Four years ago, coach Randy Kuceyeski (better known as Kuz) announced that he would retire from teaching and coaching when the school year ended in 2012, making 2011 his final season as head coach of the Libertyville Wildcats. Kuz has been at Libertyville High School for 34 years, and this was his 19th season as head coach.
From Ohio to Illinois
Randy Kuceyeski and identical twin brother Ron Kuceyeski grew up in Alliance, Ohio. Kuz was a three-year starter for his high school football team, playing tight end and linebacker. He and his brother earned scholarships and played at Northwestern University.
Kuz played nose tackle on Northwestern’s defense from 1972 to 1976. The next year, Kuz graduated from Northwestern with his master’s in education. After finishing his degree, he found his eventual home, getting hired to teach and coach at Libertyville High School in 1978.
Coach Kuz was placed on the defensive coaching staff, working primarily with the defensive line for Libertyville under head coach Dale Christensen.
“He got a lot out of his athletes. He had that unique personality of having fun, but still able to get things done,” said Bryan Wilcox, a driver’s education teacher at Libertyville who also played on Kuz’s defensive line from 1985 to ’86 and later went on to play for UCLA as a defensive tackle. “He knows how to balance it out to be successful, and he really knew how to connect with every kid, even though every kid was different.
“He was pivotal in me going (to UCLA). He pushed the recruiting process and communicated to me the importance. He even called home once to talk to my parents to help get me more focused,” Wilcox reminisced. “Not to mention, he got me the exposure I needed, and he had me well-prepared to play defensive line at the next level.”
Beginning of Coaching Years
When Kuz started as an assistant, head coach Dale Christensen was in the midst of turning around a middle-of-the-pack Wildcats program. Christensen went on to complete the longest stint of any head coach at Libertyville, starting in 1971 and going until 1993. In the 16 years of Kuz being an assistant, the Wildcats captured three conference championships and made the playoffs five times (dating from 1985 to 1993).
In 1993, Christensen’s 21st season of coaching, the Wildcats were 12-0 and made it to the semifinal of the class 6A state playoffs. The morning before the semifinal match, Christensen went over the top trying to motivate his team. He staged a fake gun shooting and his own death in order to motivate his team. The incident went too far, the team ran for cover, the police were contacted, and national media caught wind of the act.
The Wildcats went on to lose the semifinal game to the eventual state champion, Loyola Academy. Two weeks later, Christensen resigned from the head coaching job at Libertyville.
In the offseason, Libertyville received more than 50 applications for the job; however, the unanimous vote among the selection committee was in favor of the longtime assistant and defensive coach: Kuceyeski.
Kuz had big shoes to fill, stepping in for the longest-tenured coach in Libertyville history.
In Kuz’s first year as head coach, the team started off a shocking 3-0 and finished with a 7-2 record before getting bounced out of the playoffs in Kuz’s first career playoff game. The defense for Kuz’s Wildcats stepped up in two games, setting school records. Against Fenton, the Wildcats didn’t allow a single rushing yard. In fact, Fenton finished with negative 10 rushing yards on the whole game. Later in the season, the Wildcats held the Antioch Sequoits to only two first downs in the entire game.
The next year, 1995, Kuz welcomed in a sophomore receiver named Brian Hamlett to complement three-year varsity quarterback Chris Fulbright. The defense returned eventual all-state players Brian Laughlin and Tim Beshel. In ’95, the Wildcats went 5-4 in the regular season to capture another playoff berth.
In a special win against Mundelein, the Wildcats rushed for a combined 445 yards, a school record, and averaged 11.7 yards per carry throughout the game, also setting a school record. However, with their second playoff berth under Kuz, the Cats again were eliminated after a first-round defeat. The next year, 1996, the Cats finished with a 6-3 record in the regular season but failed to make the playoffs for the first time under coach Kuz.
Start of a Dynasty
In 1997, Kuz and the Wildcats started to gain their identity.
“Everyone knows Kuz and the coaches are fun-loving people. I still remember my senior year lip sync, when all the football coaches did Men in Black and lifted Mr. Schaeffer and carried him around,” said math teacher and former player (’96-’97) Brady Sullivan. “Kuz started to spend time working with the student section, giving them ideas and an identity of their own. You really started to see an identity of Kuz in all the students, whether they were football players or just kids in the student section.”
In Sullivan’s senior season, he was joined by Hamlett and all-state offensive linemen Jason Jowers. Several juniors also played a big role, including quarterback J.C. Harrington, wide receiver and safety Kevin Walter.
The 1997 season was the first time the Wildcats won a conference championship under Kuz. The Wildcats finished 7-2 in the regular season and won their first playoff game with Kuz as the coach.
“He would show us videos of great comebacks and great college teams that would never give up. He really stressed the importance of not counting yourself out and putting forth a tenacious effort in everything you do, and they turned out to be applicable life lessons for me,” Sullivan said.
Moving into the 1998 season, the Wildcats had high hopes. Meanwhile, back in Alliance, Ohio, Kuz was inducted into the Alliance High School Athletic Hall of Fame. Then in the football season, the Wildcats were led by the dynamic duo of Harrington and Walter, and finished the regular season 9-0. The Wildcat offense shattered school records, such as pass completions on the year, with 110. Walter broke the record for receptions in a game, with 10 against New Trier, before going on to have 48 total on the year and 794 total receiving yards, now both the second highest in Wildcat history.
But, the offense wasn’t the only thing rolling that year. Dan Romito and Adam Dasilva tag teamed on the defense to both break the record for sacks in a year with 9.5. After a thrilling 9-0 season, the Wildcats were knocked out of the playoffs in the sweet 16, but won Kuz his second conference championship. Harrington and Walter went on to receive all-state honors for their successful seasons.
“He was the best coach I’ve ever had. I still remember my senior year like it was yesterday,” said NFL wide receiver Kevin Walter, Libertyville High School class of 1999. “He taught me that work ethic means everything and that nothing in football is ever just given to you. His football lessons related to real life. His lessons taught me that you have to work to get what you want. It also relates to life and is one of the main reasons I have gotten to where I am now.”
By 1999, Wildcat football was established. In Kuz’s first five years as head coach, he had a higher win percentage than any coach in Libertyville’s history. He also started to attract national attention, getting selected as an assistant coach for the 1999 East-West Shrine game after an impressive 10-1 season in 1998.
“The school was starting to transform. Kuz was evolving the school from a basketball school to a football school,” said Don Johnson, security guard at Libertyville and former LHS assistant football coach. “He would always get involved around the school, and always thought of something new and creative to do at the kickoff dance. One year we even came into the field house on motorcycles.”
After a successful ’98 season, the buzz around school swarmed toward football.
“It used to be that if you didn’t show up early for the basketball games, you couldn’t get in. The gym was packed. But after Kuz took over, you couldn’t even get into a football game if you showed up late,” exclaimed Johnson. “In the ’99 playoff game against Carmel, the entire stadium was packed to the edges. And that was when we were still playing on a grass field,” joked Johnson.
Prior to the 1999 playoff game against Carmel, the Cats finished with a 6-3 regular season record. It was the first time in two years that the Cats didn’t capture the conference championship and the first time in two years that they wouldn’t move past the first round. They suffered a devastating home defeat in front of the largest crowd ever at Libertyville.
By the turn of the century, Kuz knew what he wanted. In Ohio, high school football is much bigger than it is in Illinois. Kuz had a vision to transform his adopted hometown into what he grew up in: a football community.
Part of the transformation of the school was to make the weight room into a place the football players could call home in the offseason. He customized it and changed it into what it is today, putting up inspirational quotes and adding new weights and machines every year. He also added the profile testing records so players could shoot to try and make the record list.
Kuz also brought lights to the stadium. In Alliance, Ohio, towns shut down on Friday nights, as the community heads over to the high school to catch the game. So Kuz brought the lights, changed the playing field from an all-natural grass field to a turf-style grass field, and blended the community with the team.
“You could just see it beam off of him. He had a home-spun kindness about him. He loved the game and most importantly he loved his family. When you looked at him you just knew that about him,” Johnson said. “He promoted a family of athletes, and promoted bonding as part of the experience. When you played for Kuz, you bonded with him and with the rest of your team; that’s just how it went.”
From 2000 to 2006, Libertyville became the team to beat in Lake County. They became the dynasty and football powerhouse that Kuz wanted and expected from his players. In 2000, the Wildcats made it to the sweet 16 and captured their third conference championship with a final record of 9-2.
Then in ’01, the Wildcats went younger. Although they were a developing group, they still went on to capture Kuz’s fourth conference championship and were playoff-bound for the fifth consecutive year. That year, they finished 6-3 in the regular season before losing the first game of the playoffs to finish at 6-4.
The highlight of the 2001 season for Kuz was coaching his daughter and watching her graduate from high school.
“He wasn’t easy on me,” said Kuz’s daughter, Kristen Kuceyeski, today an English teacher at Libertyville High School. “He didn’t bend the rules, he didn’t change anything. I even had to cut my hair to be on the team, but it was very fun to be the varsity kicker.”
Kuz and wife Martha have four children. The Kuceyeskis have three daughters and a son. Ms. Kuceyeski was the first of Kuz’s children to play for him. Later, son John played for his father in ’04 for the state championship game.
Three Years, Only Three Losses
However, 2001 became a pivotal year, as it gave time to develop some sophomores toward the end of the season. Leading into the 2002 season, junior Kevin Fontana was ready to go. The ’02 Wildcats rolled over most of their competition, finishing the regular season with a record of 8-1, good enough for their third straight conference championship. They cruised through the playoffs, averaging an impressive 34.7 points a game that season. The Cats made it to the elite 8, the furthest they had ever made it under coach Kuz at that point. Fontana and Devon Parks went on to receive all-state recognitions in ‘02
After a career-best elite eight finish for Kuz, the next two seasons proved to be legendary. In 2003 and 2004, the Wildcats went a combined 17-1, with their only loss coming in overtime of the state finals against Oswego in 2003. The Wildcats went on to win the conference championship both years for a total of five straight conference titles. Statistically, the Wildcats’ ’03 season was the best season they ever had. They set season records in almost every major offensive category except for passing.
After a heart-wrenching overtime defeat to Oswego, the Cats came back more determined than ever. In ’04, the defense was the high point for the Wildcats. The defense allowed an average of 11.7 points per game, while the offense averaged an impressive 34.1 points per game.
The Cats blew through everyone they played and allowed only 3 points in the state title game against Cary Grove. They were crowned state champions of Class 7A, Libertyville’s only state title in football. During halftime of the state championship game, Kuz got in line in the stands to get a hot dog.
“I was waiting in line to get some food during halftime with my sons,” explained Mr. Stevens, director of student services. “I was talking to my son when I looked up and noticed Kuz in front of me. I didn’t realize it was his brother Ron at the time but he turned around and saw my face and said, ‘What, I can’t get a hot dog at halftime too?’ He had me in shock before I realized it was Ron. Ron and Kuz were always playing tricks on faculty and students when Ron came to town to visit.”
After the season, Kuz was voted by Nike as the Illinois High School Coach of the Year. He also was selected again to be on the coaching staff for the East-West Shrine game, this time being the head coach for the East squad.
“The ’04 state title I will always remember. We shared some special memories and it was nice to coach my son in the state championship game,” Kuz said.
The season was memorable for everyone. The team and coaches celebrated with all the students, the staff and the community.
“It was a great season. The buzz around school, everyone was expecting to go down and win state in ’04. Every Friday the stadium was packed and everyone followed the team to all the away games. It was two back-to-back stellar years for LHS,” Johnson said.
Success breeds success, and after the ’04 season, the Cats continued to make the playoffs for the next two years and won yet another conference championship in 2006. In ’05, they went 6-3 and then advanced to the sweet 16, finishing 7-4. And in ’06, the Cats went 9-0 in the regular season and advanced to the sweet 16 again before losing a close game to Rolling Meadows to finish their season 10-1.
Since ’07, the Wildcats have gone 21-26, making the playoffs in 2008 and 2011. In 2009, Kuz was awarded the Randy Walker “Doing Great” Award by the National Football Coaches Foundation. In ’09 Kuz also was selected by the NFL to represent the state of Illinois at the National Youth Development Summit in Canton, Ohio.
The Little Things
Every year, Kuz does more than just coach. Occasionally Kuz and the football coaches will go to the kickoff dance with a new theme, and do the lip-sync dance. He also always plays a lead role at the homecoming assembly, with fun games and cheers for the students to do.
Outside of football, his job at Libertyville High School is as a physical education teacher, where he connects with students who don’t necessarily play football. He connects with them on a deeper level and can become friends with his students.
“Not only are the students losing coach Kuz, but the faculty is losing a leader.” said assistant athletic director Jon Fischl. “He always has great ideas and fun things to do, and he speaks to every one of his colleagues with emotion and it comes from the heart. Everyone here will miss him.”
The Final Season
In Kuz’s last season the team and community have come together to honor him. In 2010 against Stevenson, the Wildcats unveiled pink uniforms to help fight breast cancer and raise awareness. Then in 2011, to start the season, the Wildcats showed off their new camouflage jerseys against Barrington to raise money for the wounded warrior project. Then, later in the year against Warren for the homecoming game, Schurr invited back all the captains that played for Kuz in his 19 seasons.
When coach Kuz leaves, he will join the ranks of the legendary coaches of Libertyville, such as basketball coach Max Sanders, baseball coach Jim Panther, wrestling coach Dale Eggert and now football coach Randy Kuceyeski.
“Kuz is just a winner; I wish him the best of luck to him and his family. Football wasn’t everything to him. He is just overall a great guy,” Schurr said.