Evansville mourns coach
John O'Connell, who spent the last 35 years on the Blue Devils' coaching staff, passed away after suffering a stroke a week ago, and those who stood beside him in that long-term commitment to Evansville athletics—and football, in particular—join an entire community in feeling a great loss.
"There's not much you can say over a loss like that,” said Brian Cashore, the Evansville athletic director, a position O'Connell held for 20 years. "It's just a huge loss for the community and certainly the football tradition, which he has been part of for such a long time.
"He touched a lot of kids in that program and people throughout the community, not only as a teacher and coach, but as a person. He was a good friend."
That bond to Evansville began after O'Connell, a 1968 UW-Whitewater graduate, spent seven years of teaching mathematics and coaching at Edgerton. He joined the Blue Devil football staff under former head coach Bob Berezowitz in 1975 and kept that commitment to the very end on the staff of longtime head coach Ron Grovesteen.
"We were together at the high school all-star game just a couple weeks ago,” Grovesteen said of the annual Wisconsin Football Coaches Association (WFCA) event that included three Evansville players this year. "We were talking about the team (for this fall), and John was excited about the kids and linemen he was going to have. It just didn't work out the way you wanted."
But for so many years, it was a labor of love and tremendous compatibility on an uncommon Evansville coaching staff that grew together and stayed together. The rewards for that dedication not only have shown on the field but also in the recognition received by the coaches.
O'Connell, 64, was inducted into the WFCA Hall of Fame last March, joining Berezowitz, Grovesteen and Duane Updike from the Evansville staff in that honor. Randy Keister, a fifth member of that remarkable staff, will join the select group in being inducted next spring.
"There can't be many schools that have had that many coaches honored," said Berezowitz, who left Evansville in 1981 for a distinguished career at UW-Whitewater. "I think that's really special."
Berezowitz's relationship with O'Connell also was particularly special. O'Connell came out of Green Bay East High School, where he earned Associated Press all-state football honors as a guard in 1961 and 1962, and the two became UW-Whitewater football teammates and so much more.
"I was from Milwaukee, and he was from Green Bay, and we just grew together," Berezowitz said. "We became fraternity brothers and kept that friendship for all these years."
And to this day, Berezowitz remembers "Bulldog” as O'Connell's nickname.
"He just always played tough," Berezowitz said, "and he kind of even looked like a bulldog."
But mostly, O'Connell became a Blue Devil for life.
"You can't do anything for as long as we have and not enjoy the people you're doing it with," said Keister, who joined the Blue Devils the year after O'Connell and still is a vital part of the staff. "We enjoyed the camaraderie … and it was like family."
And that's the kind of loss the past and present Blue Devil coaches are feeling.