Mick Peterson was painting the yard lines Thursday morning at muggy Williamson Field, home of Pontiac High School football. The day after his 54th birthday, Peterson was performing a task you won’t find in his job description as Pontiac’s head coach.
Yet, this is July, and for Peterson, that means painting the lines, as surely as there are fireworks on the Fourth.
Peterson is adamant about sticking to his time-tested regimen, determined to approach and coach this season the way he has every other. That it will be his last “doesn’t even enter my mind,” he says.
Well, maybe a little.
“This is the last time I’ll be painting those stinking lines,” he said.
Peterson decided in May to make this his final season, ending a successful, entertaining and, at times, controversial tenure at Pontiac.
When he arrived in 1989, the Indians had won four games in the previous five years, including two winless seasons. They went 7-3 in Peterson’s first year, making the playoffs for the first time.
It was the start of a 130-44 run highlighted by the 1993 Class 3A state championship and nine Corn Belt Conference titles. Now, the finish line has been established, but Peterson will remind you neither he, nor his team, is there yet.
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Or even close.
“The decision (to step down) was made and announced and now it’s back to work as usual,” Peterson said. “I don’t know what I’m going to be like when it’s over. All I know is everything we do this last time around, we’re going to go after it as hard as we can.
“We’ve probably had the best summer so far that we’ve ever had. I don’t know if there is any correlation between the two. But the kids have been very responsible for the most part.”
As always, Peterson has created a slogan for the upcoming season. The rallying cry is simply, “It’s time.”
The words have double meaning, a product of Peterson’s classroom expertise.
“When you’re an English teacher, you do things like that,” he said.
“In my opinion, it’s time for me to go, and it’s also time for Pontiac to get back to where we used to be,” Peterson said. “The people of this community deserve a great product.”
The Indians have gone 6-4, 8-3 and 7-3 since the 12-2 season of 2002, which ended with a runner-up finish in the Class 5A state playoffs.
That run and entire season came without Peterson, who was serving a one-year suspension from the Illinois High School Association for alleged recruiting violations. Dave Young, his longtime defensive coordinator, served as interim head coach.
The ordeal humbled the fiery and confident Peterson, draining him physically and emotionally. Four years later, he is committed to giving this final season his all.
“People are dealt crosses to bear, and that was mine,” Peterson said. “That energy I once had, I just don’t know if it’s there. But I know I can do it one more time.
“Everybody has been very supportive. Some people have said, You’re getting out too soon.’ My response has been, I’d rather get out too soon than too late.’ I’m sure there are other people out there saying I should have gotten out 10 years ago.”
Indeed, Peterson has his detractors. His animated, in-your-face style can rub people the wrong way, particularly those on the opposing sideline.
But ultimately, winning games is about winning over the players in your own locker room, and in that regard, Peterson has succeeded.
It began with his first Pontiac team meeting in 1989, as he stood before many of the same players who had gone 1-8 the previous year. Fresh off a stellar five-year run as head coach at tiny Walnut, Peterson made it clear he had no intention of losing.
“I came in with a lot of vim and vigor and spirit, and I said, Men, we’re going to the playoffs,’ ” Peterson recalled. “I said, We can do it one of two ways. We can go watch them, or we can play in them. I’m looking for guys who want to play in them.’
“Fortunately, we had a bunch of kids who bought into what we were saying. The kids have to see the same things you see, want the same things you want, and dream the same dream you do. Otherwise, it’s not going to work.”
Peterson plans to stay on as a teacher. His daughter, Emily, the youngest of four children, will be a freshman.
She was in on painting the lines Thursday as well. It comes with the territory when Dad is the football coach.
“I just decided I no longer wanted to be tied down with the day-to-day, week-to-week, month-to-month, 365-day grind of coaching,” Peterson said. “But for now, nothing has changed. Nothing will change until November when it’s over.
“We have a family here the Pontiac Indian football family. I can honestly say I will miss that family. The focus has always been on the players. They had a team before I got here and there will be a team after I leave. I’m just happy we’ve been able to help out the way we have.”