played such an important role in his career. I haven’t received any checks, yet, though.”

Gullickson played for legendary coaches Ara Parseghian and Dan Devine at Notre Dame.

He said he learned a lot from Parseghian, Devine and Gordon Gillespie, who won 222 games and five state championships at Joliet Catholic.

“Coach Gillespie was demanding, but he also cared a lot about his players,” he said. “I remember when he cut my brother, Bill, from the football team. He said. ‘Bill has a gift for baseball. I don’t want him to get hurt in football.’ He cared that much about his future.”

Bill Gullickson pitched in the Major Leagues for 16 years.

“As a player, you think you know everything. Playing for and coaching with Coach Gillespie opened my eyes to a lot of the things you never think of when you're a player,” he said.

Gullickson worked as an assistant coach at Braidwood Reed-Custer, Kankakee McNamara, Bradley-Bourbonnais, Joliet Catholic and Olivet Nazarene University before taking the head coaching job at Berwyn-Cicero Morton in 2006.

The Class 8A inner-city school with more than 8,000 students went 29-151 under five different coaches since 1985.

“They (Morton) called and said, ‘Just come talk to us,’ so I listened, and I decided that I would give it a try,” he said. “I knew it would be a difficult challenge. I looked at it as my own version of a Catholic mission trip. I really wanted to go in there and make a difference in those kids’ lives.”

Gullickson did not win a game in two years at Morton. He was fired at the end of the 2007 after making a controversial remark after a tough loss.

He turned to a group of students he felt were disruptive and said, “This is a football team. We’re not going to a Mexican picnic.”

Gullickson said his comments were not meant to be racially derisive.

“I am not a racist. If I was a racist, would I have taken the job? I referred to a Mexican picnic in an attempt to suggest that the students were being disruptive, like at a party or carnival. I should have chosen different words. It was a mistake, but, in no way did I intend to put down anybody’s race. That’s not who I am.”

Gullickson said the administration used the comment as an excuse to fire him, even though he said he had the support of “99-percent” of the faculty and parents.

“It was a blessing in disguise, though,” he said. “The Lord was leading me to Notre Dame. The first time I drove by Notre Dame, I got a strong feeling about it. I believe it was the Holy Spirit. Everything fell into place from there. I couldn’t be happier here. Everyone, from the administration on down, has been supportive.”

Gullickson and his wife, Sheryl, have three children. His oldest daughter, Kate Jones, lives in Peoria and was the one who encouraged him to apply for the Notre Dame job.

His youngest daughter, Laura is a senior at St. Xavier, and his other daughter, Megan, just graduated from Olivet Nazarene.

“I’m in my fifties. I’m in the fourth quarter of life,” he said. “I have been blessed with this opportunity to coach these kids. I plan on enjoying it, and working very hard at it.”