GENEVA – Paul Giambeluca interjected his patented humor as his pupil-turned-boss approached the Geneva football practice fields.
Veteran Vikings coach Rob Wicinski still was out of earshot when Giambeluca wet his lips and grinned.
“Rob is gently shuffling me off into Valhalla,” he said.
An astute reference to a place of mythic Norse immortality seemed something of a stretch on this particular afternoon. Geneva enters tonight’s Upstate Eight Conference River Division game at St. Charles East at 1-4. Injuries have limited key contributors on both sides of the ball, and the offense was held scoreless for the first 44:59 last week.
When Wicinski arrives and jostles Giambeluca about putting together coherent sentences, it’s clear his linebackers coach simply was being himself. These coaches have seen their share of rough times in the distant past, and often channel laughter to help get them through.
Wicinski brought Giambeluca onto his staff in 2011, staying persistent with the mentor who helped him land his first head-coaching job at Niles North in 1994. This year, he added former Vikings standout Nick Herrera as running backs coach.
One branch of the Wicinski coaching tree has more rings than the other – Giambeluca assisted three Class 7A state championship teams at Prospect in the 2000s before he retired – but both agree there’s no place they’d rather be this fall.
“Rob runs a good, healthy program for young men, winning or losing,” Giambeluca said. “That’s the best way I can put it. Last year he had a good season [7-3 and an eighth straight trip to the playoffs]. This year, we’re not so good. It’s still a very healthy environment for young men to grow into better young men, which is supposed to be your objective.”
Herrera added football to his coaching resume after assisting the Vikings’ baseball program this past spring. He starred in the Vikings’ backfield in the mid-2000s, just as Wicinski was elevating a program that finished 0-9 in his debut season of 1999.
A younger brother, Ben, followed Herrera into football, making it easy for him to keep an eye on the Vikings. Herrera’s proximity to his alma mater is even greater now. Before the school year, he was hired as a full-time aide in Geneva’s special education department.
“Busy, busy, busy,” Herrera said. “It’s nice being back in the school and being involved with all this stuff, but football’s a lot of work.
“It’s also been rewarding. When I graduated, the program just really started rolling and started coming about. So I mean, the transformation from what it was then – even at the beginning of it – to what it is now, the program has just grown immensely, and for the better.”
If you can break into their banter, Giambeluca and Wicinski eventually will deflect credit for the Vikings’ climb. In their first stint as fellow Vikings, Giambeluca brought Wicinski onto his staff at Niles North, and in 1994 told Wicinski to run the summer program as if it were his own. Giambeluca rested, presumably to write more jokes.
“I said, all right, man. This is awesome. A young pup like myself, this was great,” Wicinski said. “He timed it up where he walked away and the administration couldn’t really interview anybody. So he was very kind to me in that respect.”
Giambeluca took the 1994 season off and rejoined Wicinski for his final two years at the school. Niles North went 3-24 in that span, but you better believe “Jambo” and “Wiz” didn’t go through the stretch stone-faced.
“I was a good, church-going boy ‘til I went up to Niles,” Wicinski smiled.
“It was like showing Charles Manson how to act weird,” Giambeluca shot back.
Maybe this is Valhalla after all. Well, at least the 20 minutes before practice.
Teammates turn rivals Shaun Ratay and Nick Herrera shared Geneva’s offensive backfield in the mid-2000s.
Tonight, they’ll stand on opposing sidelines as competing assistant coaches.
While Herrera – a new addition to Geneva’s faculty – has served as a hands-on running backs coach this season, Ratay aids St. Charles East as quarterbacks coach, mostly from afar.
A former QB himself, Ratay is completing his bachelor’s degree in professional sales at Illinois State, and commutes from Bloomington-Normal on Thursday nights. He arrives in time for games and stays for Saturday morning practices after offering weekday feedback to East coach Mike Fields after watching Saints practice footage online.
Ratay has remained in touch with Fields, a Geneva assistant for 10 years before heading to East in 2009, and credits their relationship for the opportunity.
“He’s always been there for me, and I’ve always been able to go to him with anything,” Ratay said. “I wish I could be there, but right now I’ve got to finish up school.”