Vandalia coaching legend dead at 82

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By Jonathan Stark

Since football was reinstated at Vandalia High School in 1950, the Vandals have had 12 winning seasons. Of those 12, one season jumps out more than the others – the 1963 season, in which the Vandals went 9-0.

On June 17, Don Schnake, 82, the architect of the Vandalia's lone perfect season, died following a short battle with lung cancer.

Schnake spent eight years on the sidelines as head coach of the VCHS football team, compiling a record of 29-34. He had two winning seasons during his tenure, the perfect season of 1963 and an 8-1 mark in 1964.

Schnake and the 1963 season put Vandalia football on the map. The Vandals had their first football title,  and their first winning season in 10 years, only its third since reinstatement. Although Vandalia would not have another winning season until 11 years after Schnake left, his team gave Vandalia its first taste of excellence on the football field.

He mentored such players as Mike Steinhauer, Keith Wright, Ted Smith, Dennis Whitten, Larry Pruitt and Lonnie Culbertson during the 1963 run.

Years after the perfect season Schnake recalled it as "more satisfying" than other teams he had coached.

On Nov. 8, 1963, Vandalia faced Pana in the final game of the year. The Vandals defeated the Panthers on the road and a 30-mile motorcade ushered the team back to Vandalia. When they arrived, the entire town was waiting for them.

"It was 'Hoosiers' before the movie 'Hoosiers'," Schnake once said in an interview. "The 1963 season at Vandalia was more satisfying than 1972 at Elk Grove, because we beat teams that had beaten us for years."

Schnake left Vandalia following the 1964 season, but wasn't off the sports pages for very long. In 1968, he took over Elk Grove High School's football program. In his fifth season, he led the Grenadiers to an undefeated mark in 1972, going 9-0 and winning the state championship.

He spent 19 seasons at Elk Grove before retiring in 1987. He won 100 games, had two undefeated seasons and  won eight conference championships.

Schnake was a native of south central Illinois, growing up and going to high school in Centralia. He played on Centralia High School's basketball and football teams. In 1946 he was on the state runner-up basketball squad.

After high school he enlisted in the Marines and served in Guam. After being discharged, he attended Bradley University and played basketball for the Braves during their Final 4 run in 1950.

Following his retirement, Schnake wrote and published three books; "Coaching 101: Guiding the High School Athlete and Building Team Success," "Building an Aggressive Efficient and Explosive High School Offense" and "Trout: The Old Man and the Orphans," a book about his high school coach, Arthur Trout.

Despite all of his success as a basketball player and football coach, Schnake never let it go to his head. Former players and coaches described him as "cool-headed" and a "straight shooter." The laid-back coach taught his players the same aspects that made him a great coach and earned him a place in Vandalia and Illinois history.

He is survived by his wife, Marilyn; two sons, Lewis and Logan; two daughters, Lyn Kellermeyer and Leigh Ann; and eight grandchildren.