Q & A with former EMU football coach Tony Lombardi
The title of this post speaks for itself. I’ve not cut his responses, so this is a long post, but I think you’ll find it worth a read!
Q. What are some of your recollections from your time as a professional football player with the Bears and the Montreal Concordes?
As is usually the case with coaches, those who can….play, and those who can’t….coach. I was thrilled to be a free agent with the Chicago Bears and spent from March until I got cut in Lake Forest working as hard as I knew how to make the team. It was a difficult year as we were going to a new CBA which cut the rosters from 49 to 45, plus (which, of course, I didn’t know at the time) the 1985 Bears were a pretty good football team. I felt I had a good training camp as a Fullback behind Matt Suey and Calvin Thomas, but I knew if I had any chance to make the team I’d have to make an impression as a special teams player and I did have an opportunity to do that. Sadly for me, I just wasn’t good enough to make the final cut, but I did name our third child (a daughter) Payton for obvious reasons. When I got cut I called all over the CFL looking for a team and Montreal told me that they were looking for a running back and that they would get back to me. The season was well under way and so I thought why wait for a call, I was in Chicago already so I threw some things in my car and drove to Montreal. I went to the Olympic Stadium knocked on the office door and they graciously gave me some shorts and a helmet, took me out to the turf and threw me the football, clocked me in a 40 and signed me to a 21 day trial contract. Not much exciting to tell, but I finished that season with the Concordes and figured next year I might not be so lucky with the limited number of “imports” they allow in that league.
Q. If I could guess at the timing, at the time you decided to go to UW-Madison for your MS, the football team had posted winning seasons in four of the last five years, including the school’s first post-season win ever. After Dave McClain’s unfortunate death, the program struggled under Jim Hilles and then Don Morton during the time you were there. What did you see there — good or bad — that’s influenced your coaching since?
You are exactly right. Good research. I went to Madison with some advise from Bo Schembechler, who has always been one of my hero’s and I stopped into the Michigan football offices on my way home from Montreal to ask coach how to go about getting into the coaching business. My last two recruiting choices were Michigan and Arizona State and Bo gave all young people the impression that you were important, so unbelievably, based on a relationship that had started five years earlier and only went the length of the recruiting process, I thought he’d welcome me and at least be willing to offer me some advice. In retrospect I must have been nuts, but he was extremely helpful and along with my father got my foot in the door at Wisconsin with coach McClain. When coach died we stayed on as an interim staff in 1986. I was a graduate assistant coach learning the ropes and coaching the Defensive backs with a great guy name Steve Carson who is still out there coaching. Coach Hilles was a great guy and a good coach, it was just an impossible situation, the entire program was in mourning.
They replaced Jim with Don Morton who brought in the Veer offense from Tulsa and North Dakota State, we were not very good during those years but I had a chance to work with Lovie Smith (HFC Chicago Bears), Craig Bohl (HFC North Dakota State), John Steigelmeier (HFC South Dakota State) Geep Chryst (San Francisco 49ers) just to name a few, what a great experience and I learned a ton.
Q. What was it like in your early years of coaching, going from playing offense to coaching defense?
My dad taught me a long time ago if you wanted to be good at this craft you had to have a deep understanding of both sides of the football, so learn defense. He was right, I spent around 15 years of my career coaching defensive backs, linebackers and coordinating defenses. It doesn’t take one very long to learn that one never completely understands this game and we are always learning. I had two great experiences in coaching one was at Mankato where our head coach Dan Runkle always believed in me and helped me through a lot of growing pains as a young assistant. I remember my first game where I was actually making defensive decisions was against UNI in 1989 at the dome, they were nationally ranked and we played GREAT!!! Beating them in a close game that was largely due to the great play of our defense. We caused several turnovers, had a pick six and greatly impacted the outcome of the game with a well devised defensive game plan. I was sure that I had arrived….the next weekend we went to a place I’d never heard of Grand Valley State in Michigan. To make a long story short I believe they scored 50 or pretty close, and I knew that I wasn’t even sure how to fix it. Right then I knew that coaching would require continuous learning on my part.
The second experience was when coach Rasnick named me the Defensive Coordinator and told me that he wanted to play an odd front and how would I like to go about learning that. We put together a trip to university of North Dakota (Division II), UNI (Division IAA) and the Air Force Academy (Division I) we had identified those as the top odd front defenses at their particular levels. Kerry Locklin (Fresno State, NY Jets, KS), Chuck Martin (Notre Dame), Matt Pawlowski and I had the great experience of melding all of those concepts into a great package that matched the old 50 angle/slant defenses with the current Pittsburgh Steelers “fire zone” concepts that returned our defense at EMU to a place where we were able to beat two nationally ranked Toledo teams in successive years 10 – 7 and another low scoring game with a defensive score setting up the victory. If you note the names on the defensive staff I was very fortunate to work with GREAT people.
Q. You stayed at Mankato State for the better part of a decade. What was it that kept you there so long?
First of all that was a great job, Dan Runkle was a great mentor and the North Central Conference in those days was a hotbed for learning our craft. NDSU, UND, Northern Colorado, UNO, the list goes on and on. Barney Cotton who is currently at Nebraska and has been a D-I offensive coordinator was at St. Cloud and the list just keeps going. I didn’t have many opportunities for advancement, because I probably didn’t have a very good understanding of what a “good assistant” coach does. Our defenses were among the best in the country year in and year out, the kids I was recruiting turned into our All Americans, so in my mind I was a good and productive assistant, but I was so busy trying to get my next job that I probably made some extra work for coach Runkle. Coaching is a funny business, I played at ASU (four year letterman) coached at the University of Wisconsin for three so my playing/coaching experience included 8 plus years at the Division I and professional levels, but if I applied for a job they didn’t want a “Division II” guy.
I later met my wife of 16 years at MSU she was an All American Volleyball player from Lakeville MN. She had a great coaching record at Brighton when we were there, I’m sure it hasn’t been equaled since. Once I met her, I realized that Mankato was a great place and that I was excited to be there and do a good job as an assistant for coach Runkle, so I’m sure I relaxed a little bit around the office. Right about that time I got a call from a friend of mine Todd Monken who informed me that there was an opening at EMU for a linebacker coach, so I pulled off the road in Janesville Wisconsin (where I was recruiting) and called coach Rasnick.
Q. Looking over the records, in your first four years at Mankato State, the defenses allowed an average of fewer than 17 points per game. What were you doing defensively, in terms of game preparation, formations, schemes, and personnel, to have that kind of defensive success?
We had great players, and we were an attacking style defense. We ran a 4 – 2 nickel defense long before it was fashionable and we have always been willing to adjust our scheme to match our personnel. I remember finishing up at the top of the nation in 1991 and coming back the next year after a trip to the university of Arizona who was running the “desert swarm” flex defense and Mankato, Portland State and University of Arizona with Teddy Bruschi were the only teams in the country running that defense. I believe we led the nation in rush defense the next year with a completely different scheme. We had two “hammer” safeties in ’91 both of whom were first team All Americans (one of whom we got from my dads school in Chicago) but they were graduating so we went to a single safety defense and changed the front. We had a number of great players back then and it was a great place to learn my craft.
We were also lucky enough to use our connections in the Chicago area to recruit some great offensive help as well, Tywan Mitchell played in the NFL, Jamie Pass was an Arena Player, Stephen Henely was an All American LB and there were many more, I loved recruiting Chicago, they always take care of their own people in that town.
Q. What are some things you picked up from Dan Runkle that you’ve carried with you?
Dan Runkle taught me how to be a “Head Coach” he was patient, supportive, let us coach and recruit but stepped in and helped us if we needed it. I made more mistakes than I care to remember working for that man, but he always believed in what we were doing and found a way to help me learn from my mistakes without making me feel, disrespected or unsupported. He is now the Athletic Director at Dubuque University and anyone would be lucky to work for him.
Q. What were the first impressions of Eastern Michigan and Ypsilanti that you recall?
I vividly remember thinking that we could get it done there, I knew coach Harkema and had some conversations with him and was immediately impressed with Coach Rasnick’s staff. The offensive staff was very good with Dan Henson (Drews Dad), Todd Monken (Jaguars), David Hoover (Head Football Coach Victor Valley CC) and Keith Gilmore (Illinois), Defensively we had Kerry Locklin, Sam Gruneisen, Willie Martinez (Oklahoma) and myself as the LB coach. Rick Rasnick was a Great guy to work for, we were definitely swimming upstream from a budget, facility, salary standpoint but we were all tireless workers and seemed to have a great rapport with our players.
I remember thinking that we had someone in every college who was willing to step up and help on recruiting weekends by availing themselves to our recruits and we hoped that they would come in line with the facilities as the plan was in place to build the new basketball arena next to Rynearson…we felt the future looked bright.
Q. In 1998, the EMU defense allowed 28 points per game, and they’ve only done better twice since then. Can you offer any insight into why EMU — particularly the defense — has struggled so much in the past decade-and-a-half?
Willie left and the group of defensive coaches mentioned up above, who traveled to other places and worked very hard to put in an innovative aggressive scheme that we felt would give us a chance to create some turnovers and keep people out of the end zone. I was thrilled that Raz charged me, Chuck, Kerry and John and Matt with the chore of returning our defense to a respectable level. I may be slightly off but if memory serves me correctly we started 8 players in the fall who were new or hadn’t participated in spring football including some true freshman, redshirt freshman and junior college transfers.
Blake McCall was a great addition along with Lincoln Dupree to solidify our secondary. The offensive staff also did a great job of managing field position and minimizing turnovers, general game management goodies that always help a defense be successful. I remember a couple of guys like Kenny Philpot, James Turner, Scott Russell added to our JUCO guys mentioned above. We had good players who bought into playing fast and hard, it was a lot of fun.
Q. EMU’s 1991 mascot change from the Hurons to the Eagles is still a sore point for many alumni, and must surely have been a hotter issue when you were here. Do you have any particular recollections about that?
I do remember that there was still some ill feelings about that and you’d have to wink at some of the boosters while you were using the term Eagles.
Q. I would guess that the period of Rick Rasnick’s firing and you becoming EMU’s interim head coach was difficult. Your boss had just been fired, and you didn’t know how long you’d have your job, but it also presented an opportunity for you to advance your career. Can you share with us a little of what you were feeling at that point?
It really was just another opportunity to learn about people. Coach Rasnick waved me over one dusky afternoon as we were heading off the practice field. Coach Rasnick had just been fired and informed me that they wanted to talk with me about the interim position and I really didn’t want the position, but he thought of me and my very young family and reminded me that it was the right thing to do for them and that he completely understood and reminded me that I had to accept what Mr Diles was asking of me. I will never forget what a thoughtful and caring thing that Rick did under the most adverse conditions imaginable. I am continually humbled by the people I’ve had a chance to work with.
The first question I asked Dave Diles that night was “am I a candidate for the Head Coaching Position?” and he replied “no”. I appreciated his honesty but it put me in a tough spot with the rest of the staff. The pressure was unbelievable for everyone, we had families with December 31st contracts, Harold Goodwin (Pittsburgh Steelers) my own father, Todd Monken, Chuck Martin all had wives and young families…I didn’t ask for that situation and wasn’t even interviewed for the job, yet the stress level between the staff was palpable, as we all had to fulfill our different responsibilities, I had a June contract and stayed on to help with recruiting, and the transition to a new staff. This obviously affected how (my family and me) were viewed by the other members of the staff, with the exception of my father, thankfully. It greatly impacted the rest of my personal coaching career, they were all great guys and together we got prepared for the NIU game, a game we could have won without a controversial call that eliminated a successful “surprise” onside kick late in the game.
The staff did a great job holding the program together all the way though the banquet, which we had to administer, since hiring coach Woodruff took quite a long time. We tried to keep the lines of communication open with our recruits and keep our current players at EMU and active in the off-season workouts. It was several weeks before a new staff was in place and I truly felt a commitment to the program and all of its players that kept me coming in during those times, yet I will never forget the stress levels of all of the families involved and I wouldn’t wish that on anyone let alone 9 people and their families, who I d worked side by side with for the previous three years.
Q. How would you compare Jeff Woodruff and Rick Rasnick as head coaches, both to each other as well as to the other coaches you’ve worked with?
Coach Rasnick came from the West Coast School of Jack Elway and San Jose State, he expected us to do a great job and wanted us to hold ourselves and our players accountable and we had a great deal of respect for every part of the program.
Coach Woodruff had a “Great Template” for success that he’d incorporated from being part of the great Don James staffs at Washington, I only had one fall with coach Woodruff but he was so kind to me and my family asking me to stay on after the transition. He moved me away from the defensive side of the ball, which was the exact right thing to do. I coached the running backs and served as the special teams and recruiting coordinators. I had a ball working with him. I like Pete Alamar (Fresno State) and Cary Conklin who were our offensive coaches and I really enjoyed Jeff.
Q. What prompted your move from Homewood-Flossmoor to Hinsdale Central after just one year?
That’s a long story but the truth be told I was just “looking” at the Hinsdale Central job as it was a significant pay raise and I had NO understanding of being in the high school coaching business, college coaches look all the time and no one thinks two things about it.
I had the best high school football team I’ve ever had a chance to coach, coming back at H.F. and it was very late in the year (May). I believe so strongly in our off-season training program that I knew it wasn’t the right time to make a move. HF didn’t appreciate the fact that I’d interviewed at HC and let me know that maybe Hinsdale would be a better long-term option for me, the irony was that Homewood-Flossmoor (of course) had a great year with a bunch of great kids and as luck would have it, they met Hinsdale Central in the second round of the playoffs. Thankfully we came out with a win, it was a great effort on the part of the Red Devils, we were definitely outmatched physically but we played our hearts out and came away with a big win.
Q. I’ll certainly understand if you don’t want to or legally can’t discuss it, but I’m curious about the circumstances of your firing from Hinsdale Central? What reason(s) were you given, and what do you think was/were the real reason(s)?
Honestly, I’ll never understand what happened. In Illinois you have to be evaluated 8 times a year for your first four years of teaching. I was at Hinsdale for 3 years and had 24 positive evaluations by our department chair. I coached three seasons going to the quarters twice and the semi’s once in my last year. I was called in and asked to resign. I asked why and they said I just wasn’t a “good fit”.
My family (wife and five children), lived in the community and had established ourselves in youth organizations, camps etc and we loved being “Red Devils” and didn’t want to leave. I was also nervous that it would look suspicious if a successful Head Coach resigned who had coached three years in one of the highest paying high school jobs in Illinois. I had won a ton of games and had 24 positive teacher evaluations, which are all a matter of the public record. We thought people would imagine something horrible if I just stepped down, not to mention, I’m supposed to be a leader in the community and I couldn’t desert my football family without at least fighting to stay. What would I have taught all of those young men who looked to me to model leadership and a belief system? I’ve always considered that a very real responsibility of a head high school coach and I take that role very seriously.
What happened then, was a huge ground swell of community support, including a massive signed petition, hundreds of community members spoke at multiple school board meetings in support of me staying at Hinsdale, but sadly, as is often the case, the school board supported the AD and the principal even though the President of the School Board voted to retain me. One year later the AD was fired and the Principal took early retirement.
Q. You’ve coached in at least three different levels of football (high school, college, and professional). Obviously they are very different, but what have you learned from each level that could be applied to the other levels also?
What I’ve learned are a couple of things, first my experience in the XFL with professional athletes and coaches, was by far the most fun I’d ever had in coaching. The players were great, I coached Cory Ivy who played many years in the NFL and a couple of guys who went on to play in the CFL plus Kerry Cooks who’s now the DB coach at Notre Dame. We had a great run landing in the playoffs and I worked with some great people including Ron Meyer who was outstanding.
I also learned some things about myself as a husband, father and coach. I now know why I became a coach. I thought it was so I could be the next head Coach at Michigan and lead my team to several Rose Bowls and become famous. That really wasn’t it, I coached because my Dad was a coach and he was the most influential person in my life and the lives of hundreds of other young men who think of him as perhaps the only father figure that they’ll ever have.
I am now the father of five beautiful children and a great wife. I was always the proudest kid in town because my Dad was the Head High School football coach, could anything be cooler? It suddenly dawned on me that I became a coach to make a difference in the lives of the kids I coached and in the lives of my own children and I wasn’t doing a very good job with that outside of the “football arena”. My goals changed and my sense of accomplishment and professional values started to come from a different source.
My will to win or more importantly teach young men the values and the process necessary in order to win, hasn’t changed. I enjoy sleeping in my own bed every night and traveling with my son’s to National Wrestling tournaments, traveling baseball leagues and the new-found traveling football tournaments. I virtually never miss anything that they do and I see most of my wife’s volleyball games as she was named coach of the year in Iowa twice. I couldn’t be more fortunate
Q. Is there anything else you’d like to share with EMU fans?
I think about EMU often, my two sons Rocky and Beau were born there and we still follow the scores every weekend. There were so many supportive faculty members that I remember fondly, who put in a great deal of time helping with the recruiting process and helping to lobby to improve facilities and budgets and promote our athletes and coaches. We wish the Eagles well and remind everyone that since I have left in 2001 there have been multiple teams in the MAC who have risen from the bottom to the top, it can be done.
I now work for the greatest principal in the world at Washington HS; and we are making a difference in the lives of our student’s 42 percent of which are free and reduced lunch kids. We have been rated as a top school by US News and World report two of the last three years; so my family and I are truly blessed.
Good Luck Eagles!