NORMAL — Football players reverse their field all the time. Monday, Unit 5 did the same in regard to Normal West High School head football coach Darren Hess.
Five days after Hess was told if he did not resign he would be fired, the 12th-year head coach was reinstated late Monday afternoon by Unit 5. Hess had been serving an Illinois High School Association suspension for a recruiting violation. The suspension ended Monday.
“After discussions with Coach Hess today, Unit 5 has the confidence that he will take this experience and grow from it,” Superintendent Mark Daniel said in a release.
The release also stated administrators will work with Hess to “put processes in place to help the football program move forward.”
“Unit 5 has high standards for its coaches and takes the rules and regulations of the IHSA very seriously,” Daniel said. “Based on our discussions with Coach Hess, we are confident this will not happen again and we believe he can lead the program with continued success.”
Hess had been told in a meeting at the school on Wednesday that he would have to resign or be fired. News of that triggered public reaction in support of Hess from players (current and former), parents and community members.
Hess said he appreciated the support and added, “This situation has allowed me to open my eyes to some opportunities to make our program even stronger. I would like to thank the Unit 5 and Normal West administration for having the faith in me to continue to lead this team.”
Normal West suspended Hess from its Sept. 19 game at Grayslake North and the homecoming game against Danville the following week for “violating an administrative directive.” Meanwhile, the IHSA conducted an investigation into a self-reported possible violation of recruiting by-laws.
On Oct. 3, the IHSA suspended Hess until Dec. 1 after IHSA executive director Marty Hickman ruled Hess had “improper contact” in the summer with the family of Arion Worthman while Worthman was still enrolled at University High.
Worthman, a senior quarterback, transferred to West later in the summer and played this season for the 8-3 Wildcats, who lost in the second round of the Class 6A playoffs at East St. Louis. The IHSA investigation centered on a letter Hess sent to the Worthman family.
Hess admitted he made a mistake and did not appeal the suspension.
“I never want to be the story. My players are and should always be the story,” Hess said Monday. “I truly regret that my actions brought this situation onto the Normal West football team.
“My biggest concern is for the difficulties this has caused our players and families. I want to apologize to them and hope we can all come together and move forward for the betterment of our program.”
Assistant coach Duane Thoennes served as interim head coach while Hess was suspended. Hess has a 71-43 record at West, including eight playoff berths.
Earlier Monday, former Wildcats’ star Cody White, an offensive lineman with the National Football League’s Houston Texans, praised Hess for his impact on players.
“I know what Coach Hess has done for tons of guys and for myself,” said White, who is on injured reserve in his third season with the Texans. “It didn’t matter who you were, where you came from. He treated everybody with the same respect and gave everyone the same amount of attention.
“Coach Hess did a heck of a job of preparing boys turning into men and helping us to understand what it’s going to be like. He helped guys be as successful as they could be. There have been a ton of guys he’s helped out and sent them on the right path.”
Jim Gallagher, president of the Gridiron Club — the football program’s booster club — said he was “very pleased” with the reversal.
“I think they made the right decision and I think it’s good for the school and the community,” said Gallagher, who has had two sons play for Hess. “I’m very excited about the continued success in the future for the program.
“I’m also personally very happy for Darren. He’s a good man and he deserves a good result.”
Gridiron Club treasurer Jeff Lord echoed that sentiment earlier Monday, saying, “I’ve been around athletics all my life. Darren is about as good as they come.”