As retirement nears, Washington football coach reflects on leading through the 2013 tornado
Darrell Crouch has won plenty as Washington High School’s head football coach. The Panthers have a 145-52 record, 15 consecutive playoff appearances, two trips to the state semifinals and seven seasons with 10 or more wins under Crouch.
Three victories this year and Crouch, a former Normal Community and Illinois State lineman, will pass John Venturi for the most in school history. With 27 seniors to lead the way, that seems inevitable.
Yet, the true measure of Crouch is not how much he’s won, but how he responded in a time of loss.
In November 2013, with Crouch’s unbeaten team in the midst of a deep playoff run, an EF-4 tornado ripped through Washington, injuring 120 people, destroying businesses and damaging more than 1,000 homes. He’ll tell you he learned a lot about the town’s citizenry during that crisis, citing their “Midwestern values” and calling them “resilient, tough people.”
As Crouch enters his 19th and final season at Washington – he’s retiring from coaching and teaching after this school year – a good chunk of his legacy is the steady hand he provided when his team, school and community needed it most.
Todd Stevens, Crouch’s longtime defensive coordinator and Washington’s next head coach, marvels at it 10 years later.
“I’m not sure too many people could have pulled off what he did,” Stevens said. “It was a group effort, but he has that sense of calm about him that is contagious to other people.
“The first priority was taking care of the kids and the community. We went out and cleaned up around town for the first two days when we could have been practicing. His priority was the kids, our players who lost their homes. In times of what could be chaos, he just has that sense of calm.”
It wasn’t easy. Crouch calls it “one of the toughest experiences” of his life.
He and all of Washington went to bed on Saturday, Nov. 16, exhilarated by a quarterfinal playoff win over University High. The 12-0 Panthers had earned the right to play in the Class 5A semifinals at perennial power Springfield Sacred Heart-Griffin.
Around 11 a.m. Sunday morning, disaster struck. And Crouch, like so many, experienced fear and anxiety.
He and his family – wife, Kathleen; daughter, McKenna; and son, Will – had moved from Bloomington to Washington a few months earlier. Crouch was back in Bloomington that morning to move more items to storage in Washington.
The weather in Bloomington-Normal was sunny and quiet. As Crouch headed back toward Washington, he heard the news.
“I couldn’t get hold of my wife. I couldn’t get hold of anybody,” Crouch said.
Finally, he made contact with a couple of players.
“I was like, ‘Hey, go check my house out. Is it still even there?' I don’t know because I’m still 20 miles out,’’ Crouch said.
“It was super tough to come back and see things. I’d never been in a situation like that in real life where you see that kind of destruction. You get to the edge of town and you have no reference points because everything is just leveled and gone.”
Crouch’s house was still standing. Kathleen, McKenna and Will were safe. Relieved, Crouch began to organize his players to help with the massive cleanup. At one stop, a woman whose house had been blown off its foundation agonized over losing her purse and keys.
She pointed to where the kitchen had been.
“Our guys were like, ‘All right,’” Crouch said. “And our kids found it. I couldn’t believe it.”
The week was about more than digging through rubble for the Panthers. Amid their dream season, they were living a nightmare. But six days later, there was a game on the schedule.
“We talked that Sunday to our superintendent and our athletic director and we were like, ‘Our kids want to play. They’ve worked their butts off to get to this point,’” Crouch said.
So they played. They were unable to watch game film in preparation. They had no scouting report. Both were firsts for Crouch as a player or coach.
Eureka College coach Kurt Barth and Illinois State coach Brock Spack reached out and allowed the Panthers to practice at their facilities. Rival schools from the Mid-Illini Conference offered support and aid. All was appreciated.
Yet, the tornado and the team had become a national story. ESPN was in the Panthers’ locker room, another in a growing list of distractions. Washington lost 44-14 to Sacred Heart-Griffin, which graciously had supplied seven buses to transport Washington fans, as well as food for fans, players and coaches.
A decade later, there is pride in what was accomplished during that emotional and difficult week.
“Our kids embraced it,” Crouch said. “We talked to them about, ‘You have to be positive toward our community.’ Our town came back better than it was before. People moved businesses and moved to come here.”
It makes sense that Crouch helped in the rebuilding process. In his youth, he believed building things was his life’s calling. His father, Royce, worked in construction as a superintendent at J.L. Wroan. Young Darrell grew up around the business.
“I always thought that would be the best job to have … if you were running the backhoe and doing all that,” Crouch said. “I thought I would be in that field one way or another.”
His size and talent opened a path to college football and Crouch used it to earn a teaching degree. He played football at ISU from 1982-85 and wrestled for the Redbirds in 1986-87.
After serving as an assistant coach at Normal Community and Eureka College, Crouch was Eureka College head coach for five years. The team struggled, going 9-41. Hearing good things about Washington, he pursued the job.
Clearly, the fit was good.
“Number one, he’s a super, super compassionate individual,” Stevens said. “He’s loyal. He’s hard working. That attracts people. People just want to be around him because of those characteristics, inside and outside of the program.
“You see players who continue to come back. They keep in contact with the guy. It’s even kids in the building who have nothing to do with football. He has that 'it' factor. He’s just the complete package … totally unique.”
Crouch credits others for his success, from his players and coaches to coaches he played for or coached under to – especially – his wife.
“There were a lot of times it was all on her … putting kids to bed, taking care of kids,” Crouch said. “She is phenomenal in the way our kids turned out because she spent more time than I did with them.”
McKenna, 24, an ISU graduate, is a speech language pathologist in Nashville. Will, 22, an Augustana College grad, is an aspiring comedian and actor.
Their father, 59, is putting all he has into this final year as a coach and driver education teacher. And then?
“I think in the beginning, I would like to be totally done (coaching) and just kind of see, ‘What do I miss? What do I not miss?’” he said.
This much is certain.
He will be missed.