Find what you’re good at and do that. Play to your strengths. If the other team knows what’s coming, so what? If you do it well enough, they can’t do anything about it.
There was nothing fancy in the approach. Today we would call it “old school.” For 22 years, Dick Tharp never fretted over how others labeled his style of coaching football at Normal Community High School.
If his players believed in it, and were willing to work at it, that was all the validation Tharp needed. They did, and the result was a 158-50-5 record from 1966-88 that included eight playoff appearances and a Class 4A state runner-up finish in 1974.
The winningest coach in NCHS history, Tharp was the face of the program for more than two decades. Now, his name may be on the Ironmen’s home field.
A committee of former players and NCHS grads has gathered support from the Unit 5 administration for the naming of Dick Tharp Field. A public hearing is set for Wednesday night’s Unit 5 Board of Education meeting at Normal West High School and, if all goes well, Dick Tharp Field will be dedicated early this season.
It would be a fitting honor for a man — now 90 and living in Louisiana — who proved you didn’t have to be fancy, flashy or fiery to win big.
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“He commanded respect without doing that stuff,” said Mike Goodwin, who played for Tharp in 1985-86. “He was really a father figure to a lot of us. He was probably the most honest and fair person anybody could ever play for. You knew right where you stood. If you did the right things, he would let you know it, and if you did the wrong things, he’d let you know it.
“He was very much a players’ coach. He was old school, but his players were what was important to him.”
Goodwin headed the committee which also included current Ironmen coach Jason Drengwitz, NCHS grad/historian Jeff Collins, and former players Kurt Swearingen, Jerry McBurney, Kevin Franz, Kirk Brandenburg and Chad Ronnekamp.
They solicited support through letters of recommendation for a coach who, under the current standards for playoff qualification, would have had 21 of his 22 NCHS teams qualify.
The reality is the playoffs did not begin until 1974, when Swearingen, a quarterback and defensive back, helped the Ironmen advance to the 4A title game, losing to Rockford East.
Swearingen went on to be a record-setting running back at Illinois Wesleyan, then became a teacher, principal and administrator during a lengthy Unit 5 career. He will tell you lessons learned under Tharp served him well.
“Coach Tharp was always about doing less and doing it so well that you were unstoppable if you will,” Swearingen said. “I’ve kind of used that in a lot of different areas, even in my profession … Let’s be good at just a few things, but be really good at them.
“Also, I can’t think of a time I ever saw him worked up during a game or practice. I think because of that, he was able to see the game analytically and make adjustments on the fly as well as I’ve ever been a part of. It’s something I’ve taken with me. You have to look at yourself critically. You can’t be so stubborn that you always do the same thing. Sometimes you have to admit, ‘Well, that didn’t work, so let’s move on to something else.’ ”
Darrell Crouch was a standout lineman for Tharp from 1979-81 and went on to play at Illinois State. Now a highly successful head coach at Washington High School, Crouch called Tharp “a great role model” who “ran a good, clean program with no issues and impacted a lot of people.”
“You think about how many guys went on to college careers, whether it was DIII or DI, and how many guys went on to successful lives. Those are pretty formative years when you’re playing for a coach. He did a really good job with that, too.”
Tharp returned to Central Illinois for part of the 2002 season to be an assistant on Goodwin’s staff at Clinton, helping out in a variety of areas.
“It was fun to see him in that role,” Goodwin said. “I remember him talking to the kids one day and still, even then, those kids’ eyes were on him and they were engaged. He can command a room, no doubt about it.”
If approved, Goodwin is hopeful Tharp could be in attendance for the field dedication, which likely would occur at NCHS’ first home game on Sept. 3 vs. Peoria Manual.
“He’s having some hip problems, some pain problems,” Goodwin said. “He said he would try, so I hope he does (make it).”
He deserves to be there. So does his name in bright lights … even if that’s not his style.
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Randy Kindred is a columnist and retired sports editor at The Pantagraph.