Wilmington’s quartet of coaches in Jeff Reents, Barry Southall, Bobby Bolser and Rob Murphy have been together longer than most marriages.

In 1994, Reents was hired by then-Wilmington athletic director Mike Cluver and since has served as the head coach, with Southall as the offensive coordinator, Bolser as the special teams coach and Murphy as the offensive line coach.

“We all got together at Coach Murphy’s apartment when us four got together as a staff in 1994,” Bolser said. “It was just us four, and we talked about going out and coaching this Wilmington team, and it’s been a great time since.”

The multiple coaching changes came after the 1993 season, when Wilmington’s freshman, sophomore and varsity teams had a combined 0-27 record. Since then, the Wildcats have had only one losing season, which came in 1994, when the Wildcats finished 3-6 in Reents’ first year at the helm and first introduced the double-wing offense and odd-man defense.

Southall brought in the double-wing offense from his playing days under College of St. Francis head coach Gordie Gillespie, and Reents did the same with the odd-man defense he brought in from his playing days under Eureka College head coach John Tulley and Dan Darlington at Morris High School.

The decision to bring in those two concepts 28 years ago has allowed the Wildcats to produce a 247-63 (.797 percent) overall record to date.

“We had a pretty good foundation when we started working together 28 years ago,” Murphy said. “We had an offense and defense that was proven, and so we’ve just added to it since then.”

Now 28 years later, using those same two concepts, Wilmington (13-0) has a chance to earn its second state title at 1 p.m. Friday at Huskie Stadium in DeKalb playing against Nashville for the IHSA Class 2A state championship after having earned its first state championship in Class 3A in 2014.

“Our kids have bought in, and they are playing really well right now, and, hopefully, we can keep it going this weekend against Nashville in the state championship,” Reents said.

A huge part of Wilmington’s success during the past 30 years has come from the continuity amongst the four coaches who began their coaching journey together all those years ago.

“You have to have a lot of luck to have a successful program, and that’s something that has happened with myself — to have the same guys in Murphy, Southall and Bolser — for my entire run for 28 years is something that’s unheard of. I’m very fortunate to have those guys with me.”

Both Reents and Southall since have gone on to become Illinois High School Football Coaches Association Hall of Fame members, and Murphy has been named an Illinois Wrestling Coaches Officials Association Hall of Fame member, making three hall-of-fame coaches on a consistent staff that also features seven other coaches — Bolser (28 years), Chad Farrell (17 years), Mike Bushnell (eight years), Mark Languisch (eight years), Andy Peterson (eight years), Drew Tyler (six years) and Tom Fritz (five years) — who have served at least the past five years at Wilmington.

“Having a bunch of hall-of-fame coaches has helped me and the other players a lot,” said Wilmington two-year varsity starting running back and defensive back Jacob Friddle. “They’ve helped me out in football and in life, and so it’s been an honor to have them as coaches for my entire high school career and our teams’ high school career.”

As much as they all have accomplished on the field together, the foursome also has made connections together off the field that will last a lifetime, including watching each other’s kids grow up and be a part of Wildcat football.

“Our relationship between us four is second to none,” Southall said. “It goes beyond just us and to all the wives and kids between all of us.”

That 28-year tenure together will come to an end with the conclusion of this season, when Murphy is set to retire from his longtime positions as head wrestling coach, assistant football coach and physical education and driver’s education teacher.

“I want to step down while I’m healthy and go out and visit my kids and grandkids and enjoy life,” Murphy said. “I want to take my wife to places we haven’t been able to go for 33 years.

“I haven’t been able to go anywhere for Thanksgiving and Christmas because I’ve had football and wrestling tournaments.”

Although Murphy isn’t making this state title about his farewell tour, both the players and the rest of the coaching staff believe it would be the perfect ending to a historical coaching career.

“Winning a state title would be a great way to send Coach Murphy out into retirement,” Reents said. “He’s not only a good football coach but he’s also a great wrestling coach and person.”

Cody is a sports journalist who's been with the Daily Journal since 2020. He's been a sports reporter since his days at the University of Iowa where he graduated in 2019.