Sept. 9, 2005
The Illinois football family lost one of its valued members this past weekend when former Illinois end and head coach, Jim Valek, passed away at the age of 77 after complications from lung cancer surgery. The Illinois football program and the athletic department send their deepest condolences to the Valek family. The following is a tribute written by fightingillini.com's Jared Gelfond to the life and career of Jim Valek.
I had the unique opportunity two years ago to spend about two hours on the phone with Jim to talk about everything that went on during his tenure as head coach of the Illini. I can honestly say it was one of the more enjoyable interviews I have ever conducted.
At the time, Jim wasn't in great health, but that didn't hold him back. He was funny, he was engaging, he was passionate about talking about his time at Illinois and it was evident that he still cared deeply for his alma mater. It would have been easy for him to be bitter about getting placed in a virtually impossible situation at Illinois, but I didn't sense any of that.
Was Jim Valek going to turn around Illinois football if he was given more time? I certainly don't know the answer to that, but I do know that for the time from 1967-1970, he deserves a lot of credit---much more than he has ever been given---for being the `sacrificial lamb' that worked as hard as he could to bring Illinois football back to life after the Slush Fund.
I was saddened to hear about the news of his passing and my condolences go out to the entire Valek family.
In the history of Illinois sports, few people have defined what it meant to be an Illini more than Jim Valek. Spending years in Champaign as both a player and a coach, one of his great lasting legacies will be the love that he had for his alma mater.
Valek began his career as a star football player at Joliet Township High School. When it came time for Valek to make his college choice, it was virtually a no-brainer. He was from the state of Illinois and Valek, like his future coach Ray Eliot, believed kids from the state of Illinois should go to their state school. So after a trip to Champaign for the News-Gazette All-State Banquet, Valek accepted the scholarship offer from Eliot and his Illini career began.
From 1945-1948, Valek played end for the Orange and Blue and had the opportunity to play in the 1947 Rose Bowl and block for Illini great Buddy Young. By the time he was a senior, Valek had turned into an exceptional lineman and his play in that year earned him the team MVP.
After graduating from Illinois, Valek turned down offers to play professionally to pursue his dream of coaching. After coaching high school football at Lasalle-Peru and Joliet, he left for the coaching ranks, becoming an assistant for one year at Illinois under Pete Elliott, at South Carolina and at Army before that call came in from then Illinois Athletic Director, Gene Vance (who had coached with Valek at Lasalle-Peru).
Under the absolute worst circumstances imaginable, he was asked to become the head football coach at his alma mater and, much like Harv Schmidt in basketball, he accepted the job immediately, probably not realizing the uphill climb he was facing.
The "Slush Fund" had devastated the Illinois football program. When Elliott resigned, the program was in a state of disarray as players were transferring and failing out. By the time Valek was hired and had his staff in place, he had virtually lost an entire year of recruiting.
If all of that wasn't enough to combat, Valek coached at Illinois in an era of campus upheaval as Vietnam War protests and radical students made it hard to accomplish anything.
In an interview I did with Coach Valek in February of 2003, he discussed the difficulty of keeping everyone focused on football during this time.
"Half the time we would go out to practice at seven in the morning and we would have to run the couples off the practice field. They had been out all night sleeping under their blankets and students were rising up all the time, getting arrested and getting locked in the stadium. They would place the kids in the Great West Hall of the Stadium, and when they opened the doors the police couldn't hold them. There would be about one-hundred kids running across our practice field."
It was a time of anti-establishment and being part of an `establishment' like the football program was not viewed the same way it is today.
"One of my best players was a guy named Mickey Hogan (Illinois defensive tackle: 1967-1968) and Mickey came to me one day after his junior year," recalled Valek. "We had a winter program where guys would show up to do different things, but Mickey said he wasn't going to go and he wasn't going to play football anymore because he wanted to be involved in more student activities.
"I remember recruiting another kid from Galesburg who was a good looking lineman.
"He shows up the night before Christmas, it's freezing outside, he is on a motorcycle with a vest on and no shirt and he says he is quitting football and leaving for Florida. At one time it seemed like every morning I walked into my office, two or three guys would be quitting. Football was so looked down upon by the student body that it intimidated the football players."
Ironically, Valek's first year as Illini coach produced his best results. Playing with some of the players left over from the Pete Elliot era, the team went 4-6 and had a huge win in Columbus over Ohio State (the next win over Ohio State for Illinois would come 16 years later during the Rose Bowl season of 1983). As Pete's players began to graduate, the effects of losing the year of recruiting started to plague Valek, as his second team at Illinois went 1-9 and his third failed to win a single game.
By the time his fourth year rolled around, Valek's team started to show some life, but it was too late. After starting the season 2-1, the Illini lost their next two games and on the Friday night before the Ohio State game, Coach Valek was told that the board had voted 9-0 that the next day would be his last game on the Illinois sidelines and that Ray Eliot would take over for the rest of the season.
In a show of great respect and gratitude, the Illinois players didn't agree with the decision. The Illini played inspired against the top-ranked Ohio State Buckeyes (even leading the game at halftime), and after the game, captain Doug Dieken led a team-only meeting where they decided to let everyone know that if Coach Valek was let go, the entire team would quit for the rest of the season.
After some scrambling by the board, Coach Valek was retained, and after beating Purdue in the following week they lost their last three games to finish 3-7 on the year. At the end of the season, he was let go officially and his tumultuous four-year tenure was over.
After departing Illinois, Valek turned his attention to pro football. He spent three years in personnel with the Dallas Cowboys and then spent seven years with the New England Patriots as a coach and an assistant general manager. After moving back to the college ranks to become an assistant athletic director at the University of Colorado, he went into the USFL with the Washington Generals.
While with the Generals he signed Herschel Walker and worked for two years under then-owner Donald Trump. After leaving the Generals he worked for three years with the Buffalo Bills and had a short stint in the European league before retiring to Columbia, South Carolina.
He is survived by his wife of 60 years, Lois; his two children, Jim Jr. and Jayne; daughter-in-law Penny Valek; and his three grandchildren, Jim, Lindsay and Parker, along with his brother John and his sisters Dorothy, Marsha, and Catherine.
The following are just a few of the thoughts and memories that have come in from Jim Valek's former teammates, coaches and colleagues.
Carson Brooks (Illinois Defensive End: 1966-1968)
"Jim Valek had an infectious laugh. He was very energetic, and when he showed emotion, there was no limitation. When he greeted you, there was great enthusiasm and his laughter was a wonderful thing. On Thursday nights, Coach Valek invited the seniors to his home for his wife, Lois's, famous lasagna and we would play Scrabble. Coach Valek had a tremendous vocabulary, and as I recall no one ever seriously challenged him in that game. I am very sorry to hear of his passing, and I wish his family my very best."
Rich Erickson (Illinois Safety: 1965-1967)
"I was a senior in Coach Valek's first year as head coach in 1967. He came in under difficult circumstances following Pete Elliott, who had great success in football and was a town favorite, but I do know that he worked extremely hard.
"Coach Valek was a tough hard-nosed guy from Joliet who certainly bled Orange and Blue. He always tried to keep us focused and build team unity, and so each week we had a home game he would invite the seniors over his house and his wife would cook us a terrific meal of lasagna/spaghetti and salad. It was his way to emphasize the team concept, and when you look back at it now, it was certainly an emotional thing to lose the coaches that recruited you and that you had success. But Jim did everything he could to make us feel comfortable.
"He was a throwback to the Ray Eliot era, and he had a lot of the good traits that Coach Eliot had. I always remember Jim taking the team out to Allerton Park and I remember one homecoming he gave us a speech about overcoming insurmountable odds. He told us the story of the 1946 Rose Bowl game when they were supposed to get beaten by UCLA and they killed them. When I think of Jim Valek, I think of Illini tradition and a great solid guy."
Mike Wells (Illinois Quarterback: 1970-1972)
"Coach Valek was a tough guy---a very hard-nosed guy, but also a very sincere and family-oriented man. I thought the world of both him and his wife, Lois, and I think, overall, we had a great relationship."
Tim McCarthy (Illinois Safety from 1969-1970)
"I first came in contact with Jim Valek as a freshman football player, because I was only a walk-on. I really believe he was a very good coach who was thrust into a difficult position. It was clear that when Jim took over the Illinois football program, it was going to take four or five years to turn the program around. Jim did everything in his power to try and do it---quite frankly, I think they should have given him more time.
"Jim and his coaching staff really had a good attitude throughout and he wouldn't allow the team to get down. Even when we went 0-11 when nothing went our way, he just wouldn't let the team get too down.
"He used to always give us a speech about the bird and the hand. You could either let the bird go or hold onto it and he was trying to make the point that the game was in our control. He had all sorts of motivational stories, and it was just his personality in general that made him such a good person. He never yelled at us in a derogatory fashion, and I give him a lot of credit for that."
Rich Johnson (Illinois Fullback: 1966-1968)
"Coach Valek had come from West Point and was a tremendous disciplinarian in many respects, but I had a lot of admiration for him because he was a very, very nice man. He could be `gruff' and tough, but he was also an honest and fair man.
"He had this tough image, and when you first met him he would have that West Point attitude, but I will tell you he had a heart bigger than Texas. To tell you the truth, the situation that Coach Valek was put into at Illinois was almost unfair. It was not fun being in the locker room, being down 33-0 to Notre Dame and having the feeling that you were a small cavalry going up against the entire Sioux nation--it was like you could fight and fight but never win. But through all that, Coach Valek and his staff kept fighting, and for that he has my utmost admiration.
I will forever be honored to have played for him, forever thankful for how Jim and his coaching staff treated me, and forever thankful for what they did for me."
Dean Volkman (Illinois Quarterback: 1965-1967)
"Jim Valek was a great person, a good coach, and I only played for him one year, but he was a very fair and honest man. We did pretty darn good that year for losing all of those players we did from the Slush Fund the year before. His entire staff, as far as I am concerned, jumped in and did the very best they could.
"I am very sorry to hear about Coach Valek, and I wish his wife and the rest of his family the very best. They should know that I had great respect for Jim."
Tom Stewart (Illinois Quarterback: 1946-1949 and a teammate of Jim Valek)
"He was a very good friend of mine, and it's hard right now to even put what he meant to me in words. He had a great sense of humor, was extremely loyal and he was an extremely good family man.
"As a football player, he was a fierce competitor and had incredible physical toughness. I know he was greatly honored when he was named the head coach of Illinois football, and even though he didn't have the success that he wanted, he always felt he was a part of Illinois and remained involved with the University and the athletic program.
"There is no doubt he will be greatly missed."
Brodie Westen (Illinois Offensive Line Coach: 1968-1970) "He was a great friend as well as a boss and our families were very close to each other. He inherited a `bag of worms' situation at Illinois that I am not sure the good Lord himself could have straightened out, but he handled it like a pro. Like everyone else he did in his life, he was on top of things and he didn't seek a lot of praise nor did he pass out a lot of blame. For lack of a better term, he was a man's man and I was very proud to have him as a friend.
"He was an incredible crossword person and he could finish the crossword in the first hour or hour-and-a-half we were on the road during recruiting trips. A lot of people mistook the gruff exterior of Jim Valek for a very simple-based person and it was really quite the contrary. He was very intelligent, very; this was probably a little bit of a payback from Jim to the University.
"One thing he treasured was loyalty, and he displayed it all the time. He was extremely loyal to his friends, his coaches and his player, and it was repaid because the players wouldn't allow Jim to be fired mid-season.
"As Ray Eliot would have said, the spirit of the Illini never died with Jim Valek. We visited with him in Columbia, South Carolina, here, recently, and he had a room that was virtually an Illini shrine---it had his mementos from his playing days as well as his coaching days."
Gene Vance (Illinois Athletic Director who hired Jim Valek)
"He was an incredible guy and he was always so friendly. He was always upbeat about everything. When he was coaching at Lasalle-Peru, I was his assistant, and of course, I didn't know much about football, but he got me through.
"I knew from being around that he knew his football extremely well, and I didn't think there was a better guy to come take over the Illinois football program after the Slush Fund than Jim Valek.
"It's a tremendous loss for me and for all Illinois fans."
Larry McCarren (Illinois Center: 1970-1972)
"I remember meeting Jim Valek for the first time when he came to my high school to recruit me. He shook hands with me, and I was amazed at how enormous and strong his hands were. I remember thinking that he was a down-to-earth, decent human being and that turned out to be the case.
"I will never forget when we found out that Coach Valek was going to be let go during the 1970 season, and when he came into the locker room and said, "I don't want you guys to win the game for me. I want you guys to go out and win it for yourself." There were a lot of tough Chicago-area guys on that team, and there wasn't a dry eye in the house.
"We went out and stayed with a great Ohio State team for most of the game, and we had no business doing that. I think it showed you the feeling that the guys on that team had for Jim Valek, and it all goes back to him being a decent human being.
"I always thought a Jim Valek-coached team would `hit' with anybody. I can remember Dan Dierdorf, who was over at Michigan, saying that regardless of Illinois' record, they would always hit you hard. He preached really tough, hard-nosed, basic football, and that is the way we played the game. We may not have scored a lot of points, but I guarantee everyone in the Big Ten knew when they played Jim Valek's Illinois teams they were in for a tough game."
Kirk McMillin (Illinois Guard: 1969-1970)
"Coach Valek was a great guy, and I have nothing but positive things to say about my time playing for him. When I look back at 1969, which was a 0-10 season, I remember we lost a lot of players, and we just weren't that good. The coaching staff was human just like everybody else, but I remember them bringing a positive attitude every week and we would always try.
"It was a great time in my life. Ever since I was a little kid, I had a dream to play Big Ten football, and Jim Valek was a big part of that dream being fulfilled. It was a fun experience and it would have been better had we won more, but I still respect Jim Valek and his staff very much."
Doug Dieken (Illinois Tight End: 1968-1970)
"He was a man that was thrown into a situation that a lot of people probably wouldn't have taken. It was kind of a no-win situation and we were about to go on probation, but he never looked at it that way. He looked at it as you just go out there to play as well as you can for as long as you can, and hopefully we will win some football games. We didn't win many, but it wasn't because of his coaching as much as the situation we were in.
"He had that truck driver kind of mentality where you thought this guy was just hard-nosed and mean, but the bottom line is that he wanted football to be more than a game. He wanted it to be a family and both Coach and his wife Lois were always generous with his house and we loved going over there for Lois' famous lasagna.
"We were getting ready to play Ohio State and we were staying at Allerton the night before the game when one of the assistant coaches, Ellis Rainsberger, grabbed me and said that Coach Valek was fired and would be let go after the game.
"He gave us a speech before the game and told us how much he appreciated us and how he appreciated that we always tried hard. After the game I asked the coaches to leave the meeting room and I stood up and said, `As far as I am concerned, Coach got a bad deal and he isn't responsible to the situation we are in. The University of Illinois fight song says we're loyal, and if coach isn't going to be here on Monday, then we aren't going to be here on Monday.' I asked for a show of hands of who was with me and every guy in that room raised his hand.
"After we sent a letter, Coach Valek was retained, and the next week we went over to Purdue and beat them---we gave Coach the game ball.
"I don't know if you need a better example of how Jim Valek was respected by his players."
Ron Guenther (Illinois Guard: 1965-1966 and current UI Director of Athletics)
"Jim Valek will always be remembered as a terrific Illini. He was an outstanding, leader both as a player and coach. Most importantly, he was a kind and generous person. He will be missed by all of us."