The assignment was to gather information for a preview on the Normal West High School basketball team. As always, Dave Caslow was accommodating, agreeing to meet prior to a Wildcats practice.
Upon arrival at the West gym, Caslow was wrapping up his annual parents meeting. At one point, the tall man with the deep voice and closely cropped hair stood before them and said:
“You all love your sons. When you’re watching the games, you’re watching your son. There’s nothing wrong with that. Just know that I am watching all of them. I am watching all five players on the floor. I watch them all in practice every day and I watch them all in the games.”
Some things drift from the memory when you write sports for a few decades. That one has remained fresh.
Without raising his voice, Caslow’s message was loud and clear: the team was about all the players, not just your son. Decisions would be made based on what’s best for the team, not just your son.
It was a professional, no-frills approach to establishing ground rules and said a lot about who Caslow was, what he believed in. It was the first thing to come to mind Saturday upon hearing he had died suddenly at his Hudson home at age 63.
Mike Burger wasn’t at that parents meeting. He was a player in those days and a good one. A 2002 West graduate, the 6-foot-7 Burger is a parent of three now. He also leads a data and analytics consulting practice in the Chicago area.
He is a coach in some respects and occasionally channels his former coach. It happens naturally, a testament to the example and expectation set by Caslow.
“I remember film sessions. He was tough on us, but he would always explain why and what we needed to do,” said Burger, a former first-team All-Area player. “He built a sense of teamwork and not letting your team down. If you took a play off, you heard about it.
“It was a directness that I’ve used in my job now … a lot of different traits (from Caslow) are that way. He was direct, but he did it with a certain amount of humor.”
The Caslow way was to work hard, pay attention to detail, identify your strengths and maximize them. In short, know your role.
He talked about playing a role on Danville High School’s 1974 Class AA Elite Eight team. The star was all-stater Ray Watson. Caslow was among the complementary players and, as longtime friend and former colleague Tom Eder said, “He was proud to be a Viking.”
Caslow learned what it meant to fill a role, be part of a team. He passed that on to his players and, yes, their parents.
“We weren’t always the most athletic team, but we played to our strengths and he got us to play together with a certain level of patience,” Burger said. “He took a bunch of young knuckleheads and got us to work together, which is not easy to do.
“The team dinners and the friendships we built because of the culture he created, I’d still drop anything for those guys (former teammates). “
West went 24-6 in Burger’s junior year, losing in the 2001 sectional finals to Peoria Richwoods. The Wildcats won their first Big 12 Conference title the next season, ending 19-9.
It also ended Caslow’s head coaching career. He stepped away after his seventh season at West and eighth overall. He remained at the school as a biology/physical science teacher until his retirement.
Caslow was 16-10 at Normal Community in the final year before the Unit 5 split, then 100-95 at West. The numbers don’t reflect the influence he had. Guys like Mike Burger are the best indicators of that, and he’s not alone.
Eder saw it immediately upon arriving in Unit 5 in 1986 and meeting Caslow, a freshman coach at the time. Eder made him his varsity assistant at NCHS the next year and says, “For seven years, we were the head coaches of the team.”
“I really mean that. He really was a co-coach,” Eder said. “He had a rapport with the kids that was just amazing. They had total respect for him and responded to his teaching in a very special way.
“He was one of the very best teachers and coaches I ever knew in my career. I was so fortunate, absolutely blessed, to meet him when I came to Unit 5.”
Caslow took great pride in being professional in the classroom and on the court. Yet, he was proudest of his family: wife, Peggy, sons Joe, Nate and Matt, and his three grandchildren.
Joe Caslow was on the team with Burger, who said, “You couldn’t tell.”
“If anything, he was a little harder on Joe than anybody else,” Burger added. “It was very equitable. He treated everybody the same.”
He wasn’t just watching his son. He watched all the players, in practice and on game night. The team was about all of them.
They looked up to him then and especially now. They can point to the heavens and say something he never asked of them.