Coach’s legacy marked on the gridiron
Grant Blaney was seriously considering a military career when he walked into a U.S. Army office at Ft. Riley, Kansas, in 1957.
To his surprise, the first question the officer asked him was, “Do you play baseball?” Turns out the army was looking for a coach for the base sports teams. In a few minutes, Blaney’s career path made a U-turn from artillery observer to athletics.
“I was in ROTC at Iowa State University; I had a military service obligation, and I was considering military options,” Blaney recalled. “But I also played a lot of sports in high school and college, and I wound up spending a lot of time at Ft. Riley and Ft. Sill, Oklahoma, coaching baseball, football, and basketball teams.”
In a span of 50 seasons up to 2008, when he was well into his 70s and settled in Sun City, Blaney brought football programs at several Chicago-area high schools up to elite levels. His teams won numerous conference and postseason honors, and two of his Buffalo Grove High School teams played in state championship games, winning the Class 6A title in 1986 with a perfect 14-0 season record.
Last fall, at a 25-year reunion of the Bison ’86 team, Blaney arrived and was informed that the school was naming the football stadium after him.
“That far exceeded any honor or compliment I had ever received or hoped to receive,” he said. “That was an outstanding moment of my life. It’s Grant Blaney Stadium now; someone joked that I should be glad it’s not Grant Blaney Memorial Stadium.”
A native of Chicago, Blaney played football, baseball, and basketball at Amundsen High School in the 1950s. Later at Iowa State, he was an athlete and earned a bachelor’s degree in education in 1957. He began his coaching career at Thornridge High School in Chicago’s south suburbs when it opened in 1961. “I was paid $4,800 to teach physical education and coach sports teams,” Blaney said. “I thought it was more money than I would ever need. That’s funny now.”
Blaney coached underclass football and basketball teams and the varsity track team.
“I think they thought if you played one sport, you could coach them all,” Blaney said. “I had no track and field background, but I enjoyed working with kids, and we figured out what we had to do. I worked with Ron Ferguson, a future Hall of Fame coach there, and he taught me so much.”
He also credits another Hall of Famer, Gary Korhonen, with mentoring him.
After eight years at Thornridge, Blaney moved on to Wheeling High School in 1968. He coached mostly underclass teams and was a varsity football assistant there and then got his first big break when Buffalo Grove opened in 1973.
“I wanted to be a head coach at the varsity level, so I saw a big chance to do that at Buffalo Grove,” he recalled. “I moved over there under athletic director Wayne Selvig. I eventually became head of the Physical Education Department there.
“At first, we had no seniors, and some underclassmen had the option of going to Hersey or Wheeling High Schools when BG opened,” he said. “So we didn’t have a lot of experienced players for a few seasons. But we always had a core of really talented guys.”
By the late ’70s, the team had established itself. After the postseason playoff system was instituted by the Illinois High School Association in 1974, making the playoffs became the team’s focus.
Rich Roberts joined Blaney’s staff at Buffalo Grove and soon became the defensive coordinator. The pair quickly made the Bison one of the top programs in the conference, and they quickly became prominent contenders.
In 1978, the Bison made it to the Class 5A state championship game, bowing to St. Rita of the Chicago Catholic League in the title game. Winning seasons and playoff success followed regularly. In 1986, the stars aligned and the Bison became one of the state’s first 14-0 undefeated state champions. The unbeaten season was led by triple-option quarterback Mark Benson and linebacker Jim Wagner, two among a large group of players who won Division I college scholarships. They defeated Chicago Marist 26-6 in the state title game, and the Bison were on top of the Illinois schoolboy football world. Benson went on to Northwestern University and Wagner played at UCLA.
Blaney left Buffalo Grove in 1989 to take a job in the business world, but he promptly returned to coaching at Lake Forest College, moved on to Harper Community College under legendary coach John Eliasik, went to North Central College, and finally finished his 50 seasons at Prairie Ridge High School in Crystal lake.
He finally hung up his clipboard in 2008 and now spends his time playing golf and relaxing at Sun City.
In addition to a tough-minded, demanding but respectful approach to teenage boys, his legacy to the sport of football is multi-faceted. He was one of the first coaches in the Chicago area to develop year-round, off-season weight training programs, and his teams became famous for two-platoon football.
“I knew kids could develop into good players and improve their football skills if they did weight-training workouts in the off-season,” Blaney said. “I had one skinny kid at Buffalo Grove who was dedicated but limited. For two years as a sophomore and junior, he struggled. But he kept working at the weights, and as a senior, he blossomed into a confident, tough kid who was a star for us. We were never out-physicaled at Buffalo Grove.”
Blaney believed fervently in a two-platoon system, in which a player played only on one side of the ball.
“At Buffalo Grove, we taught players to play either defense or offense, but not both,” he said. “We did that to keep players fresh in close games, to be a better team in the fourth quarter, and also to avoid injuries. By the time I retired, most teams were doing it. It is one of the best things I did for a team and the players individually.”
His teams also featured the triple-option offense, featuring multi-talented quarterbacks. When Benson took the snap in 1986, opposing defenses had no idea whether he would pass, run, lateral, or hand off to a running back.
Blaney also has his ups and downs. He was present as an assistant coach in October 2002 at one of the most famous, or infamous, playoff games in the history of Prospect and Buffalo Grove High Schools.
In a state quarterfinal battle between fierce neighborhood and conference rivals, the game was a shootout with Prospect leading by a few points late in the final quarter. Bison quarterback Tom Zbikowski, who was to move on to a successful football career at Notre Dame University and now plays for the Indianapolis Colts in the NFL, led his team to the Knight one-yard line in the final minute. He lined up for what everybody in the wild crowd of nearly 5,000 fans expected would be a successful quarterback sneak and the winning touchdown. Let Blaney tell the rest.
“Our right guard, an excellent athlete and tough kid, was supposed to block the defender opposite him to the left, to clear a path for Tom over his position,” Blaney said. “Instead, for a reason I’ll never know, he blocked right, and a lane opened for the Prospect tackle to lunge over the line and hit Tom as he took the ball from center. There was a fumble, and Prospect fell on it at the 1. We were shell-shocked. It was one of the worst moments of my career.”
Prospect went on to win its second state championship that season, and the Bison were denied their third shot at playing for a state championship.
“I have been so lucky in my career because of so many wonderful mentors, coaches, and players I have met and worked with,” Blaney said, as he happily showed a photo album of the stadium-naming ceremonies at Buffalo Grove last year.
That was his biggest “up.”