The close-knit relationship shared between Riverside-Brookfield High School baseball and girls basketball head coach Dallas Till and his assistant coach Mark Ruge certainly didn’t take root on first impression.
When Till coached baseball at Elmwood Park High School, he would often tangle with the Bulldogs and its star player Joe Ruge (Mark’s son) in Metro Suburban Conference games.
“Initially, I only knew of [Mark Ruge] as some angry man I would see as a fan down the left-field line when my [Elmwood Park] team would play RB,” Till said with a laugh. “If a teammate of Joe’s made an error or Joe gave up a bunt single, I would see this man down the left-field line throw his hands up in the air or pace back and forth. Mark obviously lived and died with every pitch Joe made.”
The Ruges’ “like father, like son” first impression on the uber-competitive Till worsened when Joe crushed a grand slam against Elmwood Park at Jaycee/Ehlert Park a few years ago.
“I remember the bases were loaded and Joe was facing our pitcher, George Lako, a good friend of his,” Till said. “We tried to pitch around Joe, but there was no place to put him. He crushed the ball about 420 feet for a grand slam and raised his right arm up.
“Joe didn’t do anything wrong. He was just excited, but I’m such a poor loser I wanted to throw a bucket of balls at Joe and his dad. We laugh about that game now.”
When Till left Elmwood Park to become a teacher and coach at RBHS, the South Haven, Mich., native wisely enlisted Ruge as his assistant coach in baseball and girls basketball.
They became familiar with one other as assistants under former RBHS baseball coach Mike Ziroli. After Ziroli moved on to Lyons Township High School, Till took over as the Bulldogs’ skipper with Ruge as his trusted aide de camp.
“The No. 1 thing I look for in an assistant coach is loyalty,” Till said. “Mark is the most loyal assistant coach I’ve ever had. We share the same vision in terms of coaching.”
For Ruge, the collaborative bench vibe has been equally seamless.
“Dallas and I work really work well together,” Ruge said. “We don’t always agree, but we talk about things and come to a resolution on what’s best for the team.
“I came from a job [senior manager at the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago] that was extremely stressful for 25 years. I was the head guy with 25 people reporting to me, so I have been there and done that.”
Both former college athletes cherish the countless laughs shared between them and their players.
“I tell Dallas all the time to smell the roses,” Ruge said. “I think we also play good cop, bad cop very well. Those roles are interchangeable with us, too, depending on the situation.
“The thing that amazes me about Dallas is what he’s able to get away with playing bad cop towards umpires and referees. I just look at them and they say, ‘That’s enough, coach.'”
The running gag between Till and Ruge centers around the Bulldogs’ memorable misadventures on minibus trips during the baseball season.
“Our first day on the minibus, nobody tells us how to shut off the alarms,” Ruge recalled. “So we park the buses [at Elmwood Park game] and both alarms are going off. I’m trying to turn mine off, and I can’t find Dallas anywhere. It turned out he left his minibus and he’s hitting fungoes on the field.”
On the return trip, Till decided the Bulldogs should stop at Johnnie’s Beefs in Elmwood Park to celebrate their victory.
“Dallas drives the lead minibus and I follow,” Ruge said. “Of course, he parks in the one open spot. There was so much traffic and it was so busy, I just decided to park in the middle of the street and told the kids to get out. People are looking at me like I’m crazy, and I’m pretending there is something wrong with the bus.
“I’m buying time for 15 minutes and finally the kids come back with the food. They get in the bus and we take off like a shot. It’s those funny, special memories that the kids love to experience.”
While Till and Ruge share a genuine affinity for each other, both coaches credited their wives, Alison Till and Lucy Ruge, as invaluable pillars of support. Till also is inspired by his 9-month-old son, Dayton, to keep coaching.
The coaches’ “extended family” revolves around daily interaction with their players.
“While we always focus on winning, there’s so much else that goes into coaching,” Ruge said. “We’re literally with these kids all day long. They share things with us that they might be afraid to tell their parents, teachers or counselors.”
The Bulldogs’ baseball and girls basketball programs are flourishing under the adept guidance of Till and Ruge. The RBHS girls basketball team (24-5) won a pair of holiday tournaments, and a conference championship in 2012-2013.
“Till is a go-getter and Ruge follows right along,” said RBHS forward Emma Schander, who will attend the University of San Diego next year. “My favorite memory was when we won conference, Till got his hair highlighted with frosted blonde tips just like he promised us.”
The coaching tandem amassed more wins in the spring, guiding the Bulldogs’ baseball team to a school-record 32 victories, along with conference and regional titles.
“Till and [Ruge] Roogs are tremendous coaches and great people,” RBHS pitcher Will Kincanon said. “I think they are a great combo because they get along well with the kids, but they are serious at the time.”
Joe Ruge, who holds the RBHS record for most RBI (45) in a single season, marvels at the coaching ability of Till and his dad.
“They are very competitive and have incredible baseball minds,” he said. “Any kid who plays for them is going to have fun and learn about the game.”
Over the past three seasons, the Till-Ruge alliance has produced a 43-16 record in girls basketball and an 81-31-2 mark in baseball.
For all their hijinks on the team minibus though, the fun-loving Bulldogs buddies are also most concerned with directing one-way traffic into the win column.
“We enjoyed two dream seasons this year,” Till said. “It raises the bar for us. Our goal is to duplicate or better the benchmarks we set this season.”