A chance journey home for Northridge coach Will Rey
Northridge boys basketball coach Will Rey (center) shakes hands with U-High coach Chad Stewart (left) before Friday's game in Niles. | Brian O'Mahoney~for Sun-Times Media
Updated: March 15, 2013 12:10PM
NILES — Will Rey was never supposed to end up at Northridge.
In fact, Rey didn’t even know the man wearing the coat with “Northridge” stitched on it when Rey approached and introduced himself on a sunny spring day in Valparaiso, Ind. It was 2004, and Rey was the men’s basketball coach at Division III Wilmington (Ohio) College. He had spent the previous 19 years coaching at the college level — the highlight being a five-year stint as the coach at Division I Loyola from 1989-94 — but he had come to a religious retreat at Shellbourne Conference Center to collect his thoughts.
Rey was in his first year at Wilmington after six seasons as an assistant at Division I Wright State, but he was considering a return to his home state of Illinois and to high school coaching. He struck up a conversation with John Kestler, a combination math teacher/basketball and cross country coach at tiny Northridge in Niles. As it turned out, the men had grown up just three blocks from one another in Chicago’s Lincoln Park neighborhood near the DePaul campus. They had never met, but they became fast friends, bonding over the memories of their old neighborhood.
“I said, ‘Will, I must’ve brushed shoulders with you 100 times!’ ” said Kestler, who is now the headmaster at Northridge. “And I never knew it.”
Rey told Kestler that he was looking for a change, and that he was considering an offer to be a guidance counselor and varsity basketball coach at a Class 4A high school in Illinois’ North Suburban Conference. It was just a coincidence that Northridge was looking for a new basketball coach and athletic director to replace Richard Knar, now the coach and dean of students at Mundelein. Kestler and Rey talked strategy, faith — the Valparaiso retreat was directed by Opus Dei, the same Catholic institution that directs the religious education at Northridge — and Chicago, and Kestler came away from the conversation believing that Rey embodied the Northridge ideal of blending life lessons with athletic growth. He called then-headmaster Luke Ferris and told him about the chance encounter.
“I said, ‘Luke, the man’s name is Will Rey,’ ” Kestler said. “‘If you don’t call him tonight, you’re insane.’ ”
When Rey returned to Ohio after the three-day retreat, he received a call from Ferris. Was he still looking to relocate to Illinois? He was. Did he have a school lined up? He did. Had he signed anything yet? Well, no. He hadn’t.
Rey recalled, “He (Ferris) said, ‘Well, would you mind stopping by and talking to us?’ ”
CLIMBING THE LADDER
Rey’s rise up the coaching ranks was a rapid one.
He started as an assistant at Gordon Tech in 1977 under Bob Ociepka — now an assistant coach with the Los Angeles Clippers and godfather to Rey’s son, Robert — before taking the head job at Crete-Monee in 1980 and serving as the coach at Fenwick from 1982-85. In the spring of 1985, he took his first job in Division I, joining Jim Crews’ staff at Evansville.
“What caught my eye was you could see Will was a very sincere person,” said Crews, who is now the interim men’s basketball coach at Saint Louis. “It was interesting, because he was a high school coach. ... Everyone was telling me to hire someone with recruiting experience. My philosophy was, ‘If a guy really cares about kids, then he’s a good teacher and he’ll be a good recruiter.’ ”
Rey learned about the recruiting process through his experiences with his own high school athletes. That’s how he met Duke coach and Chicago native Mike Krzyzewksi. The friends were introduced while Rey was an assistant at Gordon Tech and Krzyzewski was at West Point. When Rey was at Crete-Monee, standout forward Weldon Williams signed with Krzyzewski, who was by then coaching at Duke.
“I don’t think I’ve taken a coaching job since I first met him (Krzyzewski) without talking with him about it first, including this job here at Northridge,” Rey said. “I wrote him a letter and told him all about it.”
And what did Coach K say about the Northridge job?
“Good luck,” Rey joked.
Rey caught his break in 1989 when, after helping guide Evansville to the second round of the NCAA Tournament as a No. 11 seed, he earned the top job at Loyola. But despite the Ramblers’ strong history — including an NCAA championship in 1963 — Rey faced a difficult task. The school’s high academic standards made recruiting tricky, and in 1989, there were fewer than 100 season ticket holders, Rey said. Complicating the issue was the fact that Loyola didn’t have its own gym on campus. The Ramblers practiced at Alumni Gym, but because the building seated fewer than 2,000 fans, the Midwestern Collegiate Conference wouldn’t let Loyola hold its home games there.
Instead, Rey’s teams traveled 45 minutes — or more — to play at the Rosemont Horizon (now Allstate Arena). One winter, there was a snowstorm on the day of a non-conference game against Bradley. When the Ramblers finally made it to the arena, the Braves were already well into their warmup session.
“I thought to myself, ‘OK, wait a minute,’ ” Rey said.
At Loyola, Rey competed against conference rivals like Marquette, Xavier, Saint Louis and Butler, and he beat programs like Notre Dame, Purdue and Wisconsin. But he was cut loose in 1994 after five years and a 45-96 record. At the time, Loyola athletic director Chuck Schwarz told the Chicago Tribune, “There were recruiting mistakes. There weren’t as many W’s as we’d like. Usually a coach gets three years to turn things around. Will went into his fourth and fifth years.”
Rey then took the head job at Division III St. Mary’s University of Minnesota before moving on to Wright State in 1997. But, Rey said, he had started to do some “soul searching.” He recommitted himself to his Catholic faith, and had come to realize that, as he said, “sometimes the quantitative aspect of coaching at the college level overrides the qualitative.” He was reconsidering why he got into coaching, and it started with the end of his time at Loyola.
“That was a 2x4 that kind of hit me over the head here, and that caused me to really take a step back and evaluate a lot of things,” Rey said. “Sometimes you find yourself climbing a professional ladder, and you get close to the top, and you find out the ladder is up against the wrong building.”
A MOTHER'S INTUITION
Rey arrived in Illinois in April of 2004 with a packed itinerary.
He got in on a Wednesday. He was scheduled to meet with a real estate agent at 9 a.m. Thursday, and he had an 11 a.m. appointment to sign a contract with the district office of the NSC school. But first, Rey took his wife, Diane, and Robert (then a seventh-grader) to Northridge.
Rey went through the interview process, and Diane and Robert toured the school. When they reconvened on the walk back to the car, Rey noticed a change in his wife’s demeanor.
“I went through this interview process with really no serious intention of taking the position,” Rey said. “There was kind of a very uncomfortable silence on her part. I said, ‘Is everything OK?’ She said, ‘Well, I don’t know where you’re going to work, but I know where your son’s going to school.’ ”
Rey kept his appointments with the realtor and the school district the next day, but he asked for more time to make his decision. Northridge was a Class 1A school with only about 150 students, but Rey was intrigued by the people he met during his brief interview.
“I was in absolute turmoil,” said Rey, who returned to Dayton to have what he called a “family powwow” with his two older daughters, Christina and Jacqueline.
On Monday, he called the NSC school and apologized profusely. He gave Northridge better news.
“My wife saw it before I did, which is usually the case,” Rey said. “Of course I was looking at the biggest gyms, the tallest players, the biggest student body, the highest level of competition — all these things. In the end, she intuitively saw beyond that.”
Some of his colleagues weren’t so sure.
“My closest friends in the profession were surprised,” Rey said, “and couldn’t understand what I was doing.”
It didn’t help that when Rey first arrived, he had some fun with a few friends who came by for a visit. Northridge built a 11,000-square-foot gymnasium during a $3.5 million renovation 2002, but Rey skipped over it when he gave a tour of the school. Instead, he showed his buddies the original gym, a throwback to the building’s days as an elementary school. When he opened the doors to reveal the miniature court, creaky wooden floors and sidelines with just enough room to fit one row of folding chairs for spectators, his colleagues couldn’t hide their reactions.
“Their jaws dropped,” Rey said with a laugh. “They said, ‘Rey has lost it.’ ”
ESCAPE FROM CUBA
Forget Northridge. Rey was never supposed to end up in America.
Rey was born in Havana in 1953. He was 6 years old by the end of the Cuban Revolution, and 7 years old when his father, an administrator at a local university, heard rumors that the government was going to start taking young children out of their homes to place them in training camps. Cuba’s airports had been shut down, but when they reopened in January of 1960, Rey and his mother escaped to Miami. Several months later, the rest of Rey’s family came to the United States.
“There were a lot of Cubans that were not able to leave, unfortunately,” Rey said. “We were very lucky to leave when we did, before the situation became very drastic and desperate there.”
The family relocated to Chicago, where Rey’s aunt was already living. It was there that Rey, whose first love was baseball, developed a passion for a new sport. A self-described “journeyman,” Rey roamed the DePaul area playing in pickup basketball games. He went on to play a few years in high school, also running track.
Rey said many schools in Cuba spent half the time teaching in Spanish and the other half in English — he jokes that he knew the English basics like “cat,” “dog” and “hamburger” — so he was able to transition into his Lincoln Park neighborhood without much trouble. The family spoke Spanish at home, but at the urging of Rey’s father, who is now 91 years old, they immersed themselves in American culture.
“When we were young, he said, ‘You are a Cuban-American, and you are always going to respect your ethnicity. But when you walk out this door, you’re an American,’ ” said Rey, adding that his entire family are naturalized citizens. “He taught me to love this country and to be thankful for the opportunity that we have here.”
If it wasn’t for the revolution, Rey might never have needed that opportunity.
“I’d probably be selling sugar or selling cigars in Cuba,” he said. “I don’t know what I’d be doing. Hopefully coaching basketball.”
‘MOST FULFILLING YEARS’
Rey was exactly where he’s supposed to be Friday night.
Dressed sharply in crisp black dress pants with cuffs, a maroon sweater vest pulled over his bright white dress shirt, the 59-year-old Rey patrolled the sideline as Northridge played host to U-High for the Independent School League championship. There was no sweat on his brow, no hair out of place in the ring of white around his head. He’s seen crowds of 20,000 people, he can handle a fourth-quarter deficit against the Maroons.
“I’m just as intense and ready to coach now as I ever was,” said Rey, who uses the Twitter feed @coach4character to distribute motivational slogans and basketball tips. “For some, they’re motivated by (the fact that) there’s 20,000 people in the stands. That’s never been my motivation. Walking into a gym with 20,000 people, that’s great. Walking into a gym with 300 people, that’s great, too.”
Northridge senior Jesus Zermeno is an example of Rey’s motivation. The 5-foot-8 guard is one of the Knights’ stars, but he was being frustrated Friday. U-High employed a box-and-one defense at times, keeping a defender on Zermeno everywhere he went. He spent long stretches of the first and second halves on the bench, and made little impact on the score sheet when he entered the game.
When Zermeno was a freshman, he was impatient. Rey pulled him into his office.
“He talked to me about that,” Zermeno said. “A one-on-one talk. He talked to me about not being stubborn with him, because he’s a little bit stubborn, too.”
All of a sudden there was Zermeno, late in the fourth quarter, forcing a steal at midcourt and taking it in for an and-one layup that helped drive Northridge to a come-from-behind 49-40 win — and the ISL title — in overtime.
“I got into coaching because I wanted to use my passion and love for sports — especially basketball — to help young people,” Rey said. “When you get caught in the merry-go-round and the roller-coaster ride of college athletics, sometimes you lose focus of that.”
Rey hasn’t ruled out a return to that roller coaster — “I’ve learned not to predict what’s going to happen tomorrow,” he said — and, according to Kestler, he’s had his opportunities. But for now, Rey’s priorities are a little different. He still tells the story of a trip ordered by Crews in 1986 that required Rey to drive more than 5 hours from Evansville to Maria Stein, Ohio, watch a kid play for 45 minutes (he wasn’t good enough) and drive home. (Crews, for his part, said “If I only sent him on one of those things, I was too soft.”) Now he’s free to spend time with his family. He’s had plenty of success with the Knights, compiling a 160-92 record and winning three consecutive Class 2A regional championships from 2008-2010.
He’ll be looking for another when No. 1-seeded Northridge opens the playoffs at home Tuesday.
“I’ve been here nine years, this is my 40th year in coaching, and these have been the nine most fulfilling years of my professional career,” Rey said. “And it’s amazing, because it’s happened in the least likely of places.”