After spending the last 28 years as the pass happy head coach of the Riverside-Brookfield football team, Otto Zeman’s next audible now becomes figuring out his own future plans.
On Tuesday, June 8, the Riverside-Brookfield Township High School board voted 4 to 3 to hire Jason Rech as the new varsity head coach of the Bulldogs. Rech was an assistant on Zeman’s staff this season.
“Obviously, I’m disappointed with the decision,” Zeman said. “I’m still passionate about coaching football and working with kids.
“(District 208 Interim Superintendent) David Bonnette went forward with a recommendation to have Jason Rech become the head football coach. They just don’t want me back as the football coach.”
Art Ostrow, who also replaces Zeman as RB’s athletics director on June 30, stressed the need for change as the key factor in the decision making process.
“It was a difficult decision,” Ostrow said. “I’ve been working with Otto the last 10 years, and I know he would have loved to come back. We just felt it was the in the best interests of the kids, the school and the community to make this change.”
Riverside-Brookfield Interim President Tim Scanlon, Ostrow and a select group of RB coaches interviewed Zeman, Rech and RB assistant coach Dallas Till for the 2010-11 head coach position. The group gave their recommendation of Rech to the school board, who then voted in favor of his appointment as the new RB varsity coach.
Rech, a Mount Carmel graduate, coached the offensive line for varsity and was also the Bulldogs head coach for the sophomore team last season. At RB for seven years now, Rech is also the school’s varsity wrestling head coach.
“Unfortunately, not everybody is going to be happy when a decision like this is made,” Ostrow said. “Otto did some great things for RB and truly loved the school. I do think Jason has a good plan in place with an emphasis on developing a feeder program for football.”
While Rech conducts summer workouts with the football team this week, Zeman’s 40-year stint with the Bulldogs in various roles is finally complete. In April, the school board voted 4 to 3 to terminate Zeman as the RB athletics director.
Zeman, a 1965 RB graduate, started teaching at his alma mater in 1969 after completing his studies and wrestling to All-American status at Northwestern.
Taking over the RB football head coach position in 1982, Zeman amassed a 162-114 career record, highlighted by a pair of remarkable seasons in 2000 and 2001. Led by prolific quarterback Tim Brasic, RB won 22 of 24 games during that two-year run. The Bulldogs’ most memorable game actually came via a 56-50 Class 5A state quarterfinal loss to Joliet Catholic in front of 10,000 people on November 9, 2001. Brasic, who set state records for most yards passing in a season (4,644) and career (7,911), completed 24-of-48 passes for 589 yards (single game state record) and tossed seven touchdowns against the Hilltoppers that memorable evening.
In addition to Brasic, Zeman has coached several other talented offensive players, mostly notably Britt Davis, Chris Pesek, Shatone Powers, DJ Wilson and Joe Coia in his widespread, aerial attack on the end zone.
Current RB girls basketball/boys golf coach Larry Rocco, an assistant for Zeman from 1982-1998 during the pre-Brasic era, knew instantly Zeman would excel under the headset.
“He knew how to prepare kids always from a positive standpoint,” Rocco said. “Otto was a great football coach who taught me a lot about the game.”
Riverside-Brookfield finished 6-4 this season, losing to Hubbard 30-6 in the first round of the Class 6A state playoffs. Under Zeman’s version of the A-11 offense (which allows any five players at one time to be eligible receivers), RB wideout Mark McDonagh turned in a remarkable campaign, breaking the national high school record for receptions in a single season with 165 catches.
“I had a blast this season,” McDonagh said. “I thought we fell a little short of what we hoped to accomplish. When I look back on this team a few years from now, I’ll remember all the great moments shared with coach Zeman, teammates and other coaches.”
Quarterback Billy VandeMerkt, who will play college football at St. Joseph’s in Indiana, established an Illinois record for most completions (774) in a high school career under the tutelage of his innovative coach.
“My three years playing football at RB were made a lot easier because of coach Zeman,” VandeMerkt said. “He simplifies everything on the field which is what you want as a player. We would all be on the same page during games.”
Off the field, Zeman and the Bulldogs also made a positive impact in the community.
“On Saturday mornings, we would all help set up the farmers’ market in Brookfield,” VandeMerkt said. “We helped out with special education kids and had our ‘Best Buddies’ program.
“Otto is just a great person who cared about everyone on our team. He would do anything to help guys whether it was with a class, football, anything. I think we were his family away from his family.”
Although Zeman’s tenure was respected by many people within the RB community, there were several detractors offering allegations of nepotism, cronyism and other concerns.
Jerry Buttimer, an RB parent and former Riverside village trustee, cited the mishandling of an issue regarding skin infections with the RB wrestling team in 2008-2009 as one reason the time had come for his departure. Buttimer also mentioned the controversy over wrestling coach Jim Duffy, who was helping coach RB while he was out on bond facing felony drug charges. Although Duffy was found not guilty, some people blamed Zeman for not doing a background check on Duffy.
“My complaints about Otto were a lack of accountability on several issues,” added Buttimer.
By the end of this month, Ostrow and Rech will be fully immersed in their respective roles as the athletics director and head football coach replacing Zeman.
Marty Sloan, RB’s second-year defensive coordinator, is excited about the potential of the program under the new regime, but he also offered well wishes for his former mentor.
“Although he won’t be coaching at RB, I hope Otto’s coaching days are not done,” Sloan said. “I think coaching football is really his calling in life. I would be happy for him if he gets another [coaching] opportunity.”