Can we be Frank? Coaches think not

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The record was Matt Senffner’s first, then Gary Korhonen’s, and now it belongs to Frank Lenti. Before that Providence to Richards to Mount Carmel transfer, Bron Bacevich became the first Illinois high school football coach ever to notch 300 wins, reaching that threshold in his last season at Kankakee Senior High in 1953.

The point being, if you’ve ever wanted to see the winningest football coach in the state, you probably haven’t had to look very far beyond the south suburbs — unless you’re older than Lenti, who turned 60 Tuesday, three days after passing Korhonen with his 307th win.

So it’s Lenti’s record now, but the mark’s lineage suggests it will belong to the south suburbs even after Lenti passes the baton to the coach who bests his total, whenever that may be.

“Oh, geez,” said Marist’s Pat Dunne, suddenly figuring out the point of my phone call.

That’s right, coach Dunne, we’re combing the Southland for the next Lenti, and you’re on the list of candidates.

Laughing, Dunne said, “I appreciate that, but, oh, my God, I’m just worrying about Friday night.”

Dunne will have a lot of Friday nights to worry about before he gets close to Lenti territory. The 30-year-old, like Lenti an alum of the school he coaches, is 29-11 in his fourth year on the job.

Maybe that doesn’t seem like much measured against Lenti’s 307 wins, but it does represent something of a head start. Lenti turned 33 in 1984, his first season as Mount Carmel’s coach. By the time he’s 33, Dunne could be over 50 wins.

Granted, it’s risky business guessing the next man to approach a staggering number such as Lenti’s win total — which hasn’t yet been totaled.

“That’s the first problem you’re going to have,” Lincoln-Way East coach Rob Zvonar said. “Frank Lenti’s not going anywhere. … In 10 years, you might be talking about him at 400-something.”

“I don’t know about 10 years,” Lenti said. “But I’m certainly planning on being here a number of years — at least six or seven.”

So the head start is important. To that end, St. Rita’s Todd Kuska, now 39, may be in the best position, having taken the Mustangs’ reins at age 26. How long he holds them matters, too — and Lenti noted family considerations could prompt a successful coach such as Kuska to move to a public school, where the money is better.

“Once you go to a public school, I don’t know if you have the control over the direction of the program the way you do at a private school,” Lenti said. “I’m not saying he would, but there could come a point where he’d leave St. Rita to go to a public school. I’ve had to fight off that temptation myself many times.”

There are other fights.

Consider, too, Lenti’s incredible average of 11 wins per year.

“That kind of puts it in perspective,” Crete-Monee’s Jerry Verde said. “In 2009, when we went 10-2 and made the quarterfinals, that was Crete-Monee’s first 10-win season ever.”

Verde, 34, is 36-13 four games into his fifth season. Through four seasons he was averaging eight wins per — an achievement in itself, considering the Warriors had just one winning season in the six before his.

“When winning becomes the expectation, you no longer have to sell the commitment level,” Verde said. “We’ve turned that corner in many respects. … But we’re nowhere near the tradition of excellence of Mount Carmel.”

Few programs are. But, one man’s guess at the coaches who could be building something similar includes Dunne, Zvonar, Kuska, Verde and Lemont’s Eric Michaelsen. If you wanted to throw Lincoln-Way West’s Mark VanderKooi on the list too, fine by me.

Michaelsen leads that group with 139 wins over nine seasons at Lemont and seven at Walther Lutheran. But 300-plus wins looks a long way off to a guy who’s 47 years old.

“Yeah, I think that’s not going to happen,” he said.

Maybe not. Still, if Michaelsen finishes out his 17th season pushing 150 wins, it’s worth noting that another 17 seasons would only have him coaching until age 64.

Of course, at his current pace and plan, Lenti will walk away after 35 years at age 67 with 380 wins.

Will any of our 30- or 40-something candidates stick that long?

Depends on whom you ask.

“(The record) might be unreachable because of the pressures around the game,” Zvonar said. “Those 30-year coaches could be a dying breed.”

Really? Verde guessed hard economic times could be changing that.

“With the way the job market is,” he said, “a lot of guys are staying put.”

Even so, changing administrations will have to stay with the coach.

“That’s a lot of loyalty,” Verde said.

Just like 307 is a lot of wins.

“Between coach Lenti and coach Korhonen, it’s unbelievable,” Dunne said. “I can’t see anybody getting there.”

Just the same, Pat, we’ll check back with you in 2036 or so.

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