Early in the 2007 football season, Joe Hadachek gestured to the team on other side of the field at the end one of his very first games as the Union head coach.
“They have a winning football tradition,” he said that night. “Here at Union, we are trying to start one.”
Now, Union is preparing for the 2018 playoff season, its 11th consecutive post-season appearance. Only two other teams in the Class 2A field – PCM Monroe and Williamsburg – have also made the playoffs every year since 2008.
That first season, 2007, Union went 6-3 and barely missed the playoffs. Their playoff history since 2008 includes the 2011 State Championship and being runner up in 2016. Last year’s team also played in the UNI-Dome, advancing with a last-second , second-round win at Cascade.
That first season, said Hadachek, included two important types of victories – those that required overcoming mistakes and turnovers, and those that come after the other team has taken the lead.
“To believe you can come from behind to win and also instill the confidence of winning the close ones is important,” said Hadachek. “One game would never define it but winning in those situations brings a swagger and confidence the more you do it.”
What does it take to do what Coach Hadachek and his staff at done at Union, to build a winning football tradition?
Faith, first, says Hadachek.
“First of all for the the victories and the struggles, we give all the glory to God,” says the coach. “He gives us the gift and the opportunity to influence young boys and develop them into men. For that I am truly grateful.”
Hadachek is also thankful that Aaron Thomas, the Union AD and son of the late football coaching legend Ed Thomas, hired him in the spring of 2007.
“Aaron knew what it took to do it right and we had some great conversations about his father and what he did,” Hadachek recalls.
From the beginning, he says, Hadachek heard people say they doubted a winning football tradition could happen in Union – “out in the sticks” is how Hadachek said he heard some people describe the La Porte City-Dysart area.
“I think the biggest thing that drove me was being told one day that, ‘We might have a winning season at Union but getting to the playoffs would be extremely difficult, and going to the Dome would be just a dream.’”
Hadachek didn’t name the member of the Union community who made that prediction, but said it inspired him to prove that person wrong.
“It was a motivating factor to prove we could win and win consistently here. When someone tells you that you can’t do something why wouldn’t that be fuel for the soul to get it done?”
Four Pillars of Tradition
When asked what takes to create a winning high school tradition, Hadachek said there are four pillars.
Great coaching staff
“One, it takes a great staff of coaches,” he says. “Football is the largest sport by participation in Iowa for boys. You must have a great staff and that takes time. I looked for guys I could trust first; you can always teach them the X’s and O’s. I looked for coaches who also were loyal and trustworthy.”
The size of Union’s coaching staff – which includes many men who have been volunteers for many years – often turns heads.
“We probably have more coaches that any program in Iowa for a school our size and sometimes that gets us poked fun at, but there is not one of them that doesn’t contribute to the program and have a position to coach,” says Hadachek of his many assistants. “They all have responsibilities.”
Discussing how the majority of coaches are volunteers, Hadachek explains.
“We have two paid positions on offense and three on defense – five total, that’s it. It’s amazing because there are schools with coaching jobs out there that offer a coaching stipend but no one to fill them. So as far as a staff goes we are blessed at Union. Adam Gassman, Curt Hilmer, Don Sallee, and Chadd Johnson have been here every year since 2007. Jeremy Robb missed one year, the year we won state, so we’ve had some good laughs about that one. We’ve had some players come back as student coaches and to be honest that is highly rewarding to know they want to come back and be a part of the history here.”
Dedicated coachable players
Second, says Hadachek, it takes having many players who “buy in to what you are selling.”
“Football is a numbers game,” he says. “We have gone from having over 100 kids in 2011 to 65 now. That’s partly due to a decrease in enrollment and also the attack on the safety of the game. Football is more safe today than ever. It’s a good thing and it’s taken time but the system of safety is so much better today than ten or even five years ago. Rugby style tackling is here to stay.”
Having good numbers of experienced, coachable players at the high school level start with teaching the fundamentals of the game to young players, says the coach.
“We started the youth program in 2003 and they still practice in the Dysart park. That’s where the dreams start. The initial group that started it was the group that won the state title in 2011.Do you think that’s coincidence? No way. So in reality our kids who start padded football play six years in Dysart, and the last four years at the high school level. That’s the foundation of what we built. I support padded football at the youth levels. I also believe it’s one of the best youth experiences a kid can have.”
Having players and parents who look at the football field as a classroom for lessons in sports, as well as life, is part of the success at Union.
“Nowadays some of these sports go on for 3-4 months, some longer,” says the coach. “That’s where burn out and injuries occur. That’s where it’s more about parents than kids in my opinion. We have the greatest classroom on the planet, a football field. There are more lessons taught there and in our locker room than any place. I’ve lived it. Ask one of our kids who has graduated what was the most meaningful experience they had, they will tell you the truth. The greatest joy a a coach can have is seeing a kid develop from his freshman year to a senior – the growth is mind boggling.”
Hadachek also expressed his appreciation for players who continue being part of the team, even without becoming starters, or seeing a lot of game time.
“The other group of kids I will always be grateful for are those guys who do not start as seniors but stick it out. Those guys are real special; in today’s world it’s uncommon.”
Finally, says Hadachek, the players have to buy in to strength and conditioning year round.
“This is probably one of the bigger reasons why we have consistency year to years,” he said. “Our boys know how important the performance room is and attendance is the glue of the program. Don’t show up and you won’t get results, show up and you will get results, it’s that simple.”
Support from school leaders
Pillar Three, says Hadachek, is support from the administration and school board. He is especially thankful for the investment the district has made in the facilities, including the new football field and weight rooms.
“We were winning before the stadium upgrade and new performance room, but having those first-class facilities help show the kids how important the program really is,” Hadachek says.
He still recalls how when he came to Union in 2007 it was a Class 3A school with a baseball field running across the 50-yard line in the summer.
“Our field was probably near the bottom in the state and now we are near the top for our 2A class,” Hadachek says. “We have two practice fields that are irrigated and we have painted lines on our practice fields. We have one of the top performance rooms (weight rooms) in the state of Iowa. You can credit our school board and former superintendent Neil Mullen for a great deal of that. We still have some things that need to be improved upon but who doesn’t? Everything we have we take care of and treat it with respect. When we bought the performance room equipment we went first class. You only have one chance to do it, so do it right or don’t do it.”
Parental support and involvement
Finally, says Hadachek, a winning program relies heavily on parents who play with their children, teach them to love the game, and spend years taking them to practices and games, and watching them grow and perform.
“We’ve got great parents,” he says. “I don’t know how many meals our parents have paid for over the years but it’s astronomical. Each week we have a varsity and staff meal at Heartland Community church and that’s served and donated by parents and a few boosters. When we have a road game there are close to 80 meals made before we leave and 80 served after the game. They support summer camp fees and gear sales.”
While there have been a handful of issues, mostly concerning parents who want to see more playing time for their sons, there have been very few of them, says Hadachek.
“There are always playing time concerns; that’s natural as a parent but to be honest those issues I can count on one hand in the last 12 years.”
Often, says the coach, he creates relationships with a player’s parents that are as strong as the bonds he builds with the player.
“To be honest some of the relationships with the moms and dads mean as much as our players,” Hadachek says. “Senior night is always a tough night for me emotionally. It’s like playing back a four-year movie in your heart and mind – just blink and it’s gone. The parents are the glue that holds this thing together behind the scenes.”
Friday at Waukon
This week, the seniors whose careers could end after any of the next four games are helping the rest of the team prepare for Friday’s first-round game at Waukon, where Union at 6-3 is a lower-seeded team than the 8-1 Indians. Yet, last year, the Knights advanced to the Dome with two road wins, against teams with higher seeds.
Hadachek talked about the 2018 version of the Knights, and their path to success and continuing the playoff tradition.
“I think each team leaves their own footprint in the program,” says the coach. “Each year when you start you put together schemes and plans based on the athletes you have returning.”
Then, he says the work really begins.
“Then the the process continues when the parts start to fall into place. You make a few changes between your first practice and first scrimmage. You make a few more changes between the scrimmage and your first couple games. By mid-season you find out the personality, strengths and weaknesses of the team and you build around the strengths.”
Hadachek discussed the dynamic of having something many coaches dream of: A team hoping to return to the Dome with 21 seniors starting the season.
“This team has huge senior numbers,” he said. “We have had big numbers in senior classes before. You want leaders on the team to lead. That is also part of the process. Few kids come equipped to lead. That may be the most challenging aspect of each team – year in and year out. Everything rises and falls with leadership.”
Also, says the coach, the 2018 team has great unity.
“From the freshman class to the seniors, they all get along. I also believe they buy in when we make personnel changes and realize everything we do as a staff is best for the team.
Union ended the season as a three-way champion in Class 3A, District 2 – the only district with a three-way tie. Union defeated Benton, who had defeated West Marshall, which defeated Union on the final night. Each team that won did so on its home field. “Arguably the toughest district in 2A,” Hadachek says.
Union, when playing well, can compete with any of the 15 other teams in the Class 2A field, says the coach.
“I feel we can play with anyone when we hit on all cylinders. We are not flashy, we seldom make big plays, but somehow we get it done,” he says. “Good work ethic, coachability, and teamwork would best describe this team. We worked out on Saturday, talked about the loss on the road to West Marshall and finished with focusing on Waukon. It’s a new season right now, and anyone can win it. We must maintain focus on each practice this week and attention to detail with the game plan. We know it will take four quarters to play with Waukon. They are well coached and fundamentally sound.
Union plays at Waukon at 7 p.m. Friday.
See photos from the West Marshall game by Union mom Krystal Schmitz HERE.