The Believer

Minooka’s Rudy retires after 21 years of leading by example

Junior+Jack+McClimon%2C+senior+Drew+Gutknecht%2C+head+coach+Bernie+Ruettiger%2C+senior+Jake+Mensik%2C+assistant+coach+Jeff+Charlebois%2C+and+assistant+coach+Mike+Kimberlin+get+together+at+the+2020+IHSA+Individual+State+Wrestling+Finals.++Ruettiger+is+retiring+after+21+years+at+Minooka.+His+lifetime+record+as+a+head+wrestling+coach+for+30+years+is+517-167.

Jon Ryan

Junior Jack McClimon, senior Drew Gutknecht, head coach Bernie Ruettiger, senior Jake Mensik, assistant coach Jeff Charlebois, and assistant coach Mike Kimberlin get together at the 2020 IHSA Individual State Wrestling Finals. Ruettiger is retiring after 21 years at Minooka. His lifetime record as a head wrestling coach for 30 years is 517-167.

Sports Media class

When coach Ruettiger arrived here 20 or so years ago, he told everyone that he would win a state championship. Most people didn’t believe him,” athletic director Bob Tyrell said. 

Bernie Ruettiger, or “Rudy,” as he is affectionately known, coached wrestling at Clifton Central for three years and then at Bradley-Bourbonnais for 10 years before landing at Minooka in 1999. 

At his first wrestling meeting with his new team in the high school library, Rudy told his wrestlers he came to Minooka to bring home a first-place trophy.

“With the response of some of the adults, you’d have thought I shot somebody,” Rudy said. 

One of the other coaches was angry, chased him down the hall and asked, “What do you think we have been trying to do?” Rudy recounted. He explained he meant nothing against what other coaches had been doing.  

“I was brought into offices. I was laughed at. I was told that would never happen. I was questioned why I would say something like that,” Rudy said.  “Heck, I was even told my job was in jeopardy after a year or two.”

Rudy knew coming to Minooka that they had a good wrestling program, but he noticed they had a weak schedule. So he started putting them against the best teams. The new schedule was a shell shock at first for most parents and wrestlers.

In his first three years, there was team success.  Minooka had an overall record of 44-23 under Rudy, with only the 2001-02 team having a losing record (and the only one Rudy would have at Minooka). But there was no state championship at that point. No individual champs either.

Rudy believed. He had spent most of his life confounding expectations. He was not the smartest kid in the class. He was not the biggest kid on the high school football field. The idea that he couldn’t do something was told to him at an early age.  As he retires this year after a long career in education, he’s shown a lot of people they were wrong. 

 

The Son

“I still remember in third grade my teacher calling me up to his desk and telling me, ‘You’re dumb,’” said Rudy.  “I also had a teacher in high school and in college say you’ll never graduate from college, and I did. But you go back to my parents, they were the motivating factor.”

Much of the man he is today was shaped long before adulthood. 

Rudy grew up in a big family.  He is the 13th of 14 children in his family, which consists of seven boys and seven girls, he being the second youngest boy. He used his siblings as role models, and they were all tough people.

His father worked three jobs to support the family, and his mother ran the house. 

“You could eat off the kitchen floor, it was so clean,” Rudy said.

They set good examples for the children by never cursing or fighting, being religious, and showing them that God always comes first.

 “My mom and dad were the type of people who would give more than they would receive,” Rudy said.

But he’d heard his family portrayed in a way that he didn’t agree with. 

“(Other people said) none of those kids will go to college, none of those kids will amount to anything,” Rudy said.

It’s safe to say those people were wrong. His parents’ example had rubbed off.  Not only did Ruettiger kids go to college, but one had arguably one of the most iconic sports movies ever made about him, another was a long-time police officer, and five were very successful teachers. Rudy himself graduated with a bachelor’s degree before becoming a teacher and coach. He later went on to earn his master’s degree.

 

The Athlete

Rudy attended Providence Catholic High School and played three different sports through his four years there — baseball, football, and wrestling.

He played baseball up until his junior year when he quit at Regionals due to being frustrated at a lack of playing time. “I was going to show them,” he said. That team would go on to win the state championship that year. 

“I regret not finishing my baseball career,” Rudy said.  It was a hard lesson he now tells kids about.

In football, he played from 7th grade all the way to his senior year. Junior year he played nose guard and beat out a kid that was bullying him the whole time because he was undersized. “I was 5-foot nothing, 100 and nothing,” he said. Senior year he played defensive back.

While Rudy was a great athlete in both of those sports, he was the most successful in wrestling. He started wrestling in the 7th grade. He wrestled at the Joliet Boys Club for hall-of-famer Larry Stonitsch. His partners when he first started wrestling were three state champions who taught him how to wrestle.  

In high school, he wrestled for a hall-of-famer, who was also his brother, Tim Ruettiger. Rudy would win a state title in 1977 as a sophomore at 98 pounds. In his junior year of high school, he broke his foot in gym class late in the season. The following year, he ended up getting fourth place in the 119-pound weight class.

His freshman year at Eastern Illinois University, he was put on academic probation and wasn’t able to wrestle. He started on the team three out of the five years at EIU. He never became an All-American, but beat many wrestlers who were All-Americans. 

 

The Motivator

Rudy doesn’t like to talk about himself. 

For this story, he came to the Sports Media classroom where 20 students awaited him. He looked shy at the beginning when he walked in and sat down at the table. He kept messing with his hands as he talked. He is not big, as his high school weight class indicated, so it may be surprising to some that he used to play nose guard.

He was respectful to anyone who asked him questions. He looked each of them in the eye. As the interview went on, he seemed to get more and more comfortable. The more he talked, the more you saw the coach in him. 

At times when he was answering questions, he wasn’t just answering questions.  He was trying to educate his questioners, the students in the Sports Media class, about life.  He was trying to give them advice and to motivate them. 

Mr. Kevin Gummerson, the head girls track and field coach, told a story about the effects of Rudy’s words.

Gummerson was getting ready to board a bus to head to a track sectional meet when he ran into Rudy in the hallway outside the athletic director’s office. Rudy asked his thoughts on the meet, and Gummerson just gave him a standard answer of something like, “We’ll see. It’s going to be a tough meet.”  

“I remember, he just lost it on me,” Gummerson said. “His voice squeaked a few times, and he proceeded to give me an incredible speech about dreaming big and taking advantage of the opportunity.  I am not exactly sure what he said; however, it did involve that I should not even get on that bus if we don’t think we can win.  When he was done, I was ready to run through a brick wall.”

 

The People Person

Rudy has a huge personality in the way he jokes around with his fellow peers and his students and the athletes he works with. 

“During teacher meetings in the auditorium, Rudy would call a coach’s phone when it got silent to see if their phone was turned on,” Mr. Jeff Petrovic, head baseball coach, said. 

Rudy would mess with people in different ways to try and make them laugh and have a good time. 

“Every practice or at least almost every practice he acts all serious and calls people over to him and then he says, ‘Nevermind,’ and just walks away like he didn’t just mess with us,” Nate Masters, junior wrestler, said. 

He can make everybody around him a happier and better person whenever he’s in a room. 

“He’s a people person. He talks to people. He likes kids, he likes being around kids and also he’s a joker. He plays pranks on people. He’s done it on me a couple times. Just a couple fun things that keep the day interesting. He’s gonna be missed!” Mr. Chris Brolley, head girls soccer coach, said. 

Mr. Matt Thomas, journalism, also mentioned how great Rudy is around kids. 

“Whenever a teacher has a new baby and they bring the kid to school, if coach Ruettiger is around he is always the first one to go and hold the baby. When my oldest son was younger — he has red hair — every time Rudy would see him, he’d go over to him and rub his head and say, ‘You’re hair’s on fire,’” Thomas said. 

His favorite type of athlete to coach was the tough one that was going to outwork someone. They didn’t have to be the most talented, but if they were a tough kid, they would become his favorite.  His own toughness became an example. 

“I had to wrestle coach in practice and he put his glasses off to the side, and I just wrestled him for as long as possible, and even though he was blind, he could still beat me up with his strength, which wore me out for my next partner,” sophomore wrestler Joey Westerhoff said.

He has been fortunate to coach many of his own children over the years, as well.  His son Michael is now a junior at MCHS.

“The biggest lesson is to respect anyone we wrestle, but never fear them,” Michael said. “Respect them because they are doing what you’re doing and wrestling, which not everyone can do because you know how hard it is.”

 

The Champion

In his 17 years as the head wrestling coach at Minooka, Rudy’s record was 325-82. He coached three state individual state champions: Russ Weil at 215 pounds in 2002-03 and 2003-04; Kalvin Hill at 160 pounds in 2010-11, and Jake Residori at 170 pounds in 2011-12. 

But the team state championship he told his first team about in 1999?  Minooka had come close a few times.

In the 2007 wrestling season, Minooka had 10 individual state qualifiers, four state place winners, and they qualified for state as a team. This sounds like a team that would’ve placed in the top 3, but Minooka lost in the first round. “We were one of the top teams in the state that year. We got beat first round, and we didn’t place. We were good, but we looked past the first round. That taught me a lesson, too,” Rudy said. 

During the 2008-09 season, Minooka would be even closer. They were beaten in the state finals by Oak Park-River Forest, 33-30, and settled for the second-place trophy.  

In 2009-10, Minooka was in the state finals once again. This time against Sandburg.  It was one of Rudy’s favorite moments. After being down early, Minooka rallied back. It came down to the last match, and freshman Matt Meyer won a 7-2 decision to give Minooka the state title, 26-20.

“Winning the state championship, coming back like we did down 16-0, and we won the last eight out of nine matches to win it all,” Rudy said. 

What had started at a meeting in 1999, had now come true. It was the first state championship ever for any team of any sport at Minooka.

The next year, Minooka would bring home another second-place trophy.  

From 2004-2013, Minooka wrestling only lost one regional. Rudy’s teams were 13-1 in dual team sectionals.  As head coach, he would have eight different teams qualify for state.  

 

The Coach

While Rudy made his mark as a wrestling coach, he spread his knowledge in other sports as well during his career. He also coached football and softball. 

His most memorable moment from football came when he was the freshman head coach.

“Something I didn’t like was kids dancing in the endzone after scoring a touchdown. One game we had a kid score a touchdown and my phone rang because my wife was due with our eighth child. The kid started doing a dance and I’m running down the sidelines trying to yell at him for doing a dance while on the phone with the hospital,” Rudy said.

 As a softball coach, one of his most memorable moments from coaching softball came when he first started coaching the sophomore team.

“The girl pitching that game threw a no-hitter, and she didn’t know it. I told her that she threw a no-hitter, and she was in shock and was like, ‘Really?’ I told her that you just pitched seven innings how could you not know that,” he said.

 

The Helper

In interviewing several of his colleagues, one trait that emerged about Rudy was his selflessness. 

He was kind of born into this lifestyle and was shown the importance of being selfless by his parents. In a family of 16 people, he had no choice but to learn how to share everything. 

His father was good at working with his hands and could fix anything. He would use those skills to help others. “That’s what he would do for people who didn’t have money. He would go to the poor areas and take care of people,” Rudy said. 

Along with that, his parents would go out and donate money and pray for the people in need. They had instilled beliefs that God came first and everything else came after that. 

“They would go out and give more time than they had,” Rudy said.

From the start, his parents had always taught him this way. They had always taught the lesson to the kids to treat others with kindness and give to others through their own actions. 

“We go back to grade school,” said Ms. Jeri Brockett, administrative assistant for the athletic director.  “I’ve known Bernie since I was 5. When we were younger he would just walk in my house, and my brother and I would just hangout with him. My fondest memory of Bernie is just coming to Minooka because of him, that is the main reason why I came here,” she said.

Ms. Kim Puckett, special education teacher, worked side by side with Rudy in the deans’ office for several years. 

“If there was ever a student or staff person that needed any sort of help of any kind, Mr. Ruettiger was always the first in line to help,” Puckett said.  “Mr. Ruettiger has done more that people don’t know about, than most people ever do and get credit for.”

There are multiple times while talking to Rudy about the success of the wrestling program that he would give 100-percent credit to his assistant coaches. While asking him about his coaching accomplishments, the first thing would say was: “Well, I had a great group of coaches around me.”  He wasn’t hesitant to name off all of his assistant coaches over the years, but he was hesitant about giving credit to his own coaching abilities.

When Rudy moved from the classroom to a dean at Minooka, he brought in Mr. Mark Brown, social studies teacher. But he did not bring him in as a teacher to start, he first hired Brown as a campus monitor.

“I student taught here back in the fall of ’05 and then coach Ruettiger hired me on as a campus monitor. He didn’t have to do that, I didn’t know if he saw something in me, but he just brought me on and gave me my start. Ever since then I have been an Indian for life,” said Brown.

 

The Family Man

The influence of his family was a common theme running through his interview with the Sports Media class.  He spoke to the class for about 40 minutes, and afterward his family was still on his mind, particularly his wife, Patti.  Minutes after the interview was over, he sent this email: 

I didn’t want to talk about my wife because I would have gotten too emotional. She is the rock, and she is the reason I was able to have the success I had. She sacrificed more than any one coach, any wrestler could have imagined. She dealt with my mood swings during the season, my always being gone, always helping someone while she waited at home with our eight children. She would drag them all to meets, tournaments to come to see their dad’s team. She spent endless hours and nights home with all our children, just so I could coach. She didn’t complain but always supported me. She never gave up on me and my dream to win a state championship. She always told me like it was especially when I was down and out. 

Rudy had never given up on himself, despite what others said.  And he never gave up on others either.  Mr. Paige Schoolman, CTE,  has coached with Rudy at Minooka for more than 20 years. 

“While the accomplishments of Rudy’s teams and athletes speak for themselves, coach Ruettiger’s impact on MCHS reaches far beyond those accomplishments and into the lives of his athletes and their families,” Schoolman said. “Coach Ruettiger never has given up on a kid.  His biggest impact is providing a positive impact on countless kids that others had given up on.  He has provided all students an opportunity to feel special when they are around him.”

 

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This story was written by the students in the Sports Media class at MCHS.  Nearly all of the story was written during the stay-at-home order due the coronavirus pandemic. 

The students had interviewed students and staff at Minooka before the stay-at-home order took place.  Rudy was gracious to sit for an interview in class on March 12, one day before Illinois Governor JB Pritzker would announce schools were closing.  

Students chose different topics they thought should be included into the story.  They then chose from those topics and began writing separately.  Those different sections were combined into one large story.  Students then chose what sections sounded repetitive, gave input on what should be cut and noted where details should be added.  

Blake Gromos spearheaded the beginning section on Rudy’s introduction to Minooka. Brennan Pekelder, Caleb Parker, and Gromos contributed to the section on Rudy’s upbringing.  Silas Slavik and Gromos wrote about Rudy’s athletic career.  Liam Daugherty provided observations on Rudy’s appearance.  Lucas Ruffino and Parker combined for the section on Rudy’s personality. Max Morales and Tyler Pointer covered Rudy’s wrestling coaching career. Kino Garcia wrote about other sports Rudy coached.  Zach Grayson and Jaden Paul wrote the section on Rudy being selfless.

Other students whose reporting contributed to this story included Izaak Avalos, Collin Beasley, Aiden Breen, Bryce Holden, Tele Jegede, Andrew Lant, Jack Sergeant, Nick Sheldon, and Spencer Tracy.