How a coach became the mentor of a lifetime.
The sweat on his arms and legs collected dust and grime until he was a different shade of himself. There were two days until football practice at Tiskilwa High School and Randy Oberembt was hard at work. A different sort of work. Many head coaches were meeting with their staffs to break down film, strategize, or look over the roster – during his first day on the job, Coach O was knee deep in rain-damaged tackling dummies, coiled hoses and wire, and assorted debris which had been absently tossed into the “football shed” (a barely standing tin structure on the edge of an unmown field). He was sorting through equipment, taking inventory, and cleaning (responsibilities generally assigned to the equipment manager). Next, he would hop on a riding John Deere and mow the field on which they were expected to practice in two days’ time (a responsibility generally reserved for the grounds crew). Before the sun went down, he would push a field striper in steady paths to chalk-spray a football field into existence.
There had been budget cuts at a school with an already paltry budget. Despite its budget and small enrollment, Tiskilwa was still able to field a forty student roster, and they would be showing up for practice soon – Coach O had an obligation to fill. So he did. Over the course of that first season, similar situations called for extra effort, and Coach O was always ready for the challenge.
Early in his career, Randy Oberembt was developing into a special sort of leader. He was/is confident and competitive. That first year, he was fresh off a career as a college football player. He had a little bit of a mean streak, (which is exceedingly difficult to believe, since kindness characterizes his current role as Athletic Director at New Trier High School in Winnetka, IL).
He has always worked long hours. Early on, he fought difficult situational battles. Currently, he does his best to limit those difficult situations for coaches under his charge … but I’m getting ahead of myself. The sort of leader he was developing into, pushing harder than most are willing to push, often in unglamorous ways, is what I have come to refer to as “The General on Foot.” I am of the opinion that the best generals, the best leaders, are the ones who are willing to get down off their horse and get into battle. He was on foot a lot those first few years – literally and figuratively.
Tiskilwa played football in front of few. Their games were not shown on television, and there was no radio broadcast. They would win or they would lose and the paper would mention it the next morning, but anyone who might be interested in the score was in the stands the night before. On game day, Coach O would juggle the role of Head Football Coach, Offensive Coordinator, Grounds Crew, Equipment Manager, and (often) Athletic Trainer, tossing bags of ice to the bumped and bruised. His salary at Tiskilwa was a living wage, nothing more.
I feel obliged to mention here that Coach O has since been a head football coach at both the high school and college level, is a member of his college’s Hall of Fame, and has been the Athletic Director at two of the nation’s best high schools. In his current role, he leads the largest and most successful Athletic Department in Illinois—by all quantifiable standards (participation, winning percentage, etc.,)— a department which has been ranked Top 20 in the Nation by both Sports Illustrated and ESPN the Magazine. But it wasn’t always like that…
So, why? Why would a talented, intelligent graduate of a high-caliber liberal arts college, a man with high earning potential, stretch himself thin on menial tasks? “Because that’s what had to be done. The kids were counting on it.” He demonstrates a deep, internalized commitment to his values – his actions are less about what he is hoping to accomplish, more about who he is.
It’s a pure vision of moral identity. He was working – he was working hard – but he insists it never felt like work. There was a large group of people counting on a football season, so he gave them one. The athletes were on the bad end of the budget cuts, there was nothing they could have done to prevent or fix the situation. So Coach O made it a better situation, as he does.
His demonstration of moral responsibility won the trust and respect of his new team, which served as a platform from which he could teach the value of hard work and living rooted in a strong morality identity. Over the course of the season they fought for each other, and in the offseason they worked hard for those less fortunate, with all of the players fulfilling a community service pledge through a variety of events facilitated by Coach O. They were members of a miniature society, morally responsible for their own conduct and the wellbeing of their teammates. The team’s grades improved. Less talented members of the team found a voice and a home and in one year, the Tiskilwa Indians went from zero wins to a playoff contender. Coach O attributes the turnaround to their sense of responsibility to each other, rather than their ability, and certainly more than any coaching strategy. “It certainly wasn’t the Xs and Os. Their Coach was sort of a numbskull,” he jokes. The winning was a product of solid human development, not the other way around.
I met Randy in 2007. I had been working at New Trier High School when I went to play football in Ireland. While I was gone, the school hired a new Athletic Director who just happened to be from my alma mater, Knox College. I was eager to meet him. I had already heard of him: when I was an undergraduate considering a career in coaching, my then coach, Andy Gibbons, helped me compile a list of Knox alums he thought I should know. Todd Monken was on the list (coaching for the Jacksonville Jaguars at the time), and John Wozniak (on the staff at LSU), and this guy whose name I wasn’t sure I could pronounce at a high school (MICDS at the time) I had never heard of… why do I need to know this guy? I wondered. After asking (out loud, literally) Coach Gibbons said, very sincerely, trust me on this. I did, and I do, and over the last eight years Randy has become the moral catalyst in my life.
Randy and I discuss moral literacy during each of our meetings. Truly, I don’t remember a meeting during which we did not consider ideas of morality and how he/I/we as a school might better demonstrate our ideals. Every big idea is built with solid bricks – those bricks are frequently defined: integrity, gratitude, compassion, and many others – acknowledging these key ethical values is the first step to defining our moral identity, which ultimately allows us to accomplish our goals as moral educators.
At a large high school (more than four thousand students), Randy nurtures an expansive moral capacity, and his sense of morality demands inclusion. There is no insignificant member of the New Trier community. He speaks on this topic, and demonstrates it. In what has become typical fashion, Randy attends many of New Trier’s athletic events. This may seem like an expected habit of an Athletic Director, but it is anything but universal. Consider what that entails: Randy arrives at school around 7:00am, fulfills the duties of his job description (a demanding daily schedule of consecutive meetings, budgeting, facility coordination, etc. – for the largest athletic department in the state), then heads off to support one or two of his teams which, at times, means driving an hour or more, and always means working on weekends. Even for local games, these days often end well after 8:00pm. He regularly works more than seventy hours per week. Witnessing how generous he is with his time is inspiring.
I have mentioned his work capacity numerous times, but this is not about work ethic. It is about human investment, it is about moral identity. It is meant to highlight how consistently he demonstrates his commitment to those within his circle of concern. And it’s a large circle.
Randy will retire at the end of this school year. The truth is, New Trier will go on. New Trier will continue to thrive. The Athletic Director we have hired is motivated to take the school’s athletic department to places it has never been! That said, Randy’s impact will not be lost.
In recent conversation, he is referred to like this: a genuinely good human being who happens to be great at his job. I don’t think there’s a better way to be. So, we aim to build athletes in that image: we strive to enhance people, to create high character people, who happen to be good at athletics – never the other way around. This can be hard work. And when the days get long and the results are not as immediate as I’d hope,
I just picture Coach O riding his John Deere, mowing then striping the field, creating opportunities to have a positive impact. He has spent his life balancing a scale where the needs of others often outweigh his own, in his opinion. But it’s not really an opinion anymore, it never really was. It’s just the way he is. In his mind, it’s never been extraordinary, since it’s only “what [has] to be done. The kids [are] counting on it.”
Photo: Getty Images
- Hardy, S. and Carlo, G. (2011). Moral identity: What is it, how does it develop, and is it linked to moral action? Child Development Perspectives, 5(3), 212-218.
- Luthar, S., and Becker, B. (2002). Privileged but pressured? A study of affluent youth. Child Development, 73 (5)
- Weissbourd, Richard. Class Lecture, September 16, 2015.
 All quotes are from a conversation with Randy Oberembt on September 12, 2015.