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Purnell steps down, not out

Published: Tuesday, Dec. 10, 2013 5:30 a.m. CST • Updated: Tuesday, Dec. 10, 2013 5:30 a.m. CST

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Within a few moments Sunday afternoon, Steven Fassnacht heard Greg Purnell transform from St. Francis football coach to former St. Francis football coach with an announcement at the end of the team’s postseason banquet.

More than a day later, the Spartans’ junior running back/safety still was marveling at the way Purnell didn’t change his tone while retiring after a lengthy career.

Telling players that “it was time,” Fassnacht said, Purnell, 66, will step down after seven seasons but remain in his role in St. Francis’ development office. He was 47-26 with the Spartans and guided the team to the Class 5A state title in 2008, one of the final jewels of a nearly three-decade run that began in his native Iowa.

“I was surprised he kept his composure,” Fassnacht said. “All that time and after that many years to step away from something like that, I was surprised.”

Marmion coach Dan Thorpe, who learned of the news through Purnell’s email to several Suburban Christian Conference counterparts Monday, called the move “a loss for high school football, a loss for St. Francis.”

Indeed, Thorpe felt strongly about Purnell, who held just as tightly to his Wing-T offense until this season, which ended with the Spartans’ fifth playoff berth in the Purnell era.

“Nobody ran the Wing-T better than Greg Purnell,” Thorpe said. “His state championship team was three plays, and you knew they were going to run it and he knew they were going to run it, and doggone it they ran it down your throat and they won a state championship.”

Purnell, who could not be reached for comment, won three state championships at Linn-Marr High in Marion, Iowa, helping him earn enshrinement in the state’s football coaching hall of fame.

In the years before taking the St. Francis job, Purnell went on a coaching sabbatical as he recovered from hip replacement surgery and advanced his profile in high school and college development offices.

As St. Francis’ major gifts officer and annual fund director, he helped raise funds for numerous projects, including Kuhn Memorial Stadium, which opened for what proved to be his final season.

“It’s a mix of phone calls and lunches, breakfasts, coffees, dinners,” St. Francis President Tom Bednar said. “It’s amazing the time that he puts into both.”

Bednar said Purnell often met alumni or potential donors early on a Saturday before a football practice or game.

Fassnacht expects similar multitasking next fall, and for however long Purnell keeps working at the school.

“He loves football so much,” Fassnacht said, “I doubt he’ll be able to stop thinking about it.”

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