Former Jesuit football coach Dominick Ciao was toasted and roasted Sunday at the Columbia Restaurant, and even though Ciao still will teach at the school, at times the event seemed more like a wake.
Maybe that's because the longtime supporters are worried the program is on its deathbed.
John Madiedo stood before 300 people in the Columbia's Siboney Room and explained why the outgoing coach means so much to him and his family.
Madiedo said his son Chris was a drug addict, and he asked his father if Ciao could attend his final sentencing. Madiedo said he never got around to troubling the coach with the request, but on the day of the sentencing Ciao found his way to the courtroom.
The elder Madiedo said his son is on the road to recovery, and he often mentions how much Ciao's attendance meant to him.
Later at the banquet came Mike Martin, who told how he first met Ciao in the hospital. He had gone with his family to check on his injured older brother, Chris, then a defensive back for the Tigers. Because of the concern Ciao displayed, Mike said he knew right then he wanted to be a Tiger.
Now Mike plays for Vanderbilt, and Chris reaps the benefits of a Northwestern degree.
Derek Piniella told the crowd he had given up on football after achieving the lowly status of being the fourth-string linebacker on the junior varsity team. But Ciao pulled the self-described skinny kid aside and encouraged him to come out for the varsity team.
Piniella ended up starting for two years before earning a scholarship to Virginia Tech and playing for a national championship.
For 21/2 hours, friends and players of the past and present paid tribute to Ciao at the $100-a-plate event. Ciao, a southside Chicago native who inspired his team with a blend of fiery speeches, motivational sayings and genuine care, retired in July after 24 years of work in the Jesuit football program, 17 as the coach.
He built upon the foundation created by Bill Minahan, who guided the Tigers from 1966 to '85 and helped Jesuit to a state title in '68. The success is as much about the personal touch as it is about records (132-60) and playoff appearances (10 in the past 11 years).
In essence, Ciao was the architect of a Taj Mahal among high school programs. His teams always played with class and respect and never backed away from a challenge. Naturally, long-time supporters thought it best to have someone within the program continue the success.
And they had their man in Bob Weiner, who was gifted with a plaque at the event and received a standing ovation.
Not only had Weiner been a dedicated, hard-working Ciao assistant for 15 years, but like Piniella he had been spotted by Ciao as a Jesuit freshman and told to come out for football. Ciao's guidance helped him attend Boston College, so who knew more about how the program helped fulfill the Jesuit creed of building "men for others" than Weiner?
Why not hire the architect's right-hand man?
But Jesuit principal Joseph Sabin decided to go another direction. Feeling "blessed" to have the opportunity to hire someone with collegiate experience, he tabbed former Austin Peay State coach Bill Schmitz to take over.
"I love Bob Weiner," said Sabin, a Jesuit graduate who has worked at the school for more than 30 years. "He's a great guy, a good teacher. He was my student.
"This was not a decision made very lightly."
In Schmitz, Jesuit has a coach largely credited with performing a minor miracle at Austin Peay, a Division I-AA school in Clarksville, Tenn. His six-year record was 19-46, but last year the Governors had their first winning season in 18 years at 7-5.
His accomplishments are more impressive when you consider Austin Peay doesn't give scholarships.
In the final analysis this isn't about Weiner's qualifications versus Schmitz's track record. The larger question is why the Jesuit administration was compelled to bring in a new architect when it had a candidate who knew all about the design of the existing landmark?
Weiner's supporters have suggested Sabin and school president Father Joseph Doyle don't have the football program's best interest at heart. Politics, ego and a sense the program was becoming larger than the school are said to be involved.
Some said Weiner needed to disassociate himself with Ciao and Minahan if he wanted the job. Of course that was never going to happen. Others suggested his faith - Weiner is Jewish - was a factor.
"Absolutely not," Sabin said emphatically. He insisted none of the accusations have merit and said the hiring was made with the kids in mind.
"We had to go with who we thought would do the best job," Sabin said.
Schmitz will retain some of Ciao's traditions. He has met with the seniors and wants them to have a level of comfort. But sooner or later Schmitz will begin to remodel the program. As he should. He has to succeed his way. I hope he does.
But change is never easy for folks. With the kind of passion Ciao had inspired in the parents and players, the administration had to know hiring someone from the outside would make the adjustment period far more difficult.
Schmitz may succeed, but the decision to bypass Weiner will always be something of a mystery.