Kickoff Friday night for the Lake Zurich High School football team meant not just the start of a new season, but also a fresh start for an accomplished program wracked last year by a hazing scandal that shook the community and led to the departure of several school leaders.
The Bears opened the season with a decisive 21-3 road win over Fremd High School's Vikings, but the school's new head football coach and athletic director say winning games isn't going to be the program's chief focus.
"In my eyes, winning is not a good measure of what's going on in an athletic department," Athletic Director Andrew Lambert said, listing what he sees as more important measures. "Are the student athletes learning the life lessons that come with learning a sport? If you are down in a game, are you giving up?"
New head coach Luke Mertens believes his focus on the players and not his team's record is one of the reasons he was hired.
"That's always been my approach. I can't tell you what my record is. I don't care what my record is. It has never mattered to me," Mertens said. "I can't guarantee wins; I can't guarantee playing time; I can't guarantee them anything other than the fact that you will be a better person from being part of the program."
When meeting with players' parents nine days ago, Mertens said he asked them to consider a different definition of success.
"I'm challenging these parents to stop judging me by what the score is on Friday," Mertens said. "Judge me by what type of human I am and am I a good role model for your son. Don't judge me by wins or by if your son plays, because that's all what's wrong with sports right now."
Jack Sanborn, a senior linebacker on the team, credited Mertens and the athletic department's new direction for improvements he has seen on the team.
"From day one, Coach Mertens has come in and been about building character and building respect," said Sanborn, who has committed to playing at the University of Wisconsin next year. "Overall, I think as athletes, we're more mature."
The football program, which won a state title in 2007 and played in the final three other times since 2006, was thrown into turmoil last season when hazing allegations surfaced just before a Nov. 5 playoff game. Before the contest, school administrators ordered players to sign a student behavior agreement or be prohibited from playing the rest of the season.
A police investigation later determined criminal charges were not warranted, but a lawsuit filed on behalf of two players and their parents in February alleges that hazing had been a part of the school's athletic programs since 1997, with the knowledge of coaches and other officials.
Football hazing during the previous 20 years included players urinating on teammates or placing their genitals on other players' faces without consent, according to the lawsuit, which is pending in federal court.
In the wake of the reports, head football coach David Proffitt, assistant coach Chad Beaver and athletic director Rolando Vazquez all resigned their positions.
And Lake Zurich Unit School District 95 administrators implemented a 13-point plan recommended by their lawyers. Several points are dedicated to making sure players are supervised by adults on and off school grounds or monitored by video surveillance cameras.
At the top of the list is "Give careful consideration to culture."
In the early going, that's meant better communication with parents and students, District 95 Superintendent Kaine Osburn said.
"We had some opportunities for communication in the past, but it wasn't as focused on those values important to an athletics program and really making connection (with) players and families," Osburn said. "Just like connection between student and teacher makes it possible for students to learn and grow, the same is true for the relationship between coach and athlete, and that includes relationship with the parent."
Mertens said he used his meeting with parents as an opportunity to explain his top three priorities as a coach: to have fun, to make his players into better men and to forge relationships with players and their parents.
"I'm in this business because I am a people person. Relationships are the most important thing to me," Mertens said. "I want to get to know these kids, I want to get to know the parents and I want them to get to know me."
In addition to the 13-point plan, the athletic department came up with a list of 15 values it wants students to follow. Respect is the most important of those, Mertens said.
"I think that word would solve so many problems in our entire world, if we just learn to respect people," he said. "We don't have to like everyone, (but if) we learn to understand that person and respect that person and walk a day in his or her shoes, I truly believe that would solve so many issues in our world today."