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Troy McAllister’s new challenge at Sandburg

Former Phillips coach hopes to revive Sandburg.

Sandburg football coach Troy McAllister shares a laugh at practice in Orland Park, Tuesday, August 24, 2021.
Sandburg football coach Troy McAllister shares a laugh at practice in Orland Park, Tuesday, August 24, 2021.
Kevin Tanaka/For the Sun-Times

Sandburg’s boys sports have packed a lot of trophy cases over the years.

Five different programs have combined to win 14 state titles: five in wrestling, four in volleyball, three in soccer and one each in baseball and cross country.

Former Eagle Lukas Verzbicas won multiple national titles in cross country and owns the U.S. high school record in the 2-mile.

But one sport that’s lagged behind the others is football. The Eagles last had a winning season in 2015, also the last time they qualified for the IHSA playoffs. Their most recent postseason victory came in 2010.

Now Troy McAllister aims to change that.

After a historic 11-year run at Phillips that included state titles in 2015 and 2017 — the first two in Public League history — McAllister is taking on the challenge of making Sandburg football relevant again.

His reputation has preceded him, and has created a buzz not usually associated with the Eagles.

“With a new coach coming in, especially [one] like coach McAllister, there’s obviously a lot of excitement,” junior quarterback Christian Evans said. “The past couple years for Sandburg have been rough for football. But I feel a lot of people are excited for this year, to see a change.”

Senior linebacker Luke DeVito appreciates the passion McAllister brings to his new job.

“It’s definitely a change for Sandburg to have a guy like this,” DeVito said. “In the past, we haven’t had a lot of coaches with the motivation and the caring that he brings to the program.”

McAllister knows a thing or two about reclamation projects. Twelve players showed up for his first practice at Phillips in 2010. His debut was a 48-20 loss to TEAM Englewood — “we got smacked” — the beginning of a 2-7 season that is his only losing year as a head coach.

The Wildcats made the IHSA playoffs the next year and not long after went on a six-year run that included the two state titles, a runner-up finish, a semifinal berth and two quarterfinal appearances.

Along the way, McAllister resigned in May 2014 to take the Evergreen Park job. But that didn’t work out and a couple months later he returned to Phillips for the state title runs and seven more seasons.

He doesn’t regret any part of the journey. This move follows the unexpected death in January of Mike Larson, McAllister’s longtime defensive coordinator and best friend.

“I think that spring season was good for, in particular, the senior class and our coaching staff at Phillips,” McAllister said. “It was really good to be out there ... they got a lot of healing.”

McAllister and Larson had an agreement to stick with it at Phillips and see what they could accomplish. It was more than any Public League football program in the state playoff era.

“And then, life changes,” McAllister said. “And when [Larson] passed, it just made you kind of step away and think, ‘What was the next move?’ For me, this was it.”

Like Phillips when he arrived, Sandburg poses a challenge. Besides the lack of recent success, there’s the fact that the Eagles play in what McAllister considers the best public school conference in the state: the SouthWest Suburban Blue.

Lincoln-Way East is the area’s most dominant public school program, while Bolingbrook and Homewood-Flossmoor also are perennial powers, and Lockport is a team on the rise.

But McAllister appreciates the perks this Sandburg team has that his Phillips clubs didn’t: a locker room of its own and a stadium just across the parking lot from the school, among other things. When the Eagles next host an IHSA playoff game, they won’t have to jockey for a favorable time slot at Gately Stadium like Phillips did.

“I don’t think many people, unless you’re from CPS, understand it — the little extra details you have to have mapped out because everything ... can be all over the place,” McAllister said. “So it’s nice just having some of those little things handled.”

That leaves McAllister and his staff to focus on coaching. Don’t expect him to change a winning formula.

“How we run practice and how I coach, I’m not really changing that,” McAllister said. “We’ve tried to take what’s worked at Phillips and transfer it over here. ...

“It’s gonna be a learning curve and we’re gonna have our struggles. But the plan is over the course of time, we start to build success.”

If that looks anything like McAllister’s last stop, those trophy cases at Sandburg will be a lot fuller down the road.