BLOOMINGTON — When Norm Eash served as Dwight High School’s football coach from 1982-86, his preseason Media Day was a hit for those attending.
Eash would have everything perfectly arranged. Players were ready for interviews with reporters and dressed to have their photos taken. A preseason guide with all essential information was handed out. Eash was available for a question-and-answer session to discuss his squad.
In short, it was like being at a college media gathering.
When Eash moved onward and upward in 1987 to become head coach at his alma mater, Illinois Wesleyan, he already had a plan in place and “a vision” for what type of program he wanted to run.
“Norm is maybe the most organized coach I’ve ever seen,” said IWU athletic director Dennie Bridges, who hired Eash. “He leaves nothing to chance and covers every base.”
That has translated into victories —a lot of victories — in the last 27 seasons, with a chance for a historic win Saturday.
Eash can become the winningest coach in IWU history when the Titans entertain North Park in a 1:30 p.m. homecoming contest at Tucci Stadium. He tied Don Larson last Saturday when IWU downed Millikin, 35-21, in the College Conference of Illinois and Wisconsin opener while improving to 4-0.
Win No. 169 as IWU’s coach will mean Eash, a Chenoa native, surpasses the man who served as his coach when he was an IWU lineman in the early 1970s.
To overtake Larson, who Eash said he holds in “such high esteem,” makes this a strange kind of celebration.
“For me it’s almost like I don’t want to tie him,” said Eash, his voice quivering and eyes glistening, after last Saturday’s victory. “For our players now and in the future, they deserve those wins and we want to get those wins because we have goals for the season.
“It (the record) is kind of out of sight, out of mind. It’s probably something I’ll think about more after the season and not now.”
Chris Bisaillon saw something unique when Eash recruited him out of Herscher High School in 1989.
“One of the biggest qualities Coach Eash had was he was very good on selling a vision and painting this picture in everyone’s mind that we have to buy in,” said Bisaillon. “If we buy in and we’re all pulling the same direction and all demanding of each other and have the same level of commitment he and the rest of the coaching staff has, then we can accomplish great things.”
That certainly happened for Bisaillon.
He was a two-time Division III All-American wide receiver who set the all-time NCAA record with 55 touchdown receptions when he was done in 1992, topping the mark previously held by Jerry Rice of Mississippi Valley State.
And when Bisaillon was inducted into the National Football Foundation College Hall of Fame in May 2012, Eash was there by his side.
“He is an extremely loyal person. To this day I’m still friends with him,” said Bisaillon. “I usually see him several times a year whether in Chicago or Bloomington. We talk on the phone periodically. This is 25 years later and we’re still maintaining a relationship on a friend level. I don’t think that’s something you’re doing for any other reason than loyalty and being a good person.”
The Titans have won seven CCIW championships and made four Division III playoff appearances under Eash. However, Bisaillon believes those who have played for Eash in the last 27 years learned far more than Xs and Os.
They learned how to handle the ups and downs. They learned how to be leaders. They learned what it takes to succeed beyond the field.
“The life lesson is you’re going to get out of something what you put into it,” said Bisaillon, who is cofounder of Bottleneck Management which owns six restaurants in the Chicago area and will open a seventh soon in Oak Brook. “He wanted to make sure we were always performing at a level we would be proud of and we certainly were going to require the same from our teammates.”
Eash, who turned 60 years old last month, might be considered “old school” to many.
Quarterback Rob Gallik said the Titans still use a projector to watch some game film. Eash motivates much the same way he did in 1987. His written scouting reports include what some would consider corny statements, but they try to pump up his team by building their confidence.
Yet Gallik considers it “special” to be part of Eash’s milestone victory — and he isn’t alone.
Bridges points to the fact the Titans have 32 seniors on the roster, the most in Eash’s tenure, as proof he is still doing something right.
“The players have a lot of respect for him. He’s built a strong tradition here. He’s been here a long time,” said IWU senior free safety Paul Panno. “When you think of Wesleyan football you think of Coach Eash. He always preaches the same things.”
Eash’s wife, Cheryl, surprised him a couple weeks ago. She arranged for their five grown children to be at IWU’s home opener and celebrate their father’s birthday, which occurred a couple days earlier.
It was the first time, said Eash, that his entire family was at an IWU game together in quite a while and left him touched.
The loyalty that Eash has with his own family (which also includes three grandchildren, with another on the way) is about the only one that surpasses his devotion to Illinois Wesleyan.
“Often I come back over to Shirk Center in the evening and almost every time Norm is there. During the season he’s in his office working on game plans and in the offseason he’s in his office working on recruiting,” said Bridges.
“He’s dedicated. He’s a traditionalist. He believes in Illinois Wesleyan football. He’s loyal to all the traditions of the school. He has a lot of the same traits Don Larson had in the love of the school and just work ethic.”