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By Mike Sandrolini
HILLSIDE | Nelson Rodriguez, the new head football coach at Proviso West, is familiar with the success the Panthers achieved on the gridiron only a few years ago. And he’s well aware of the slide they have taken the past four seasons.
The Panthers qualified for the Class 8A playoffs four straight years under then-coach Famous Hulbert (2009-2012). However, they fell on hard times following the 2012 campaign, with their playoff streak ending in 2013.
They compiled a 2-7 record in 2013 as well as in 2014, and went 1-8 in both 2015 and 2016—with their only triumphs each season coming against rival Proviso East. The Panthers haven’t won a West Suburban Silver contest since their last playoff appearance—a skid that’s reached 21 straight games.
Rodriguez, who succeeds Larry Spires after one year, is the Panthers’ third head coach in as many years. He relishes the challenge of righting the ship at Proviso West.
“To come off a season where you won one game with the type of athletes that are at Proviso West, I welcome the challenge to help them get back to the years when they were in the playoffs and to success,” Rodriguez said. “The fact that they play in one of the toughest conferences in Illinois (the West Suburban), the challenge appealed to me and I think we’ll be able to get back to where we used to be.
“I think there’s a lot of athleticism and a lot of potential,” he continued. “What we need to do is take the potential that exists and hone it, perfect it and teach them some of the skills, organization, discipline and structure that is necessary to have success not only on the football field but off of it as well.”
Prior to taking over at West, Rodriguez was the defensive coordinator at Walter Payton College Prep in Chicago, which made the IHSA playoffs six consecutive seasons. Last year, the Grizzlies went 8-2, won the Heartland Conference championship, advanced to the CPS semifinals and also to the Class 5A state playoffs.
“I came into Payton as part of a new staff,” he recalled. “We had a new offense and a new defense, so it’s understanding the way to teaching the offense and the defense, taking one step at a time and instilling confidence in the players so they can play fast and know what they need to do. A lot of the correlation between Payton and Proviso West is that we really need to come in and learn the basics and the fundamentals of the game, teach that and go from there. “
Rodriguez has had summer practices sessions with his new players over the past few weeks. Most prep teams also take part in 7-on-7 events against other squads, but the Panthers haven’t participated in any 7-on-7’s this summer.
“That’s been by design,” he said. “We’ve got a new offense and a new defense, so rather than just go out there and kind of run around and see who can be an athlete, we’ve got athletes. What we need is football players learning the system, learning our offense, learning our defense, and learning the fundamentals.
“We’ve had two-and-a-half weeks of practices thus far and I’ve really been focused on the fundamentals; learning the basics, building our foundation. Now as we roll into our next session of practices, we’re really going to dive into the offense and defense and then we’re going to culminate that three weeks of practice into a 7-on-7 that we’re going to do with four or five other teams. That will be a benchmark to see where we’re at, what do we need to work on.
“I don’t put too much stock in 7-on-7. At the end of the day we play football; it’s 11 men on the field with full pads. Seven-on-7 is great; it allows you to see certain things and work on things, but that’s not going to be the end-all, be all.”
Rodriguez is installing a new offense and defense at Proviso West. He summed up what Panther football fans can expect offensively and defensively in 2017 this way:
“Our defense is going to be one where we swarm to the ball—11 guys flying to the ball,” he said. “Everyone is going to be expected to go until the whistle blows. A play typically is five seconds long, and if you can’t go for five seconds all out, then you’ll be standing on the sidelines. Our offense is going to be predicated on the athletes that we have and being fundamentally sound whether it’s running it or passing it. It should be a balanced attack, but we want guys who’ll be able to do their jobs and keep it simple, but be very good at what we do.”
Rodriguez added that he’s been around the game of football for 40 years.
“We’ve got a great coaching staff,” he said. “They’re all dedicated and know the game of football, but they’re also dedicated to the players. We take an educational approach to the game of football, teaching them the right way to do things and then parlay that out on the field.
“Coming off a couple of seasons where we haven’t had a lot of success, changing the mindset, the culture, the attitudes and getting guys out to be consistent at practice, getting more numbers, all those things are challenges,” he added, “but not ones that can’t be overcome. It’s going to take some time. I think we’ve done a pretty good job of setting a bar as to what the expectations are, how we’re going to go about holding everybody accountable.”
PWP stands for Proviso West Panthers, Rodriguez mentioned, but PWP will be taking on new meaning this football season.
“It also stands for Practice with Purpose and Play with Passion,” he said, “and I think trying to make sure all the players know they’re accountable for their own actions. They need to control the controllable, and give maximum effort every time they step onto the field, every time they’re at practice, every drill that they’re in. That’s the approach we’re taking, so with PWP, we’re really trying to have that be our tag line (this year).
“I really believe that we have a plan, we have a process and if you do these things, success will follow. Some days you may win, some days you lose but we will be competing in every game, and if we follow the recipe, good things are going to happen.”