How an Illinois HS football program bounced back after hazing scandal
On a cold February day, Lake Zurich (Illinois) High School football coach Luke Mertens sits in the office of Athletic Director Andrew Lambert.
Asked to recall the events of the last year, he remains spellbound over the circumstances.“When the scandal broke, I never thought in a million years I’d be sitting here,” Mertens said. “There’s a zero percent chance I’m the head coach at Lake Zurich in my head.”
The scandal Mertens refers to involves hazing. In January 2017, the school was sued over hazing allegations that came to light at the end of the 2016 football season. The allegations led to the firing of head football coach Dave Proffitt and resignation of Athletic Director Rolando Vazquez.
The athletic director at nearby Wauconda High School, Lambert accepted the job at Lake Zurich in February 2017. His contract at Wauconda didn’t expire until June 30, which meant for a few months, he was pulling double duty.
“An 80-hour work week turned into 110 (hours),” Lambert said.
One of his first orders of business was to hire a football coach.
Like any enterprising athletic director, he compiled a list of names. But this was an unusual situation. The school was facing a federal lawsuit that gained the attention of local and national media.
“I was receiving anonymous letters from community members about what they wanted. I had reporters contacting me,” Lambert said. “There was so much happening at one time.”
Finding a coach
On the day Lambert signed his contract with Lake Zurich Community School District 95, he met with Superintendent Kaine Osburn to discuss the football opening. One coach on Lambert’s list was discussed: Luke Mertens.
Mertens was preparing for his 13th season as head football coach at Lakes High School, 20 miles north of Lake Zurich. Mertens and Lambert knew each other from Lambert’s time as football resource chairman for the Northern Lake County Conference, and it was through the recommendation of a colleague that made Mertens a target for Lake Zurich.
For 11 years, Troy Parola was the athletic director at Lakes. He worked up close with Martens and was familiar with the coach’s leadership skills.
“ADs talk about candidates and create lists of people,” said Parola. “As soon as Andy (Lambert) became AD at Lake Zurich, he reached out to me and we talked about Luke. I told him you can’t go wrong. I will stake my reputation on his integrity. He’s someone who will be very beneficial to Lake Zurich.”
By the time Lambert began reviewing candidates, Mertens had not yet applied for the job. The coach was reluctant because of the controversy at Lake Zurich and was comfortable in his job at Lakes.
“I have a job, I was happy in my job,” Mertens said. “Why would I even want this on my shoulders? Who wants this burden? I wasn’t too interested in inheriting these issues.”
Lambert soon reached out to Mertens and asked to meet in person. Mertens agreed, but said he had no aspirations beyond extending his professional network.
At an area Starbucks, the two spoke for four hours. After the wide-ranging conversation, the two came to a mutual understanding that the relationship could work.
“What are your values? What are your objectives? How do you frame your program?” Lambert asked Mertens. “I started thinking, ‘OK, this could be a possibility.’”
By April, Mertens was hired. He brought to the job a proven track record, but Lake Zurich needed more than Xs and Os. It needed a leader who believed the program could thrive in the face of crisis.
Later that spring, in his first players’ meeting, Mertens didn’t talk football. Instead, he wanted to get to know them as people. They did not choose him — he chose them.
“How I entered this role would impact the outcome of the season and people’s perceptions of the process,” Mertens said. “I said, ‘I am not coming in here and judging these people.’ I came in with a clear head, listening rather than talking, which is odd for me. I felt very good about who my superiors were going to be. Everyone was saying, ‘What do we need to do to make this go?’”
Lambert took an equally cooperative approach with other coaches at the school. Rather than dictate policy, he asked questions.
“I sat down with every head coach. I said, ‘I’m here to learn. Tell me everything I need to know,’” Lambert said.
With the first practice scheduled for mid-June, Mertens had little time to put together his staff. His initial instinct was to bring in coaches from his staff at Lakes, but that was not plausible given their teaching jobs.
Mertens decided to retain all six coaches at Lake Zurich. He then pulled from his vast network of coaching contacts to fill the six remaining spots. When making the hires, Mertens thought little of scheme.
“Usually, in this business, you have a right-hand man you can take with you. I didn’t have that,” Mertens said. “The most important factor (in hires) was: were these guys I could trust?”
Mertens then decided to run the same pistol offense he used at Lakes. He’d keep the same defensive system (odd-man front) and promote a long-time positional assistant to coordinate the scheme.
“Most of the guys (retained) were on the defensive side of the ball, and I wanted the players to have something familiar to them, as change is scary to everyone,” Mertens said. “(For the offense) normally you figure out scheme around the players, but I didn’t have that luxury with the time that we had. It was what I knew best and what I believed in. Away we went.”
A feedback forum
Part of the collaboration between Lambert and Mertens involved the use of third parties. Lambert brought in a team from Positive Coaching Alliance, which met with Mertens and his staff throughout the 2017 season. Lambert also contracted with an organization called HUMANeX Ventures. They surveyed players on subjects ranging from performance and interpersonal relationships.
Twice during the football season, coaches and players met with representatives from HUMANeX and reviewed data from the survey. Players would break into groups, and a random player would report back on what they learned. Lambert said the idea was to embolden players to take charge of rebuilding the program culture.
Mertens said the exercises gave players a forum to speak honestly with no repercussions.
“I thought it was a good idea to give them a platform to complain a little bit,” Mertens said. “What was interesting were the kids chosen to report out. It wasn’t always the stars of the team. It’s very powerful when a senior, who is a third string player, says, ‘We need to respect each other more on this team.’
“The message is powerful, but who delivered the message was even more powerful.”
Coming full circle
Soon after the team’s first game, a 21-3 victory, it was apparent the new partnership between coach and athletic director was working. Lake Zurich rolled through the regular season, finishing 9-0, the best record in the 53-year history of the football program.
The Bears advanced to the Class 7A title game, losing in overtime, 21-14. One month after the championship, the district settled the hazing lawsuit.
In a short period of time, Mertens and Lambert navigated through difficult circumstances, a relationship hatched under extreme pressure, sealed by mutual respect, teamwork, and ultimately, success.
“I came in wanting to listen and learn,” Lambert said. “The people above me, superintendent Osburn and (assistant superintendent of student services) Susan Coleman did a great job of educating me and helped guide me in terms of making decisions.”
“Not intentionally, but we were put in position to fail,” Mertens said. “To be able to come out on top of that, I think this is a great example of why we need to believe in people.”