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Despite early-season adversity, Phillips thriving under first-year coach Joe Winslow

The Wildcats face Richmond-Burton (11-0) in a 4 p.m. quarterfinal Saturday at Gately Stadium.

Phillips’ Da’Kwan Phillips (7) makes the catch against Simeon in their 14-12 win at Gately Stadium in Chicago, Saturday, September 25, 2021.
Phillips’ Da’Kwan Phillips (7) makes the catch against Simeon in their 14-12 win at Gately Stadium in Chicago, Saturday, September 25, 2021.
Kevin Tanaka/For the Sun-Times

Joe Winslow never planned to be a football coach.

He played at Dunbar for one of the Public League’s most respected coaches, Glenn Johnson, before going on to a college career at Loras and Iowa Wesleyan.

After college, he stopped by Dunbar to see Johnson one day. “He was like, ‘Help me with my quarterbacks,’” Winslow said.

So Winslow did for a few years before taking time off to coach his youngest child in Pop Warner. He came back to Dunbar, where one of his fellow assistants was a young Canadian native named Troy McAllister.

“One Christmas, Troy called me, said, ‘Happy holidays. I want you to be my assistant head coach and offensive coordinator at Phillips,’” Winslow said.

The rest is Public League football history. From modest beginnings — 12 players showed up for the first practice of the McAllister era in 2010 and that team finished 2-7 — the Wildcats have put together a run of success unprecedented in Public League football history.

The Wildcats reached the state quarterfinals for the first time in 2013 and have made it that far every year since, winning Public League football’s first two state titles in 2015 (Class 4A) and 2017 (5A).

Phillips kept playing up, moving to 6A in 2018 and 7A in 2019, reaching the quarterfinals each year. But much has happened between that final eight berth two years ago and now.

Like the rest of the state, the Wildcats were idled last fall in the depths of the COVID-19 pandemic. But Winslow, then still Phillips’ offensive coordinator, asked McAllister for and received permission to take some Wildcats to play on the seven-on-seven circuit.

Phillips’ Tyler Turner (17) passes downfield against Simeon.
Phillips’ Tyler Turner (17) passes downfield against Simeon.
Kevin Tanaka/For the Sun-Times

That was a ray of light in a dark time. But then in January came the unexpected death of Mike Larson, the Wildcats’ charismatic and creative defensive coordinator.

“It was rough losing him,” Winslow said. “He was an uncle or father figure to these kids.”

Then in May, McAllister left Phillips after 11 seasons to take the Sandburg job.

“At first, it was a question, just [because of] my loyalty to Troy, if I was going with him,” Winslow said. “We talked — it’s not like we’re not best friends. He told me, “It’s your time. This is what you’ve been wanting your whole life. [Phillips players] trust you, they believe in you.’”

Damien Thomas, a senior left guard, will attest to that.

“What makes coach Joe a great coach is he cares,” Thomas said. “If we’re struggling, he takes time out of his day for us. [He’s] caring, trustworthy.”

It’s helped the Wildcats deal with more adversity than most teams. Last month, practices were canceled for three days after a 14-year-old student and a security guard were shot outside the school.

But the Wildcats got together on their own to run and stay in shape, calling Winslow on FaceTime to show him their commitment. And they showed their dedication in other ways, such as showing up at school at 6 a.m. four days a week to work with strength and conditioning coach Joe Bibbs.

Still, there were tough times on the field. Phillps opened with road games at Batavia and Mount Carmel, losing 33-6 and 42-0. But Winslow saw improvement in the second half of the Mount Carmel game, and the Wildcats have ripped off nine straight wins since.

The turning point came in a 14-12 win over Simeon in Week 5 on Tyler Turner’s 10-yard TD pass to Avante Savage with 10 seconds left.

“That boosted all of our confidence,” Thomas said. “For us to get a game-winning touchdown with second remaining, it was like, ‘Wow, we can actually do this.’”

That wasn’t the only echo of past glories for the Wildcats. For the playoffs, Winslow and his defensive coaches have switched from the 4-2 defense they’d been running this season to Larson’s 50-match alignment.

“I know the concepts and how to run it,” Winslow said. “I just didn’t know if I could teach both sides of the ball.”

But the Wildcats have adjusted to the switch and now they face Richmond-Burton (11-0) in a 4 p.m. Saturday quarterfinal at Gately Stadium.

It’s the latest big game for a program that has seen plenty of them in the last decade. And though some of the faces of the sidelines have changed, the traditions — Larson’s defensive scheme among them — remain.

“Mike is still a part of what we do and always will be,” Winslow said.

And the first-year head coach and longtime staff member isn’t going anywhere either.