The path to accomplishment doesn’t always lead back home for those who travel it. Riverside Brookfield football coach Otto Zeman, who considers RB his home, feels fortunate that his path did.
Zeman, an RB graduate who will begin his 24th season as head football coach in the fall, was recently among the 15 new inductees to the Illinois High School Football Coaches Association Hall of Fame. He earned the honor by using his innovative offensive schemes to lead his alma mater to a 137-92 record since taking the head job in 1982.
“It’s a big honor and it was sort of overwhelming,” said Zeman, who began working at the school as a drivers ed teacher in 1969. “I always wanted to coach and I was fortunate to get a job here at RB. I’ve had a lot of great people to work with, lots of great assistant coaches and the kids here have been wonderful. I really don’t think there’s a better place to be than here at Riverside Brookfield high school.”
Zeman was born in Warren, Ohio, and moved with is family to North Riverside when he was 5 years old. In high school he played football at RB and was the second-place wrestler at State in the 165 weight class. He went on to become an All-American wrestler at Northwestern in 1968 before returning to RB.
The same year he began teaching at RB, Zeman became an assistant coach for Bill Vandemerkt. Zeman said Vandemerkt, whom he had played for his junior and senior seasons, became his mentor.
“We went three years with only two coaches helping on all levels so I had to learn every phase of the game,” Zeman said. “I was really green and raw and had to ask his advice for everything. He was just a great guy and a good guy to learn from.”
Though Vandemerkt stepped down after the 1981 season, his influence lived on in Zeman, who installed an innovative four-wide, one-back offense that focused on throwing the ball instead of running it like most high school offenses. Zeman said it was Vandemerkt, whose prolific passing made him an All-American quarterback at Western Illinois in 1956, who instilled in him his own love for throwing the ball.
Zeman found so much success with his unconventional offense that he experimented with no-back sets in 1999 before going with the scheme full time in 2000. Since the switch, the Bulldogs have racked up a 45-12 record and appeared in the postseason each of the past five years. RB has also won at least one postseason game in each of those seasons.
“It’s really just a way of taking advantage of people,” Zeman said of his offense. “It’s also a way of beating teams that are better than you but aren’t used to what you’re
Despite all of Zeman’s accomplishments in football, that is only part of his storied career in athletics.
Zeman is also a member of the Illinois Wrestling Coaches Hall of Fame. He was the head wrestling coach at RB from 1970-83 and also spent seven years as an assistant at Lyons Township when his sons wrestled for that program.
There Zeman helped lead his son Matt to two top-five individual State finishes, and his son Bill to two individual State titles. He has also worn the hats of assistant baseball coach and assistant softball coach at RB.
Though the accomplishments are his, Zeman is quick to share the credit for his success with those who most deserve it. That would include his assistant coaches and his family “especially his wife of 35 years, Sally.”
“She’s a big part of my success,” Zeman said. “You have to marry someone willing to put up with the hours of coaching. You spend so many hours working and teaching with other kids, sometimes you forget about your own. But she always helped me remember. She was willing to sacrifice some things she wanted to do for what I wanted to do. If you want to be successful, your family has to be behind you.”
Zeman continues to shape not just the RB program, but is also helping shape football statewide as part of the IHSA football advisory committee. In March, the IHSA passed a multiplier to boost the enrollment totals of private schools.
It was a proposal introduced by Zeman with the intention of breaking up some of the dominance private schools have enjoyed in athletics at some of the lower football classes, as well as in Class A competition in other sports with only two classes. The multiplier, which is 1.65, will be in effect for the 2005-06 season.
“(Private schools) have a recruiting radius of 30 miles, so they have the opportunity to get kids from a wide range of areas,” Zeman said. “I think it’s important to level the playing field. That will help everyone.”
Zeman, now 58, has been RB’s athletic director since the 2002-03 season, and says he has the job he’s always wanted. He’s still able to teach and interact with the students at RB, and as long as he’s able to do that, he won’t be making any retirement plans.
“Right now with a great staff and great kids, I’m having the best time I’ve had in my career,” Zeman said. “Coaching-wise, I’ve mellowed a lot and am probably the best coach I’ve ever been, so as long as I’m having fun, I’m going to keep doing it.”