Editor’s Note: The Z-Files is a nine-part series on Bishop McNamara football coach Rich Zinanni, who is retiring after the 47th season of his hall-of-fame coaching career this fall.
The 2017 football season at Bishop McNamara was different. The Fightin’ Irish were less than 24 months removed from an undefeated season that ended with a state title and looking to bounce back from a season that didn’t end in the playoffs for just the third time in the past 30 years.
For the first time in a quarter century, they were preparing for a season that didn’t involve membership in the Chicago Catholic League, as the Irish had become the newest members of the Metro Suburban Conference, a league comprised largely of schools in Chicago’s western suburbs.
For Irish defensive coordinator Kurt Belisle, who had been an all-state linebacker during the beginning of McNamara’s time in the Catholic League before playing at Notre Dame, the move was a little bittersweet, but he found good perspective in the new opportunities that were at hand.
“You’re starting new rivalries, you have the opportunity to establish a year-in, year-out schedule against some teams, and that’s fun when you’re battling that way,” Belisle said. “The fans are really good in this conference, and checking out the pageantry they have and history of the programs was fun.”
When the Irish moved to the Chicago Catholic League in 1993-94, they were doing so less than a decade removed from a three-peat of state titles but still were considered small fish in a big pond with some schools that had more boys in a single grade than the Irish had students in their building. But as members of the MSC, they were coming in as a program of status. Coaches of some of the conference’s member schools, such as Immaculate Conception, St. Francis, Wheaton Academy and Aurora Christian told Zinanni they had been trying to build their programs to emulate what he had done at McNamara.
When ESPN NFL analyst Matt Bowen, an Immaculate Conception graduate and assistant coach, made his praise public, Zinanni said he and the program felt a warm welcome to their new home.
“We had three, four of those guys tell us they wanted to build their programs just like Bishop Mac,” Zinanni said. “Matt Bowen mentioned that the league got a whole lot better after we joined, and that was a great compliment for us.”
As flattered as the Irish were, they also had their work cut out for them, ending their first season as MSC members with a 3-6 record. They did so with a mostly young team that featured a new wave of varsity talent that year, mostly all primed to return in 2018.
“Not making the playoffs isn’t the end of the world — our kids played hard, and we played some pretty good people,” Zinanni said. “That was a good group coming in with [quarterback] Tyler Hiller and those guys.
“They were very focused and learned a lot from those seniors, and those next seniors made it a goal to get right back in it, start to beat [Immaculate Conception] and beat some of those other teams we played.”
The Irish did just that in 2018, topping the Knights, who quickly had become their arch rivals in the MSC, during the regular season. They took a deep postseason run to the IHSA Class 4A semifinals, where they hosted a Rochester team that had won seven of the previous eight state championships in a game for the ages, one that saw an all-state running back will the Irish to a 52-42 victory and a rematch with Immaculate Conception in the title game.
“That, as a coach, is probably my No. 1 [moment] as far as being able to play a program that had won state seven of the past eight years,” Belisle said. “Being able to play them at our place and come in and have the kids prepared the way Coach Zinanni did to compete against them, and for the kids to play as well as they did, we couldn’t have been more excited.”
The Irish came up short by a 31-21 final in the state championship to the Knights. The challenge of playing the same programs that said they modeled their construction after his own, such as was the case in the 2018 title game, is one of Zinanni’s favorite parts of coaching.
“That’s the fun of it because they’re pretty good, and we still are very good. ... Seeing them advance in the playoffs, seeing us advance in the playoffs — it’s gonna be there a long time I hope, and it will keep going back and forth with the top dogs in the conference,” Zinanni said. “There’s great camaraderie with the head coaches and a great respect for each other.”
Several players from the runner-up team, including Hiller, Owen Jackson, Manny Harris and Caleb Smith, all returned for a 2019 season in which McNamara had high hopes.
But their season came to an end in the Class 4A quarterfinals with a 35-27 loss in the closing minutes at Murphysboro. After the game, Zinanni and his wife, Jane, thought they might have just had their last run on the football field.
“Whatever could go wrong went wrong; we had some terrible calls, an inadvertent whistle took that took a touchdown away from us, and there’s nothing you can do about it but accept it and walk away,” Zinanni said. “Jane and I thought maybe that was it right then, but some of the coaches said, ‘You don’t want go out like that,’ not that I have to win last game, but just go one last time, and announce it to everyone.”
The plan for Zinanni was for last fall to be his final season, but then COVID-19 made its way around the globe. With the season being moved to spring, and shortened to six games tightly wedged between winter and summer sports, Zinanni knew he couldn’t end his career with such a season, so he decided to finally make a firm call on this fall being his last, and 47th, patrolling the Irish sideline.
The handful of years in the MSC didn’t provide him quite as much time to build the relationships with other coaches he considers so meaningful, but Zinanni did make efficient use of the five years in the conference in that regard, leaving a lasting impression on his coaching pals.
“Coach Z is what high school football is all about,” Immaculate Conception coach Bill Krefft said. “A timeless coach that has helped build Bishop Mac into a legendary, powerhouse football program.”
And that impression hasn’t been lost on the people that have been in the locker room with him the longest, either.
“His leadership on the field and off, he’s always available, and his friendship that we’ve developed over the years, to be able to go from playing for someone you respect to coaching with him, he’s become a friend,” Belisle said. “My entire family is all Mac fans because of the way he’s always treated players and everyone around football program.
“His way of doing things has always been first class and about treating everyone with the utmost respect, and I think everyone appreciates that about him.”
Friday’s home game against St. Francis will be the final regular season home game of Zinanni’s storied career and potentially the last game he ever will coach at the stadium that bears his name. The school will hold a pregame ceremony that will include any former players and coaches that would like to attend in a moment Zinanni said he’s sure will hit him once it arrives.
“It probably will [register] Friday night when I go out there,” Zinanni said. “The last two games will be good games with teams that are pretty good [at Immaculate Conception and at Riverside-Brookfield], but we’ll be away, and it just wont be the same as playing here at our own stadium, so this will be it.
“If we make the playoffs, we’ll probably travel first and have to win a while to get a home game, so we’re treating this as the last home game for now, and we’ll go from there.”