Hard work is something that every coach asks of their players. What really earns the respect of those players is a coach who practices what he preaches.
When talking to Eastland boys basketball players, the words heard most often are "hard work" … especially when they're talking about coach Tony Dunlap.
"You really never see him stop," senior Ty Hartman said. "He's always doing something to help the team – scouting, breaking down film, drawing up game plans – he's just a really hard worker."
"It's no wonder he's sick all the time," senior Austin Hansen added. "He's just constantly doing things; even when he leaves practice, he's not taking a break. He's always busy, busy, busy … and I think he likes it."
The hard work by coach and players alike paid off handsomely again this past season. For the third time in 6 years, the Cougars won a Class 1A sectional title. For the second time in 4 years, Eastland finished fourth in the state in 1A.
And, also for the second time in 4 years, Dunlap is Sauk Valley Media's coach of the year.
Dunlap sees a lot of similarities in his two Cougar teams that advanced to the state tournament. He noted the skill and athleticism being very similar, as is the way both groups "ran the program" of fundamentals, strong defense and small-picture focus Dunlap insists upon.
Both groups were solid at every position and skill-set – shooting, ballhandling, rebounding, passing – and took coaching from Dunlap and his staff of Larry Tigges, Kraig Kniss and Scott Hartman to heart. In fact, the only major difference the 19-year Eastland coach saw in the 2013 version compared to the 2010 squad is the experience some of this year's team had at Carver Arena as freshmen.
But what stuck out most to Dunlap is the way both teams handled things and went about their business.
"I think my wife said it best in 2010: She said she never wanted to see the season end," Dunlap said. "These kids had that same type of attitude; they just didn't want to see it end. They respect each other and the game so much, they were so close-knit, and they had so much they wanted to live up to.
"They saw what the groups in front of them did. In 2010, those guys saw the '08 team make it to the supersectional, and they wanted to go further. This year's kids remembered that 2010 state run, and wanted to make it back down there. So many of the same qualities, and I can't really think of any major differences."
That says more about the program Dunlap runs than anything else. The three sectional titles have come with completely different groups at their core, meaning the Cougars aren't just making hay with one group of great players.
It also means the steady hands guiding the program have found ways to inspire different sets of personalities to buy into the program Dunlap has built.
The evidence of that inspiration and consistency is plastered all over the walls of Dunlap's office in Eastland's new sports complex. They feature a history of the Cougars' successes, including the most coveted spots of all: the 20-win club.
There are 10 teams who reside in that club, and nine of them have their photos lining one of the walls. The 10th actually started a new club: this year's Cougars went 30-5, the first Eastland boys basketball team to reach the big 3-0.
Too many more 20-win teams, and Dunlap's going to have to find more wall space … possibly running into the adjacent bathroom, as Hartman and Hansen suggested.
"We'll make it work," Dunlap said with a laugh. "We probably won't put any in the bathroom … well, maybe that's the 30-win club in there."
It's this interaction with his players that most people don't get to see. Go to an Eastland game, and you're likely to see Dunlap's fiery competitiveness on full display on the sideline. Players and officials are both prone to drawing fierce looks, and his stomping foot resonates throughout gyms all over northwest Illinois.
But off the court, Dunlap shows a very different side. He's been known to tear up during postgame celebrations and press conferences – and feature-story interviews – and his voice will often catch in his throat when he talks about the pride and love he has for all his players, both current and former.
"He cares a lot about the game, and about us," Hansen said. "He gets on us, but you know it's for the best. He's a good guy, and I think that shows up around us a lot."
"If you work really hard for him, he'll reward you for it," Hartman added. "He's a great coach – one of the best I've ever played for – and he's also the type of guy who will do anything for you."
It's been that way since the beginning, when Dunlap came to Lanark after 5 years as an assistant coach in Pittsfield. The Saukees advanced to the Elite 8 three times in that half-decade, and Dunlap has brought the same type of success to Eastland.
The Cougars are 110-18 over the last 4 years, stretching the streak of 20-win seasons to six straight and the string of above-.500 seasons to 13 out of the last 14 – and 16 in Dunlap's 19 years. Seniors Hansen, Hartman, Adam Blair and Tyler Mueller finished their final seasons in the same place their freshman year ended, and lost two straight games just twice in their 4-year tenures – both times at the state tournament.
"We're not really used to losing here," Hansen said, "and the farewell to high school basketball was just as amazing as our welcome to it in 2010."
"We didn't do what we wanted to at all at state," Hartman added, "but it was still a really special run. It was a pretty awesome feeling to play on that court again, after looking up so much to the older guys when we were freshmen."
Even before he arrived in Lanark, Dunlap knew that the way things were run in Pittsfield, and the success that translated into, was "how it should be" in high school sports.
His favorite thing to tell people is that he learned more in 2 years of losing at Warren – his head coaching stop before the Pittsfield gig – than he ever has from winning, but the lessons from both have helped him create quite the legacy at Eastland.
Rarely at a loss for words, Dunlap is just as humble as he is outspoken. He constantly credits his assistants, his fellow EHS coaches, the school's administration, the school board, the parents and the community for being a big part of what Eastland basketball has become, and views himself only as a caretaker in the Cougar program that Roger Roethe – the only other coach Eastland has known in its 27 years of existence, who died of cancer during Dunlap's second season as head coach – first started building in 1986-87.
"I just want to keep it in the right direction, to make him and his family and the community proud," Dunlap said. "It's always a coach's dream and passion for their team to be the best, and to make it so consistent that it's a 'program.' I always envisioned that and hoped for that, but if you'd have told me in the fall of 1994 when I came here that we'd have all this stuff up in a room like this – the 20-win club, the state banners and plaques – I would've said you're probably goofy."
"But it's been a lot of fun, and every year is just as special as the others, even if it wasn't a winning season or a regional title. It's been great people, from players to families to the school and the community, and it's getting better every year. We take pride in it, and that just feeds off itself for everybody to do their best to do their part in the program to keep it going."
Hometown: Bellevue, Iowa
Alma maters: Bellevue H.S. (class of 1981); Upper Iowa University (class of 1986); Lewis University (Master's degree, 2006)
Family: Wife Colleen, sons Tony (Eastland class of 2010) and Brad (Eastland class of 2011)
Coaching stops: Warren High School, head coach (1987-89); Pittsfield High School, assistant coach (1989-94); Eastland High School, head coach (1994-present)
FYI: Boasts a 385-169 record in 19 seasons in Lanark. … Has taken Eastland to three sectional titles on last 6 years, and two state tournament berths in last 4 years. … Has guided Cougars to 16 winning seasons, including 13 of last 14. … Has led Eastland to 10 20-win seasons, including last 6, and 1 30-win season (Cougars were 30-5 this year).