Hall of Fame coaches he worked with – Chick Cichowski, Dan Mortier, Bob Naughton – all told Denny Hall the same thing, that he’d know it was time to retire the day that going to a football practice became a drudgery.
That day hasn’t arrived yet. So Hall will return to the sidelines for the 48th year when football practice starts Monday across Illinois.
Hall is back for his second term with Evanston and will bring a creative mindset along with an emphasis on fundamentals, just like he has for almost 5 decades. He’ll coach the defensive linemen for the Wildkits, the same role he had at ETHS from 2008 to 2012 under head coach Mike Burzawa.
Hall has returned to the Midwest after an 8-year stint living and coaching in North Carolina. He was part of the coaching staff at New Bern High School that won the Class 4A state championship there in 2014, following a successful run as an assistant coach at New Trier under both Cichowski and Mortier.
Evanston had to seek a replacement for the varsity staff when Grant Nemeth left to go coach at his alma mater, Wheaton Warrenville South. Burzawa had Hall on speed dial so the search didn’t last long.
“Denny was one of my first hires when I first came to Evanston, and it was a no-brainer to hire him back,” said Burzawa. “It’s great to have him back. He knows what we stand for here, and I think it’s a good fit. He’s loyal, he’s hard-working, he’s a grinder.
“There’s no sugar-coating things with Denny Hall. He’s as direct as they come and he’s still got that intensity, that desire. He brings wisdom and experience to the table, and he knows what will work at the high school level. He’ll help us put together the best schemes possible.”
Hall coached at rival New Trier from 1978 through 2006 and was the Trevians’ defensive coordinator for 20 years. He was known as a defensive guru who was usually two plays ahead of whoever was calling the offensive signals on the other sideline. New Trier qualified for the Illinois High School Association state playoffs 19 times during that stretch.
He decided to retire from his position as a special education teacher in 2006 but still had a zest for coaching. He coached one year at St. Patrick, then came to ETHS when Burzawa took over in 2008.
“I had known Steve King (the late ETHS defensive coach) since about 2003 and at that time he was willing to take a chance on me. I thank him for that because he gave me the opportunity to keep coaching,” Hall recalled. “At that point I think my wife was ready for me to get out of coaching, but I said when it’s not fun anymore, that’s when I’m getting out, and she’s been very, very understanding.
“Right now it’s still fun for me. I still feel I have something left in the tank and hopefully I can contribute something positive at Evanston. For me it still boils down to the fundamentals — Can you block? Can you tackle? I think I’ve learned a lot from those Hall of Famers I’ve been around.”
Hall developed a connection with another coach, Bobby Curlings, at the end of his first tenure at ETHS and decided to join Curlings’ staff at New Bern. New Bern went 16-0 in 2014 to claim its third state title in 5 years and Hall will never forget that experience.
“That was a special year,” he said. “We had some kids who were very athletic on the defensive line and they were very competitive, too. I used to rotate them in, and they’d have fist fights before practices about who would get to start. There’d be a torrential rain and they’d be knocking heads 1-on-1 trying to see if they could knock the other guy into the water on this small island where we practiced.
“Up here (in the Midwest) I’ve noticed that a lot of the offensive and defensive linemen are pretty physical kids. Down there? I’ve never seen kids run that fast. The quarterback when we won state (Mike Hughes) was the No. 1 draft choice of the Vikings and we had kids who probably would have won the 4 x 100 (meter) state championship if they ran track.
“We had an 11-game regular season that also included a bye week. The year we won State, we started on August 1st and the state championship game was on December 15th. So that was a long year. It was so time-consuming. It was a great, great run there, but I’m glad to be back.”
Hall stayed in North Carolina after Curlings’ stepped down due to health reasons. Hall spent the last two years at West Craven, in the same school district, and then he and his wife Joy decided to return to their Midwestern roots.
At ETHS, he’ll try to help the Wildkits build some momentum coming off a pandemic-shortened 3-3 season. Evanston opens the 2021 season on the road against a new opponent, Indian Trail of Kenosha (Wis.) on August 27, and plays its home opener on September 3 against Libertyville.
Hall will have defensive line veterans like Florian Feldman (6-foot-2, 225 pounds), David Sanchez (5-9, 230), Sheldon Kinzer (5-10, 235) and Charlie Kremin (6-2, 230) to work with, along with two juniors moving up from last year’s 5-1 sophomore squad, Cameron Knibbs and John Toledo.
The long-time assistant coach got acquainted with some of the returnees during Evanston’s summer camp and can’t wait for the official start of practice on Monday.
“I won’t really get excited until we put on the pads and start hitting,” he said. “That’s when we start real football.”