NORMAL — Darren Hess will miss the exhilarating feeling of victory. Any competitor is drawn to that. Yet, numbers on the scoreboard are not what Hess will miss most about being head football coach at Normal West High School.
The school announced Thursday in a news release that Hess has resigned after 15 seasons.
“It’s more about relationships,” Hess said. “Those are what make it worth it. The end result is when you get invited to weddings or you walk out on the sideline and see former players coming back.
“With the current players it’s building confidence and teaching them right and wrong and how to work for something and setting goals. Those are things that make it special for me as a coach. I’ll miss that.”
Hess had a 96-56 record in his tenure. The Wildcats made the playoffs 12 times and won two Big 12 Conference championships. West shared the title in 2004 and won it outright in 2011.
The Wildcats were 8-3 this past season, tying for second in the Big 12 at 6-2. They advanced to the second round of the Class 6A playoffs.
"I have enjoyed the 15 seasons I had leading the program and working with countless players and parents," Hess said. "I am very proud of the culture that has developed here at West, which emphasizes more than wins and losses. Over the years we developed great young men of faith, high character and a brotherhood that will last longer than all the great games we have played."
Hess said the decision to resign was “not easy” and came after “much reflection.”
"I think it is best for me at this time,” he said. “I look forward to spending more time with my family and enjoying my son's last three years of football at West. I also want to continue my professional growth in graduate school and possibly administration."
West principal Dave Johnson said Hess "cares deeply for his players past and present. His players not only learn the game of football, but also develop character, leadership and a sense of family."
Alex Jefferson was a star quarterback under Hess in 2011 and 2012. He went on to play four years of baseball at Missouri State and is in graduate school there.
He called Hess “a great leader.”
“He was always there for you. Every day at practice he was upbeat,” Jefferson said. “He really cared about his players outside of the sport and that made us play even harder, knowing you had someone who cared where you were going after you were done playing for Normal West.
“He treated everybody exactly the same. Maybe someone who didn’t play as much, he showed them the same love and built those same relationships. When you’re at Normal West you’re worried about playing and about winning. When you look back, the relationships are what it was all about. He understood that well and tried to display that to us.”
Tri-Valley head coach Josh Roop was the offensive coordinator the first four years of Hess' tenure. The two also were assistant coaches together at LeRoy and Normal Community.
"When I think of Darren, the thing I think of most is Darren has an unbelievable ability to see good in everybody ... his compassion," Roop said. "When we got to West we had all levels of the economic scale. I remember Darren having parents get sack lunches and pass them out to kids because we knew they were the only meals they were going to get when they left.
"I remember going to pick up kids to make sure they got to practice. It was his ability to see good and to value every kid ... make them feel valued and a part of something."
Hess, a Central Catholic High School graduate, was suspended early in the 2014 season by the Illinois High School Association for a violation of IHSA recruiting bylaws. He sat out the final eight games of that season and resumed his head coaching duties the following year.
He will remain at West as a social studies teacher.
"The high expectations Darren and his staff set for the players in the classroom, as well as on and off the field, have an impact on these young men beyond football," said athletic director Stan Lewis.
West plans to post the opening for a new head coach in January. The release said the interview process will include players, parents and other West coaches, and that “candidates will be evaluated against the school’s high standards to ensure the strong Wildcat tradition will continue.”
“Change is difficult, but through this change we hope to build on the strong foundation Coach Hess has established,” the release stated. “He is not leaving West and will still be able to be a positive role model to our students in his classroom as he has been in the past.”
Hess said he is willing to help with the transition to a new coach. He is hopeful members of his current staff will be considered.
“They definitely deserve it,” Hess said. “As far as the transition goes, that would make it smoother.
“From my perspective, I just really enjoyed the opportunity I’ve had here. I just want to let the former players and families know how much I appreciate them. I’m excited about the next step. Time will tell what that is. It’s one of those things where I wouldn’t rule coaching out of the possibilities in the future.”
Hess praised his assistant coaches for the “long and often thankless hours” they put in and how they “put kids first.”
“I also want to especially thank my wife Pam and my family (Kylee and Levi) for allowing me to pursue my passion of impacting young men on the football field,” he said. “Being a coach demands long hours, hard work and focus on a multitude of tasks and details.
"I appreciate her going through the highs and lows with me and living out each play, game and season over the past 15 years.”