‘The best game in town’

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Jack Guggenmos was Aurora’s head football coach for 20 years, ending his stint here in 1998, and while he did pile up the wins and playoff appearances, what he left behind as he continued on his journey is simply immeasurable.
One simply cannot measure the positive impact he had on local youth.
His most recent honor of being inducted into the Nebraska High School Sports Hall of Fame is more than fitting, more than deserved, but he’s certainly not one boast.
“I was really humbled and honored by that,” he told me, “but the thing that I probably appreciate the most is it’s an accumulation of a career of basically 50 years in high school athletics. The thing I will cherish is the relationships I’ve formed and the kids. That’s a lot more meaningful than the hall, but I’m very appreciative of that honor.”
After a ceremony held Sept. 22 at Lincoln East High School, a Hall of Fame class by the way that featured Husker coach Scott Frost and his father Larry, Jack said he’s grateful that he can be included now with so many great people.
And he said he wanted his speech to be a little different than most, that he wanted to stress just how much he values and enjoys high school athletics.
“I never wanted to be a college coach,” he said. “I’ve always felt that high school athletics by far and away is the best game in town. There’s nothing I wanted to do or be than a coach of high school-age athletes. I kind of dwelled on that a little bit. I ended with a quote, and it summed up what I was trying to say in that speech and what my life in high school athletics is all about. It was a quote from Tony Dungy that said, ‘It’s not about the wins, it’s not about the losses. It’s not about the trophy or the wreath. It’s not about the accolades. It’s about the journey, mine and yours. It’s about the lives that we can touch. It’s about the legacy that we can leave. It’s about the world that we can change for the better.”
He told me how important winning football games was to him early in his career, but that over time and looking back, how he sensed more value in what he taught his players on the football field. And yet, it was so much more than just blocking and tackling.
“I wanted them to be able to take things from this experience to be not only successful on the football field, but later on in life.”
Jack graduated from Dorchester High School and returned to that school a short time later in 1968 as head football coach, assistant basketball coach, head boys track coach and Legion baseball coach. He then went to Arlington in 1972 and coached there for seven seasons before coming to Aurora. In 1998, Jack became Waverly’s athletic director until 2010, when he then joined another former Aurora assistant coach, Jim Jacobsen, at Norris as an assistant football coach.
He coached football for 37 years, and had a 30-year record as a head coach of 211-88-4. He won 15 conference championships, six district championships, put together 19 football playoff teams and coached in the state championship game a total of four times.
He’s been a Shrine Bowl coach and in 2014 was inducted into the National High School Athletic Coaches Association Hall of Fame.
John Farrand, the track and cross country coach for Aurora back in 1977, gave Jack a call in Arlington, telling him the position of head football coach was open and that he should apply here. Farrand then became Jack’s Aurora assistant for 11 seasons along with joining him in Arlington, Waverly and Norris. John told me one of Jack’s strengths is his capacity to develop such great personal relationships with his players and staffs.
“That resulted in a tremendous loyalty and belief in his system,” John told me. “A big part of his success was his ability to utilize the talents of the players and to develop necessary skills of many key contributors, even those who were less-gifted athletes. He was able to get young men to believe they could do whatever he asked them to do and had a special way of making each player feel important.
“He enjoyed practice as much or more than the contests themselves. Practice was where the players were developed and Coach truly enjoyed the process of developing the team. His teams were always fundamentally sound.”

‘I just loved competing’
Jack mentioned that he initially became interested in coaching high school sports because he simply missed it so much after he graduated from high school.
“I just loved competing,” Jack said. “I remember when my high school career was over I was depressed. I felt like something had died. I missed it so much and the only way I could stay in it was as a coach. I had a coach that impacted me greatly, Bill Story, and I wanted to be like him. He is a good friend of mine today.”
Jack brought his famous Maryland I offense with him to Aurora and it was more than successful. He said he wanted an offense that featured tough running plays with run-pass options along with play action passes that would give his quarterbacks the option to run. One day he came across such an offense in a coaching magazine, where it featured two tight ends and three backs, all lined up behind the quarterback.
“I thought well there’s my (running) play,” Jack remembered. “I initially was going to use it as a short yardage or goal-line play. That’s how it started. But the thing I liked so well about it is it’s ball control, clock control. We played a lot of teams when I was in Aurora that had better talent and I wanted to keep the ball away from them. And so with a 4-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust offense, I could do that.
“That’s an offense that is built on being physically tough. We’re not going to fool anybody. We’re going to line up and dominate you physically. And the neat thing was that’s the kind of kids we were able to develop. Aurora has tough kids and they had great pride. By the fourth quarter we had won the game.”
Jack gave special credit to his players for being able to run that offense, for being tough enough physically to pound away at defenses, even when defenders knew what was coming.
“I would tell our kids, ‘do you know what play they’re going to work all week on to stop?’ And they’d say the blast play. I told them we’re going to run that play the first play of the game and we’ll make four or five yards. Just think about that. When Norris came to play Aurora in the playoff my first year at Norris, Aurora beat us, and we told our kids, ‘you know what play they’re going to want to stop?’ And we ran that blast play to the left and our running back went 64 yards and scored on the first play of the game.”

Former players reflect
Former Husky Jim Wanek, a Husker offensive lineman who made honorable mention All-Big Eight in 1989 as a junior, said he admires Coach Guggenmos’ career record, his ever-evolving Xs and Os philosophies, and how he prepared his teams to compete.
“I believe more importantly was the impact he had on his players in equipping them with core values and work ethic for success off the field,” Jim said. “Football in a lot of ways is a metaphor for life. Coach Guggenmos taught me, and many, the importance of having a strong work ethic, working to the best of your abilities, the importance of team, knowing your role, how to deal with and overcome adversity, and respecting your opponents and officials. These traits that he instilled in countless young men is the true measure of his success.
“I remember arriving back at school on the bus after a win. Before we exited the bus his quote to the team was, ‘if you want to soar with the eagles you can’t be out hooting with the owls.’ And he was ahead of his time with off-season development for speed, agility and footwork.
“He had a blocking drill in practice called ‘Burma Road,’” Wanek recalled. “You’d block four or five different dummies in sequence, focusing on driving your feet, a good base and don’t let up. It was very effective but one of the harder drills we worked on.”
When I asked Jack for one or two memories of  his time in Aurora, his answer surprised me. What I thought would be a thrilling comeback win in the final seconds, or a playoff game, or a devastating loss, was rather an event that happens each September around the downtown square.
“Number one is homecoming,” he said. “I think that is so emblematic of Aurora. You’ve got that great parade, the floats, standing room only on the square, packed with people. It just goes to show what type of a community that Aurora is. I just thought that is so cool of a community to be so supportive of their young people.
“The second thing that stands out are the losses, and I say that out of the love of coaching. So often when we would get beat, to be in our locker room and to be around our kids, just to see how almost devastated they were. The harder you work at something the harder it is to get beat. Our kids would play so hard and yet we would get beat. I can remember our kids just being destroyed. And that’s a good thing. When it means that much to kids, when they’ve worked that hard, it hurts.”
He said he had such high character kids in Aurora, players who would not throw their helmets or swear when they were upset.
“I was okay with games we lost if I thought our kids gave everything they had,” he said. “How could I be disappointed in that?”
Case in point was 1995, the Huskies getting beat by a talented team from Seward in the third game of the season. Jack said his players were devastated.
“But we turned around and then we never lost another game,” he said. “In fact, the next five teams never scored. We played Seward again in the playoffs and drilled them. That loss helped us. It was good for us. We got better as the season went on.”
Another former Husky, Brian Haase (1979-1981), said when he thinks of Coach Guggenmos, he thinks of the word ‘class.’
“He was not only a great football coach but a great man,” Brian pointed out. “He treated all his players with respect and we would all run through a brick wall for him. He taught us how to compete and become better men. So many life lessons that he shared with us developed us into who we are today. Everyone was important to coach. He believed in every one of his players and we believed in him. When they talk about the word ‘culture’ today, he developed it and that is a big reason why his teams had so much success. He was and is a great teacher, leader and friend. He has the whole package. I am very proud to call him ‘coach’ and feel very privileged to play on his team.”
In parting, Jack had one more special message for the Aurora community.
“I just want to let people know how I have so much gratitude and I’m so thankful for the years in Aurora,” he added. “I want to thank them for the love and support they showed me and my family. Aurora’s a special place. I’ve seen a lot of schools and there is no place like it.”
And no one quite like you, Coach.
DAVE BRADLEY can be reached at advertising@hamilton.net.

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