MARION — For some coaches, the first official day of football practice doesn’t carry quite the same cachet it once did.
But for those in that category, like veteran Marion coach Kerry Martin, Monday still was an unofficial alarm clock of sorts. It was the first day under IHSA rules that he could work his team out before their Aug. 30 season opener at Mahomet-Seymour.
“It does mean something because the first game is less than three weeks away,” Martin said while waiting out a heat delay before his team’s initial practice. “But we have had 25 days this summer to get ready, and with a young team like we have, we needed those days.
“I miss those days when the first day of practice really meant something. But we’ve had time this summer to do some things, so we don’t feel as hurried as we might have.”
Martin and 27 other coaches in Southern Illinois are technically on the same footing in what they can do through Wednesday. The IHSA doesn’t allow teams to wear anything more than helmets for the first three days before permitting them to don shoulder pads on Thursday.
For first-year Carterville coach Brett Diel, the start of practice brought a different meaning. A 13-year assistant under Dennis Drust before stepping away for four years to serve as the Lions’ athletic director, Diel conducted his first official workout as the head coach.
After changing from dress shirt and tie — teachers at Carterville started their school year on Monday — Diel reflected on what the day means to him.
“This is still a big day,” he said. “You can do all the summer activity you want, but it’s not mandatory. We don’t really sweat when kids are playing baseball or doing other things, but today, they’re on our time.”
Until at least late October, if not into November, football coaches will own their players’ time. There was a time when you could bet on at least one area school playing the Friday after Thanksgiving for a state championship, but those days are almost as much of an anachronism as Howard Cosell or Gallagher.
Harrisburg’s 2000 Class 3A state title is the last one a Southern Illinois school captured. No one from below I-64 has played for a state title since Du Quoin in 2008, when it fell 21-14 to Illini Bluffs on a touchdown pass with 25 seconds left in the game.
Last year gave no credence to a potential rebirth of the area becoming competitive on a state level. No team reached the third weekend of the playoffs. None was really close, either. The average margin of defeat was a whopping 36.4 points.
Martin, who has earned more than 200 wins in a storied career that has lasted nearly three decades, points to a variety of factors for the area’s dropoff.
“Southern Illinois has fewer teams that play football,” he said. “People argue that northern or central teams are doing more things in the offseason than Southern Illinois teams are accustomed to doing. They do that because they have more teams doing it, so coaches are more likely to get involved in it.
“We’ve got really good coaches here and some really good players, but we seem to have fallen behind. Not in making the playoffs, but when it gets to the second round and beyond, we aren’t as competitive as we were 20 years ago.”
Can this be the year that trend begins to reverse? That answer won’t be known until sometime in November, but as of Monday, everyone is undefeated and good enough to dream.