Evanston Township High School is establishing a scholarship in the name of former Wildkits football coach and athletic director John S. Riehle (1947-2010) – a man known for his optimism and humor, his loyalty and kindness and his passion to teach and train, to motivate, mentor and win. Coach Riehle passed away in December at the age of 63 after a two-year battle with cancer.
The Riehle Scholarship will be awarded annually to the student-athlete demonstrating the best ability to motivate and inspire teammates and planning to pursue a career in teaching and coaching. The
first Riehle Scholarship will be awarded to an ETHS senior
Scores of players from Coach Riehle’s 12 seasons attended his funeral service December 19 at the Lutheran Church of the Ascension, Northfield. They came to honor this big man who devoted his life to helping young people and truly believed what he said to end every practice, “It’s a great day!” Although former Wildkit Cecil Martin was snowbound in London, Andrew Westhouse and Chris McComas came off the bench to speak for former players.
Coach Riehle came to ETHS in 1988 as varsity coach and teacher and retired as athletic director in 2003. From 1988 to 2000, his football teams notched a 97-31 record, took seven conference titles and made the state play-offs 10 times. Forty-five of his Kit players earned college scholarships, and four went on to careers in the National Football League, including Cecil Martin of the Philadelphia Eagles. Coach Riehle also helped non-players win scholarships such as Megan Moulden, the Kits equipment manager 1990-92, who received a football equipment manager scholarship to college.
In 2000 he was promoted to ETHS athletic director, retiring in 2003. While he was AD, three Wildkit teams won state championships. The boys swim team took the state title in 2001, the girls soccer team in 2002 and the girls track team in 2003. Sports facilities were upgraded and the hotly contested Evanston-New Trier basketball games were shifted to the big-time, playing at Northwestern’s much larger Welsh-Ryan Arena. Crowd capacity hovered at only 2,000 in the high school gyms, but almost four times that many fans came out to cheer these long-time rivals at the new venue. This year, at the Jan. 7 game at Welsh-Ryan, a moment of silence was observed in memory of Coach Riehle.
The Coach was not a silent man himself. Boisterous, funny, larger-than-life, he drew people to him – students, athletes, parents of players and even opposing coaches and players as attested by the hundreds of letters, cards and e-mails written to his wife Kathy and to the ETHS athletic department. The letters recalled his impact on their lives as well as his signature traits, the gravelly voice, big laugh, work ethic and intensity.
Shirley Nannini, his fellow coach at ETHS, recalled the headsets Coach Riehle broke, the beater cars he drove, stories he told about wearing a yellow leisure suit and “his ability to make everyone he talked to feel important.”
A former player recalled his legendary pre-game speeches. How he’d gather his team before big games and say, “Gentlemen, take a knee.” And then, wrote Chris McComas, he’d begin quietly asking questions: “‘DO YOU BELIEVE you’ve worked hard’? After each question, 50 to 60 seventeen- and eighteen-year-olds would respond in unison “I BELIEVE” ! Each question he asked – his voice grew – he became more animated. So did we. After five or six questions, the entire team would be standing and bellowing. “I BELIEVE.” At this point, Coach would tweak his final questions. He changed the word ‘You’ to ‘we.’ ‘Do WE BELIEVE we’re going to win tomorrow’? The energy was electric. We’d respond ‘WE BELIEVE.’ Coach would put his hand to his ear and say, ‘Do we believe we’re going to dominate tomorrow’? We’d repeat ‘WE BELIEVE!’”
“We were just kids,” Chris McComas wrote, “but after his speeches, we felt like we were on top of the world.”
Born in Indianapolis, John Riehle moved to the Chicago area as a youngster and grew up in Franklin Park. He played football and baseball at Luther North High School and caddied at Elmhurst Country Club. The caddying made him eligible for a Chick Evans Scholarship, which he won and used to attend the University of Illinois where he played varsity football for four years as a walk-on.
After graduation, he became a teacher-coach at Chicago’s Austin High School, moved to Elmhurst College as the defensive football coach and then to Oak Park-River Forest High School as the girls basketball coach and assistant baseball coach. In 1988 he arrived at ETHS, which he often called “the best place to work in the state.”
One-time president of the Illinois High School Football Coaches Association, he was named to its hall of fame in 2001.
After retiring from ETHS, Coach Riehle voluntered at an Evanston homeless shelter and as assistant football coach at Glenbrook North High School. He also returned for two more stints as ETHS AD, in 2004 and 2005-06.
“He showed me the ropes my first year as AD,” said Evanston’s current AD Chris Livatino, “and always stressed the importance of putting kids first in all decisions.”
That stance can be seen in a generous tradition Coach Riehle introduced at ETHS: making sure every player started at least once a season. “So,” he explained, “they could say, ‘I started for Evanston.”
Coach Riehle had three kids of his own. He and Kathy Jacobsen were married in 1970 and moved to Glenview in 1974 where they became parents of Matt, Mark and Luke.
Contributions to the Riehle
Scholarship can be made to
ETHS, c/o Athletic Department, 1600 Dodge, Evanston 60201.