Richards football coaching legend Gary Korhonen dies at age 77

Sunday, 03 December 2017, 09:50:04 PM. Gary Korhonen, who was revered throughout the Southland, retired in 2007 from Richards as the winningest football coach in Illinois history.

During a legendary career at Richards, Gary Korhonen left his stamp on Illinois high school football with 306 wins and two state titles.

The impact he had on players, assistants and opposing coaches for more than four decades went far beyond any numbers.

Korhonen died Saturday at age 77 because of congestive heart failure.

His son, Kris, said his father never lost touch with the football community, especially in District 218.

"We had former players from Richards and Eisenhower coming by the house on Thanksgiving up until (Friday)," Kris Korhonen said. "People talk about how kids change, but he was still able to connect with them."

After two years in Iowa, Gary Korhonen took over the program at Richards in 1972. He retired in 2007 as the winningest football coach in Illinois history. During his final season he passed Providence's Matt Senffner, who had 300 victories.

From 1985 to 2007, Korhonen coached the Bulldogs to 23 straight state playoff appearances. The highlight seasons were in 1988 and 1989, when Richards went undefeated and won two Class 4A state championships. The 2001 team was the 6A state runner-up.

Following his retirement from Richards, Korhonen was a volunteer assistant at Eisenhower for six seasons and at Shepard for two. Kris was on those coaching staffs.

A devout Catholic, Korhonen often could be seen coaching on the sideline with rosary beads clutched in one hand. He had a reputation as a hands-off head coach who let his coordinators have a free rein with their individual roles.

He was, according to longtime assistant Frank Salvatori, a master at doing the little things people rarely notice.

"He was the hardest-working guy I've ever seen," Salvatori said. "He'd work at it seven days a week. I'd come in for practice 45 minutes early and he'd be mopping the floors of the locker room. He didn't want the kids to have a sloppy locker room.

"He was a disciplinarian and very organized. If you were one minute late for practice, you didn't play in the game that week. Players would show up real early for practice."

Korhonen sent many players on to college with full scholarships. Joe Montgomery, a running back at Richards from 1990 to '93, played at Ohio State and then in the NFL for the and .

It wasn't just the stars Korhonen saw off to successful futures.

"He cared — he genuinely cared," Montgomery said. "Not just for the stud players, but everyone. If you weren't a starter in high school, he still found you a place to play in college.

"He didn't care if you were the water boy. He'd get you into Water Boy University, if there was such a thing."

Montgomery said Korhonen's ideals will carry on in his own family.

"Without coach Korhonen, there is no Ohio State or New York Giants," Montgomery said. "A lot of my success was because of two people, coach Korhonen and (assistant) Bill Porter. They laid the foundations for my success and for the person I am today.

"What coach Korhonen taught me, I teach to my children."

Korhonen's state record for victories was surpassed in 2011 by Mount Carmel coach Frank Lenti. Shortly after, the two got together to celebrate.

"(People) were surprised that we weren't great rivals, but that we were great friends," Lenti said. "Any time I would see him or (his wife) Eileen, we'd always talk and check up on how the families were doing.

"What made him such a great coach was his personality and his perseverance. He always tried to do the best he could for the kids on the team. You almost hated to compete against each other because you loved each other so much. It was almost like competing with a brother."

Korhonen still was two years away from retirement when the Richards community reached out in renaming the football facility as Korhonen Field.

"It was an honor that was deservedly received for his years of service," Richards athletic director Ken Styler said. "You don't see a lot of guys like that anymore who have been at one place for four decades.

"To do what he did as well and for as long as he did, you have to take your hat off to him and be respectful. It's not easy being a winner and being on top for so many consecutive years. It's amazing what he accomplished during his career."

Richards coach Tony Sheehan said the two years he served as Korhonen's assistant helped form his own philosophy on coaching — and caring.

"He did a lot for a lot of kids throughout those years," he said. "A lot of those kids didn't have dads and he was dad for them. He taught us a lot of life lessons that we take on today about responsibility, accountability, being on time, doing the right thing.

"His stamp is all over what we do."

Pat Disabato contributed.

Twitter @tbaranek

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