Coaching classic: Timeless Rosenberry still dishing out wisdom
A couple of inches below her strawberry blonde curls and the pink wrap holding them in place, Margaret Smith's eyes were like silver dollars, her ears equally wide open.
Standing in Lane 1 at Westwood Sports Complex on Wednesday evening alongside Chuck Rosenberry, the Newman freshman hung on every pointer the coach would share after her heat of the 55-meter hurdles.
"He told me I did a pretty good job getting out of my blocks, but that I need to focus more," Smith said. "It was a mix. He's a nice guy, and it's so good to have him around."
The opportunity to share what went right and wrong and how to get better is exactly why Rosenberry has been clerking the Rosenberry Classic since Athletic Director Mike Papoccia named it after him 20 years ago.
"I just like the interchange with the kids to see what they're like," Rosenberry said. "People say nowadays that kids aren't respectful, and so on. But Newman's still are. They're still great kids."
The starting blocks
Rosenberry grew up in Coleta. He played basketball and softball and ran track at Milledgeville High School, which didn't offer football.
He got to play football at Western Illinois while working on his physical education degree. He then earned his principal's degree at the University of Illinois and took 9 more hours of science at Iowa.
With a veritable cornucopia of training, his first job out of school was principal of Albany High School, and the job description was lengthy.
"I taught everything they had there," Rosenberry said. "I coached, taught, they wanted me to drive the bus...
"I didn't drive the bus," he deadpans with exceptional comedic timing.
It would take some time for Papoccia to recognize that brand of humor. Rosenberry was his basketball coach during his junior and senior years, Rosenberry's first at Newman, from 1967-69.
"It was fundamentals, intensity and always doing your best. Pure and simple. He was a no-nonsense guy," Papoccia said. "You're here to practice, and we're going to try to get better. That's how he was."
Rosenberry was also an assistant track coach, but quickly gave up coaching hoops and became the head track coach. Papoccia insisted he become his defensive backs coach after finding out Rosenberry had played for the Leathernecks.
"His eyes got big, and he said, 'Really?' " Papoccia said. "I'm telling ya, he was the best coach I had. Nobody worked harder or was better prepared than our defensive backs."
"Our motto was M.T.P.: mental toughness and pride," Rosenberry said. "Everybody should be in shape. But you've gotta have the mental toughness, if you're going to compete on a good level. And you've gotta have pride in what you do."
Passing the baton
Rosenberry said he continued to coach football for 3 or 4 years after retiring in 1993.
"You stayed and coached football, and you were with me through 2004," current boys track and defensive backs coach Andy Accardi interjects. "You're where I learned everything."
You'll recognize a theme, says Val Gassman, who joined the girls track coaching staff as an assistant the year after Rosenberry retired.
"When I first started, he was the one coach I'd go to and say, 'What do I do here?' " she recalls. "The man's just a massive book of knowledge. He's forgotten more than we'll ever know. He's an inspiration. He's a gentleman of the old school."
His best advice?
"Let the kids believe in their feet, and listen to your heart," Gassman said.
Next week, Rosenberry will lend assistant coach Pat Warkins a hand in conducting practices with the boys team while Accardi visits family in Texas.
Considering Rosenberry a peer is still surreal for Warkins, who once ran for him and now borrows his philosophy of approaching every runner – regardless of talent – with the same goal: to get better every day.
"I'm used to calling him Coach Rosenberry," Warkins said. "It's hard for me to say, 'Hey, Chuck, how are you doing?'
"The best thing about him, was he had knowledge of everything. If you asked him a question about anything, he'd know how to give you a good answer."
For instance, Rosenberry remembers the first athlete he guided to state: Mike Fowler, in the pole vault, an event Rosenberry knew little to nothing about at the outset.
It was more than a dozen years ago, but Rosenberry's eyes shimmer when he thinks about what he calls, "one of the best things that ever happened to me."
After the athletes were introduced for a Newman football scrimmage, Rosenberry was introduced as the defensive backs coach. He was then told to go to the other side of the track. He wondered why his whole family was there, and why the scoreboard was covered.
Then Papoccia got him with the old, "Look over there" trick, while it was unveiled: Rosenberry Track.
"That's the first time I'd seen tears in his eyes," Papoccia said. "Then he swore at me up and down because we did it. But there's not a more deserving person in our history."
Beneath the coppertone Columbia fleece Rosenberry wore Wednesday night is a whole lot of muscle for an 80-year-old. And a particular brand of blood.
"I got blue blood in me," he said.
That's why, after he gets in his mile and a half, he drops by Papoccia's office to chew the fat with him and Accardi. Then he heads home to lift weights.
Every day. Except for Sunday, that is.
"Popeye? He's unbelievable," Papoccia said. "He's my man. I hope I can get like him someday. He's in better shape now than I was in when I was 30."
His dedication is a big reason why Newman's defensive backs listen up when Rosenberry grabs them on the sideline. He still makes most home games.
"I love having him on the sideline," Papoccia said.
"I tell him when I see him on the sideline, 'Oh, thank God you're here,' " Accardi said. "I'll be calling the defense in the fresh-soph games, and he'll say, 'What do you want me to watch?' You miss him when he's not part of the game."
Senior sprinter and defensive back Maison Bittner laughs when he recalls how intimidated he felt the first time Rosenberry gave him some pointers.
"He'll just grab you and say, 'Here's what you did wrong,' " he said. "It means a lot, coming from someone who coached Papo back in the day."
"You listen to every word he says, and then you say, 'Yes, sir,' " fellow senior Nick Rude said.
Accardi will love to hear that. He made a point of telling all his athletes to shake Rosenberry's hand and say, "Thank you" during the Classic.
They did just that. And they meant it.
"The kids are great," Rosenberry said. "They're very appreciative of what you tell them."
Tuesday night, he asked Bittner what his time was, and replied with "Good race."
"It's pretty cool when you have the history of Newman tell you, 'Good job,' " Bittner said.
Alma maters: Milledgeville High School, Class of 1948; Western Illinois University (bachelors), University of Illinois and University of Iowa (masters studies)
Family: Wife – Belle, also a retired teacher. Daughters – Beth and Lori, who both reside in Grayslake. Chuck and Belle plan to soon "downsize" from the 13-acre family farm north of Sterling and move to the Chicago area
Hobbies: Golf and gardening