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High School Football Coaches: Developing Players, Coaching Character

By Mike Lemons, 07/09/22, 7:00AM CDT


A collective interview with local high school football coaches on how they focus on strengthening the mind, body, and character of our youth through football.

What do you learn when you meet with six (competing) high school varsity football coaches? You learn that they are more similar than you might think.

To be sure, they differ in the techniques, methodologies, and play-calling they deploy to win football games at an elite level. What they do have in common is that they each care deeply about their players development in football and in life with character development.

As football continues a resurgence in popularity at the high school and youth levels, we wanted to learn more about what makes these programs so popular. Less about the X’s and O’s and wins and losses – and more about the heart of these teams.

Over the course of several weeks, we met with head coaches at six local high schools where most Naperville Saints players play at the high school level. These coaches compete at the highest level in the largest schools in the state, so we asked them about the state of football today including their core principles, player safety and youth character development. Read below to see how these guys are doing it right. (Coaches listed in alphabetical order):

Tom Baumgartner, Head Coach, Waubonsie Valley High School

Coach Baumgartner has been at the helm of the Waubonsie Valley High School Warriors football program since 2020, with, 15 years as assistant coach prior. He instills in his players one term: Being Invested. This is the Waubonsie way of kids being at practice, before most of their friends are awake, holding each other accountable. Embodying the Gold Standard of the same color in their uniforms. They are invested in each other, their own progress and their team’s success. They break practice with an exclamation of “Tribe. Family.” “Tribe” speaks to the idea of a team and each person having a role to ensure our success. “Family” reiterates that we are one family even though throughout practice the players play hard against each other – so we promote a highly competitive environment while staying grounded as a team.

Coach Baumgartner recognizes that kids are different these days. They come into the program from different situations, so he seeks to balance where the kids are and what they have going on in their lives. Instead of fitting kids into a mold he works with them as they balance additional commitments of work and other sports – especially since more Waubonsie football players play multiple sports. Multiple commitments outside football have translated into the coaching staff being flexible, knowing that they may have to cede some kids’ practice time for other sports.

On the subject of expectations, as Coach Baumgartner states, “We don’t have rules, we have expectations” – to always give maximum effort, to be mindful of where they are. Kids’ minds are busier than ever, so he stressed mindfulness to his players – “Be where your feet are.”  And no matter the players’ ability, size, skill, or speed, he reminds his players of one powerful life lesson: “You can always control your effort.”

Sean Drendel, Head Coach, Naperville North High School

Coach Drendel has been the head coach at Naperville North since 2010. The North battle cry is “Built Differently,” which is apparent in the effort of his players and his approach to coaching. Drendel stresses to his players the “two’s" : Attitude and Effort. Elite talent and skill are one thing, but with the right attitude and full effort kids see that the sky is the limit.

Respect is another hallmark of the North program. One way they show respect is when football players fist bump and wear other North sports teams gear at school. So, you will see a football player wearing a North soccer shirt, Family is at the core of North football and extends across sports. Respect off the field is also important as players are taught life lessons, including knocking on the door when picking-up their homecoming date, asking the father for permission.               

Kids also learn how to self-assess their strengths and weaknesses as they are tasked with developing a SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats) matrix. Looking inwardly, they ask themselves what they do well and where they need to improve. Once the areas have been identified, Drendel and the coaching staff work with the players to shore-up any weaknesses. In a post-football work setting this ability and desire to self-assess is crucial to personal growth.

The focus on effort is also seen in situations when players ask to be a starter on the team. Drendel meets them with one simple question: “Did you play hard enough to be a starter?” Drendel beams with pride when describing how his players are at summer practices, getting up early and putting in the work. That even the most mediocre football players are putting in more effort than most, by stepping onto the field and doing the work. Establishing this work ethic early on is key to player and character development.

As with other coaches, Coach Drendel stresses player safety. Drendel wants players to come back and keep playing football. If that means blowing the whistle to stop the play before the player hits the ground, when injuries are more likely to occur, he’ll do it.

Bill Ellinghaus, Head Coach, Neuqua Valley High School

Coach Ellinghaus has been the head coach for Neuqua Valley High School Wildcats since 2012. He and his staff instill the “Neuqua Way” into their players. Ellinghaus describes it as a sense of belonging, their players being part of something bigger than themselves. Kids have come in from various middle schools as they start their freshman year. But when kids take the summer camp before entering their freshman year, they already have sixty-five kids they know. This helps kids entering the often-daunting world of high school life feel more comfortable and part of a bigger family.

The sense of family carries through when he hires coaching coaches. While he certainly looks for the experience level commensurate with the role needed, he places a higher priority on getting coaches who will treat their players right and be consistent with coaching character. Ellinghaus looks at the prospective coach as a person first, the person they are and how they treat kids. In his words, “you either have that or you don’t. I can coach the football, but I can’t coach being a good person.”

Another core tenant is trust, highlighting the US in “trust.” Bill loves when former players come back to practice to say hello, check in, reaching out to him well after they’ve left the program. After all, Ellinghaus describes football as a “relationship-building profession” which translates to players’ professional life after football. When a relationship based on mutual respect is built, coaches don’t have to shout orders at kids, they naturally want to do the right thing for the team.

As any football team experiences during a season, some practice days are better than others. When they don’t have a good practice Ellinghaus and his staff fall back on their mantra, “every day, get one day better.”  Incremental improvement is the key to helping kids make manageable change. If players don’t improve incrementally every day, they can get passed-up. And no Wildcat wants that.

Pat New, Head Coach, Benet Academy

Coach New has been the head coach of Benet football since 2011. A St. Raphael Football alum, he started playing football in the first grade. Over the decades he’s seen many changes in the game, but one thing has remained constant: Life lessons learned through football.

Lessons are learned on the field, and off which are life lessons. As he states, kids often learn as much on the football field as in the classroom. “After all, when you’re in the battle on the field, struggling, then coming back from a loss, it’s just such a great life lesson.” Then when they are in the workforce and find that twenty people are applying for the same job, only one gets it. So, you learn early on that you must work hard and make the most of your opportunities since you may not get a re-take.

Coach New sees his players working hard on the field and in the weight room and the bonding experience that creates among them. This is what makes football unique for kids – they’re working together and they’re having FUN. The camaraderie he sees in football is simply unmatched compared to other sports. “Football is just different.”  Which drives to a key principle of Coach New’s program: To keep kids coming back.

John Parpet, Head Coach, Metea Valley High School

Coach Parpet has been at the helm of Metea Valley football since 2019. In addition to preparing his players physically, he focuses on building his players mental strength. He stresses that players establish a “database” of knowledge and reactions. He gives kids confidence in familiarity and repetition by emphasizing “slow” and “fast” responses. Slow responses are built by players walking the routes before the action starts so their “fast response” of live action response is an execution of what they learned in the slow response. He states, “we can’t coach the instinct, but we can coach the reaction.”

Another aspect of his coaching focuses on breaking-down complex plays into individual parts or techniques. He stresses how his staff must “isolate the teaching” to only footwork, or where the hands are, and other details to avoid overloading the players’ thought processes.

Building lifelong friendships off the field is also stressed, with Thursday night player activities like movie nights, his players bowling with the Metea bowling team, video game nights and more. Coach Parpet recognizes that while he can’t control who walks into the program to play football, “I can control how they walk out” and set themselves up for success post-football.

As with the other coaches, player respect is a common theme and underscores how he teaches Metea players. Parpet and his coaching staff recognize the kids who play both offense and defense as “Spartans.” Parpet rewards the “Five Guys” (lineman) with Five Guys meals as rewards, teaches kids how to make eye contact when shaking hands and ends each practice with a common refrain, “We’re proud of you, we love you, and we want you to come back tomorrow.” And similarly, Parpet echoes a similar sentiment as the other coaches in this article: Effort is a Choice.

Mike Ulreich, Head Coach, Naperville Central High School

A proud North Central College football alum, Coach Ulreich has been a Naperville Central coach since 2006, assuming the head coaching job in 2019.

Football is a fast-moving, complex sport with many techniques and nuances in each play. Ulreich and his staff stress mitigate some of the complexity with easy-to-understand mantras like “near foot, near shoulder” which describes how players should attack. Fast footwork is also stressed with the defensive coordinators saying, “dead feed don’t eat.” Ulreich stresses that executing sound fundamentals is what wins games.

As with the other high school football programs, a focus on player safety is paramount. Players are coached to make contact with their “hips in the ground, eyes up” which is a far cry from heads-down hitting coached in the past. Full-pads/full-contact practices are limited to once per week with many hours spent off the field, learning the game. Watching practice footage of drills and plays filmed in a never-ending pursuit of improvement. Conditioning is another cornerstone of the Central program, with players coming into the season leaner and in shape to play fast football.

Ulreich stresses getting player families involved to help keep the kids grounded. Off-field events like mother-son brunches and days with dads and very popular as they celebrate the family aspect of football.

As Ulreich states, “The benefits of football have nothing to do with football.” A key aspect of character development is based in friendships on and off the field. Ulreich stresses the success of a man, which is not limited to football: How many significant, positive relationships a player has in their lives. After all, when the Friday Night Lights turn off and the kids are navigating life, these relationships are crucial for continued growth.

Player Safety & Experience

In addition to skill and character development, these coaches take safety very seriously and act accordingly. The coaches cite several areas where player safety has drastically improved over how many of use experienced football 20+ years ago, including:

  • Players are taught to keep their head up at impact, to not extend past the opponents’ body with their neck exposed.
  • Today, shoulders and legs lead the point of attack – not the helmet as in years past.
  • Since the ground can cause injuries, plays are often called dead before the player hits the ground.
  • Full contact practices are typically limited to one day per week.
  • Helmet technology has drastically improved, with newer materials, impact absorption technologies and more.

Related to safety is player experience, coaches echoed the same sentiment: kids entering high school who played (tackle) football have an advantage. The transition to high school football is accelerated for experienced kids who know how to move with pads on, how to hit and take a hit more safely. They know the play complexities as well. As the saying goes, there is no substitute for experience.


Mike Lemons, Board Member, Naperville Saints

As you can see, these coaches get it. They do it the right way, for the right reasons as they work tirelessly to improve their football teams – and their players’ character. Special thank you to coaches Baumgartner, Drendel, Ellinghaus, Parpet, New and Ulreich for their time and contributions to this article. Local high school support is a cornerstone of our community and the flagship sporting event here in town, and we look forward to some great football this fall!

-Mike Lemons