During the track season last spring, Alan Janulis decided to go out to the Vernon Hills track to watch the team work out. When he got there around 4:30, there was no one there. The practice had already ended for the day.
“That kind of made me sad,” Janulis said looking at the stadium that housed the track that he built.
The Vernon Hills track coach had not coached a track team since 1984. Twenty-seven years later, he is back at the helm as the head coach of the Vernon Hills High School track & field team.
What made him return?
It started last spring when then Head Coach Jeff Morello had to resign during the season due to personal reasons. It left the program without a captain so to speak. “Last year it was pretty intense,” said Assistant Coach Gabe Cotton. “The kids did not know what was going on. It was a tough situation.”
Assistant Corey Atwell took over and guided the team through the rest of the season. He was the glue that kept a program together that was on the verge of falling apart.
“If it weren’t for Coach Atwell,” said Janulis, “there might not have been a nucleus to build off of this year. He did a great job of keeping the team together last year.”
In September, Janulis was approached by Athletic Director Brian McDonald asking for names of people that Janulis thought would be good for taking over the program. Names were given to McDonald, but none of the names panned out. A month later, McDonald approached Janulis about returning to the school as the coach of the team.
“I told him I had to think about it,” Janulis said. “If none of the people that I suggested were going to work out, then I would come back. But it was going to take a lot of thought.”
In December, McDonald went back to Janulis again asking him one more time if he could help the school out. So before he went on a trip to Europe, Janulis decided to get back in the saddle again.
Janulis graduated from York High School in 1966. There he had the 8th fastest time in the nation and was a member of a state championship 4 x 440 Yard Relay team. Their record still stands at the school.
Janulis went from there to Northwestern University where he ran cross country and track at the school. After he graduated from Northwestern, he returned to his alma mater to be an assistant track coach in charge of the sprinters under Joe Newton.
“I think I was the longest tenured assistant at York under Newton before Stan Reddel came aboard in 1985. Assistants would only last three to four years. They would get burnt out.” Janulis lasted 15 years as an assistant.
The breaking point was that he would bring his frustrations home with him. His wife would ask him how can you enjoy that? It brought him to the point where he accepted the Athletic Director’s position at the school. He was still around the track. He would be the PA announcer at the York home meets and also calling the state meets at Charleston.
The love for the sport was there. “You just have to love it. I can’t explain it. It’s just in my DNA.”
A new challenge at Vernon Hills
In 1997, he accepted a new job opportunity for a new school in the northern suburbs of Chicago, Vernon Hills High School. He would be the athletic director there but there was much more that was involved.
“I had to hire all the coaches,” he said. “The year before our school was opened, our freshman class was going to nearby Libertyville HS. It was kind of crazy that year.”
Janulis was not only responsible for hiring the coaches, but also developing the facilities that would be necessary for the sports to compete. A challenge that he willingly accepted.
“For the first three years, we did not even have a stadium. We were playing away games every week it seemed.”
Janulis is the father of this athletic program. The stadium has a plaque that honors the athletic director. Before the school was built, the land that the athletic fields are now on was fields where Nike missile silos once stood. Now, through the beautiful facilities that were developed under the direction of Janulis, the only thing that still remains from the old site is a huge radar which is a back up navigational device for the entire northern hemisphere. It stands to the south behind the football and baseball fields. If you go there, it is a magnificent sight if you look from the north end of the complex.
If you are looking for an answer of why Janulis is back at the school, you can look at the facilities. You can look at the kids at the school. That feeling was still in his DNA. He could not let go and see what he had developed slowly dissipate.
A renewed challenge at Vernon Hills
It was a matter of bringing in a new attitude for the track team. At the beginning of the year, he handed out a notebook to all the members of the team. He had them out in the hallways getting kids to come out for track. He gave them some ownership in the team.
The one thing that defines the Vernon Hills team this year is a quote that Janulis uses on the front page of his notebook from legendary coach Vince Lombardi:
“ The quality of a man’s life is in direct proportion to his commitment to excellence.”
The attitude changed. “Before, we might have a meeting a week with the entire team,” said sophomore middle distance runner Ben Mohrdieck. “Now, we have a meeting every day. There was a good attitude with the team last year, but there is more energy behind the attitude this year.”
There were also differences with the way practices were held.
“It is always different when you get a new coach. Coach Janulis brings us a lot of experience. A lot of new ways of doing things,” said junior sprinter Gabe Cotton. “He has changed how we prepare for the meet. This year, we are more team oriented. There is a strong focus of being together as a team.”
“Warm ups and cool downs have changed also,” added junior sprinter Mitch Campbell. “We run longer. A mile warm up. A mile cool down. We do straights to help us work on our form. The beef of our workouts are a lot stronger, more intense.”
Janulis has also had to adapt to his team as they have adapted to him. Remember, he had not coached for close to 27 years.
“I was surprised that this is the oldest sport in the world and that there are so many changes. What could be different from 10 – 15 years ago?” he stated. “Now with ply metrics, the different stretching that has come up, the drill work with focus on technique. It is quite amazing!”
He went on to look at the differences between the athletes he coached “back then” and now.
“I think that the kids back in the day were more versatile. Maybe a little more toughness. We could take them out of the 200 meters and put them in the mile relay,” he added. “They were a little more receptive back then. Now, I do not think they could do it…right now.”
He looked at his team as they did their workout.
“But you know what?” he continued. “They will be ready for that soon. I think they would run through a brick wall for us.”
His attitude has transformed this team. As he was heading towards the track, he ran into two other Vernon Hills coaches from other sports. “What a glorious day to be a Cougar,” he told them. That kind of attitude gets infectious. It is this thing that this squad needed.
It is more like a family this year,” said Mohrdieck. “Everyone cheers for everyone else. Coach Janulis will congratulate me after every race. There is more of a bond this year. It feels great.”
This team may not be in the upper levels to challenge the top flight schools in Class 2A. But there is improvement in the future, especially if they continue with how they continue to work together.
Where there is a good attitude, there will be improvement. And where there is improvement, there will be the spoils of everything that they have worked so hard for.
“We may not score a ton of points, but I would not trade this bunch of guys for anyone else. They are a bunch of great kids,” concluded Janulis. “The goal is to score in every event in the sectional.”
It is a glorious day to be Cougar…especially with the father of the Vernon Hills athletic programs guiding your steps.