Wilmette, Sports

Loyola football coach John Holecek steps down in wake of third state championship

A Loyola Academy legend is going out on top.

John Holecek announced his resignation as head coach of Ramblers football during a banquet on Monday, Dec. 5, celebrating the Ramblers fourth state championship captured nine days earlier.

According to a news release from the school Holecek tentatively will leave Loyola, where he also serves as an assistant athletic director, in June.

Holecek wraps up a 17-year coaching tenure in which he led Loyola Academy to 17 playoff appearances, 185 wins (10.9 wins per season), nine Chicago Catholic League crowns, seven state championship games and three state titles.

Holecek, 50, of Glenview, did not immediately return message from The Record.

“There’s no question that John has elevated our football program, helping it to become a nationally recognized program,” said Genevieve Atwood, Loyola’s vice president for athletics, in the release. “The Holecek era will stand out among the storied history of Loyola’s football program for its grit, its winning tradition, and its commitment to excellence.”

Loyola football coach John Holecek works with his team during a preseason practice.

The release says that Holecek will “focus on the next chapter of his career,” but Atwood told The Record that chapter has not been decided yet. She said the school will for a committee to lead the process of selecting a new head coach for the football program.

The Loyola Academy coaching staff is filled with program veterans, like offensive coordinator Tyler Vradenburg, lines coach Pete Distaulo, and assistants Pete Devine, Mike Herbert and Mike Kotowski among others. The athletics department has another ex-NFL player on staff, Mark Carrier, a former Chicago Bear and Detriot Lion safety — but Atwood said while Carrier assists the program and its student-athletes, he has not shown interest in a coaching position.

Though relatively new to Loyola’s athletics department, Atwood is a 19-year employee of the school. She called Holecek a “great colleague and friend” who will leave behind a dynastic program in “great shape.”

“It really is bittersweet. We feel so blessed to be around him and watch him do his work,” she said of Holecek. “He elevated everyone with the belief that young people can achieve great things when challenged and given the foundation and tools to do the work.”

Holecek was a preps-sports star at Marion Catholic High School in the south suburbs before attending the University of Illinois to play football. He was twice an All-Big Ten linebacker as an Illini.

The Buffalo Bills selected Holecek in the fifth round of the 1995 NFL Draft. He played eight seasons in the NFL, including some time with the Atlanta Falcons and San Diego Chargers. In 2000, one of his only full seasons, Holecek racked up 110 tackles (seven for loss) with the Bills.

After his professional football career, Holecek returned to Illinois and was an assistant football coach at St. Ignatius on the South Side in the early 2000s. The head coaching position at Loyola — a Jesuit high school like St. Ignatius — opened in 2006, and Holecek was urged to apply.

“I didn’t really think I had much of a chance,” Holecek told The Buffalo News in 2019. “But I got recommendations from (former NFL coaches) Marv Levy and Wade Phillips, and I think they’re the reason I got the job.”

And then he made history.

Holecek’s first Ramblers team in 2007 went 5-4 in the regular season. It was the most losses they would record in the regular season under Holecek.

From 2008-2018, a span of 11 seasons, Loyola Academy football never won fewer than 11 games, played for six state championships, winning two of them (2015 and 2018). The 2015 Ramblers ran the table, finishing 14-0.

Holecek goes out on the highest of notes. The final three years with Holecek at the helm the Ramblers went 31-2. Loyola went 6-0 in a COVID-forced spring 2020-’21 season, and then only lost to state champions — 2021 playoffs against 8A champ Lockport, and 2022 regular season against 7A champ Mount Carmel — before claiming the program’s fourth state title with a 13-3 victory against unbeaten Lincoln-Way East on Nov. 26 at the University of Illinois’ Memorial Stadium in Champaign

“John hates losing,” Atwood said. “… How do you write a better script than that: a third championship and to win on the field he played on in college?”

Holecek is the winningest football coach in Loyola Academy’s history, and his 185 wins are more than 50 on top of the next peer: fellow legend John Hoerster (133-57 from 1987-2002). He coached in 70 playoffs games in his 17 seasons.

Holecek, seen here in a 2021 playoff game in Naperville, has coached in 70 playoff games in his 17 seasons at Loyola.

Holecek coached hundreds of Ramblers over the years, including stars such as quarterback Peter Pujals and offensive tackle Jimmy Murray who got their shots in the NFL. Many of the talents, however, did not play college football or moved on to smaller collegiate programs, laying proof to Holecek and his staff’s ability to bring out the best in their student-athletes.

Internet rumors swirled in 2016 and again in 2020 when his alma mater, the University of Illinois, was reworking its football coaching staff. He said in 2016 that before he considered any other options he wanted to be at Loyola when his children — Jake, Nick and Luke — graduated from the school. Luke is set to graduate in the spring.

Atwood said she and Holecek talked occasionally throughout this season about his possible departure and he has earned whatever opportunities come his way.

“In the latter part of the season, you could tell it was the direction he wanted to go,” she said. “Of course the first thing I said was, ‘What can we do to get you to stay?’ … but we support him and his decision and are filled with gratitude.

“To be on the inside, the way I am and see the amount of work and dedication and attention to detail and the way he works with young people is an amazing thing.It’s never been about him. I couldn’t be prouder of the work he’s done here. He’ll always be part of Loyola.”

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joe coughlin
Joe Coughlin

Joe Coughlin is a co-founder and the editor in chief of The Record. He leads investigative reporting and reports on anything else needed. Joe has been recognized for his investigative reporting and sports reporting, feature writing and photojournalism. Follow Joe on Twitter @joec2319

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