Coach's Corner: Longtime Northbrook resident has a passion for coaching
In my way-too-many years of being involved in sports -- through coaching, officiating, announcing, directing leagues and now writing -- I have come across, and been fortunate to get to know, many wonderful individuals.
Very few have ever had the love and passion for what they do more than longtime Northbrook resident Rich Panitch. More specifically, the love and passion for coaching.
Panitch may not be a high-profile college coach or a big name high school coach, but for pure love of the game, and everything that goes into it -- from the competition to teaching and to getting to know players and their families -- he is as dedicated as any I have come across.
Panitch has lived in Northbrook 48 years, and spent 34 years teaching at Maple Junior High School. It is there where the lifelong love affair with coaching started. (Actually, make that two love affairs, because he met his wife, Decima, while teaching there.)
"I really had never coached before," said Panitch, explaining how it all began. "And then I started coaching the Maple School girls softball teams in the Glenview Park District league. It was a ton of fun, and our teams always had a lot of success."
I can speak to that success, as I was just a young pup in my first job out of college and supervising those softball leagues was part of my job at the time. I remember Panitch coaching multiple teams, and they were always among the best, consistently winning. Sometimes even with some controversy. He was ultracompetitive and could get quite vocal and argumentative at times, both with his own players and also the umpires, to the point sometimes where I would get complaints from the volunteer moms who were coaching some of the other teams.
"Oh, yeah," laughed Panitch in recalling those days. "I was pretty vocal back then. I really didn't know how to coach when I started, so my role models were guys I would watch on TV, like Bobby Knight and Jerry Tarkanian. I thought that is how a coach is supposed to be, yelling and screaming at his players and being very involved in the game."
He changed, and we will get to that, but even through his intense early years the kids loved playing for Panitch, and, more importantly, they responded to his coaching. His high intensity notwithstanding, he connected with his players and built bonds that lasted a lifetime.
"Some of those kids from my early days of coaching come back to visit me now," he said, "which is really nice. But I feel like I have to apologize to them for being so intense and yelling so much. I have changed a lot over the years, that's for sure."
"Over the years" would be the correct expression for where Coach Panitch went after his early start in softball coaching. Better yet, over the "many, many" years -- close to 40 in total.
The long coaching road included his time at Maple School, where throughout his teaching career he coached boys teams and girls teams, almost all winning consistently. Through those years, Panitch started to tweak and adjust and learn the art of coaching.
His girls teams became North Shore famous for what we might call "The Olga" years. Olga Gvozdenovic was a sixth-grade tennis player who Panitch talked to about trying out for the girls basketball team. After some cajoling from her parents, Olga did try out, and wow could she play. Tall, athletic, and developing hoop skills at a fast pace, she became a dominant junior high and high school player -- one of the best to ever come out of the North Shore.
His Maple School teams led by Olga at one point won more than 50 consecutive games, becoming legendary at the time. But that was just the start.
He then had the opportunity to coach a sixth-grade AAU team with Olga and some of the other best players in the area. Panitch took that opportunity and literally ran with it.
"This team was really talented, and we went to Indianapolis for the national tournament. Fifty-two of the top teams from throughout the country, and we won it all. National champions. It was amazing, and certainly that was one of the great thrills of my coaching career. To add to it, we almost won again the next year and would have been back-to-back national champions, but we lost to a Tennessee team on a last-second shot."
After that thrilling experience, Panitch was hook, line and sinker into the world of coaching. Then, 12 years ago, Panitch retired from teaching. He thought finally, after 30 years, he could take a break from coaching. He thought wrong.
The post-coaching career did not go so well. "I tried officiating for awhile just to stay involved," he said, "but I was a lousy official, mainly because I would spend too much time thinking about what the coach should be doing instead of worrying about my job."
So back to coaching it was, even in his retirement years. First it was freshman volleyball at Lake Forest High School, followed by a stint at Illinois Math and Science Academy. Then it was jobs as head varsity girls basketball coach at Westmont High School and at Deerfield's Rochelle Zell High School.
Recently, he has found a home at Maine East High School, where he has been the freshman boys volleyball coach for six years. Through it all, the 40-plus years of coaching, Panitch has never lost the thrill of being involved in sports.
"I love the competition," he says, "everything about it. The atmosphere, the crowd, the whistles, the X and O challenges. Everything about sports I have always enjoyed. And, boy, have I changed my style over the years. Much more mellow now. That high intensity guy from my early years? I don't even recognize that guy anymore."
The numerous athletes who have played for him over the years have enjoyed his coaching immensely. They have learned the game. They learned how to compete and, maybe most of all, they learned that it is easy to play for someone who loves what they are doing.
• Jon Cohn of Glenview is a coach, retired PE teacher, sports official and prep sports fan. To contact him with comments or story ideas, email firstname.lastname@example.org.