Decision to stay home turns into blessing for Beebe, Aurora University
The distance between Aurora Christian High School and Aurora University is just 3 miles.
So when former NFL wide receiver Don Beebe was looking for a career change a few years ago, it made sense to stick with his hometown.
At the time, though, Beebe wasn't aiming for a short commute. He was looking to rent a U-Haul.
"Me and my wife were ready to get out of Illinois, to be honest with you," Beebe said this week. "I just explored all over the country what I wanted to do, from the NFL to major college level to this level to high school again in Texas or Arkansas. Then this just opened up out of the blue."
Faith has always been important to Beebe, and he'd taken an unexpected path earlier in his life by finishing college at Chadron State.
"My whole life has been built on, 'What would God want me to do?'" Beebe said. "I never wanted to go to Chadron. Heck no, that was the last place on Earth I wanted to go to. The middle of nowhere Nebraska? I'm from Aurora. But I just felt led to go there.
"I didn't technically want to come to AU. It wasn't my first choice. It wasn't even a choice, to be honest. Then out of the blue, it just came out and I started thinking about it and praying about it and talking to people about it and I fell in love with it."
Now in his third season as head coach, Beebe and the Spartans have made history. They've won the school's first two playoff games and will travel to Waverly, Iowa, on Saturday to take on Wartburg in the Division 3 quarterfinals. Aurora has already won road games against Wisconsin-Whitewater and Alma (Mich.).
"I'm having the time of my life," Beebe said. "I actually love coaching here. So I just try to follow what God wants me to do, not what I want to do."
The Kaneland High School grad spent nine years in the NFL and played in six Super Bowls -- four with Buffalo and two for Green Bay.
He won two state titles while coaching Aurora Christian from 2004-13. Eventually, Beebe handed the head coaching whistle to his brother David and served as offensive coordinator, then stepped away completely to follow his son Chad's final season at Northern Illinois.
A new challenge awaited at Aurora University, figuring out how to build a winning roster without being able to offer any athletic scholarships in Division 3. As it turned out, he landed a star running back in the first recruiting class in Jhe'Quay Chretin, who rushed for 225 yards last weekend against Alma.
Chretin played at Bastrop High School, which is just outside of Austin, Texas. He had great stats and Division 1 dreams, but not many offers. Chretin said Aurora originally recruited him by email and he enrolled at the school sight unseen in 2019.
"My dad was explaining to me who Don Beebe is; told me about all his stories and really knew his background and knew how he played in the NFL," Chretin said. "He told me I can use that as a step toward being where I need to be, so I took that opportunity."
The Spartans have a mix of local products and out-of-state players on the roster. Aurora Christian grad Trey Madsen is the top receiver, while DB Conner Nordmeyer from Lakes is the second-leading tackler.
"Our initial thing was we struggled getting the local guys because AU wasn't very good and nobody wanted to come here," Beebe said. "So I remember our staff meetings, I said, 'Listen, we've got to get players, so we've got to go South.'
"Now we're starting to get really good players in Illinois. I want local kids. I like the families to come, it's kind of like a high school thing then where you get the community involved."
Chretin is in his junior season and hasn't run into many drawbacks a winter coat can't solve.
"It's been pretty fun, just a little bit cold up here," Chretin said. "It's not really that big a deal. It's good to learn how to play in other (types of) weather."
Aurora has gone 31-6 since Beebe took over. The first step toward success was to utilize some motivational speaking, beginning with his first meeting with the players.
"They had just come off a 5-5 year," Beebe said. "At the meeting I said, 'The two biggest reasons why teams don't succeed or people don't make it in life -- the first thing is they don't think they can.'
"And I said, 'Today we're going to start thinking we can win a national title.' Because if we don't believe that and we don't train that way and think that way and practice that way and do all the little things that way, then it's never going to happen here -- ever. So the first thing is you've got to believe."
Add the buy-in, hard work, attention to detail and gradual increase in talent, and Aurora is the second suburban team still alive in the Division 3 playoffs. They're on opposite sides of the bracket, so it's conceivable Aurora and North Central could meet in the title game. Top-ranked North Central hosts Ithaca on Saturday in Naperville.