CEDAR RAPIDS – Craig Jelinek could only watch so many TV westerns before getting back in the coaching saddle.
Now, he’s hitched his wagon to the Cedar Rapids Xavier football program.
After one season away from prep football, the former Cedar Rapids Prairie head coach has returned from retirement to join the Saints staff. He is serveing as an assistant for the first time since 1988. He will be on the sidelines against a familiar foe Thursday when Xavier plays Cedar Rapids Jefferson at Kingston Stadium, scheduled for 7:15 p.m.
Jelinek has connected with the new gang that he once tried to beat on Friday nights.
“(The coaches) are great guys to be around and the kids have been wonderful,” Jelinek said. “I watched about all the ‘Bonanzas’ and ‘Gunsmokes’ I could. It was time to get out and do a little teaching.”
The prospect of teaching instead of coaching football was the biggest attraction. Jelinek works with defensive backs, kickers and tight ends, but all Saints coaches are encouraged to contribute in all aspects when they see something wrong. As an assistant, he can be more hands-on without the headaches of leading a program.
“It’s just the purity of it,” said Jelinek, who played defensive back for Jefferson and at William Penn. “I’ve always said that when you teach you talk, and when you coach you yell. I haven’t yelled yet.”
Xavier Coach Duane Schulte talked with Jelinek in the spring about returning to the coaching ranks. Jelinek has been active with the program all summer, and seems rejuvenated and enthusiastic.
“Heck, he has more black hair than I do,” said Schulte, noting Jelinek is about 10 years older. “He’s got a lot of energy. He doesn’t have to worry about the stuff a head coach has to worry about. It’s a different way to have more fun.”
That wasn’t the case when he stepped away from the Prairie program, following the 2010 season. He led the Hawks for 22 seasons, taking over for Ed Johnson prior to the 1989 season. Jelinek taught for 37 years and coached prep football and girls basketball for a total of 31 years, including 27 at Prairie. He said he loved his time at Prairie.
Jelinek didn’t necessarily foresee coaching again, but didn’t rule it out.
“I was just so tired that I didn’t have any plans,” said Jelinek, who is 60 years old. ”If my life led me away from coaching that was what I was going to do.”
He experienced normal life for a year. He attended football games as a spectator with friend and former coaching colleague, Dave Bennett. Jelinek was able to enjoy personal moments during the season. He celebrated his anniversary with wife, Rita, and birthdays of Rita and daughter, Jill, on the actual dates. It was hard to ignore the call of the sport that had been a big part of his life.
“I felt there was something missing,” Jelinek said. “I really felt I had something left to give. The knowledge I had, I was hoping to share that with somebody.”
Why not somebody he had an association? Before becoming a Prairie assistant in 1984, Jelinek was an assistant at Cedar Rapids La Salle, which merged with Cedar Rapids Regis to form Xavier in 1998. At LaSalle, Jelinek was a teacher Schulte’s senior year and coached Xavier defensive coordinator Jim O’Connell on the sophomore team. They all learned and modelled their philosophies after former Lancers coach Tom Kopatich.
The history allowed for Jelinek to make an easy transition.
“It makes their program very similar and that’s why I feel comfortable and I fit in,” Jelinek said. “We all believe in discipline, hard work and tough football.”
O’Connell has noticed Jelinek still displays his “unprecedented” work ethic and care for the players. O’Connell recalled a story when Jelinek pulled him from class after a game against Regis. O’Connell was hampered by an injury, but didn’t tell anyone. Jelinek identified it on video and addressed it with O’Connell. It is that attention to detail and his eye for the intricacies of the game that can benefit the Saints.
“I’ve been learning a lot from him…” O’Connell said. “He’s meticulous. He’s given me a lot more freedom to do a few other things. He can take the defensive backs and I can work with the linebackers and defensive line.”
Even more than a colleague, O’Connell still holds Jelinek in the same regard as he did in the early 1980′s at La Salle.
“Everytime we’re done with practice I thank him,” O’Connell said. “I still have that respect for him (as my coach).”
The Saints defense was impressive opening night, even if Jelinek almost ran to the visitor’s side of Saints Field before kickoff. Xavier picked off three passes and held Dubuque Hempstead to 156 yards of offense, including 19 rushing, in a 48-7 win. The performance was fueled by a unified group.
“It’s a great team environment,” senior defensive tackle Emiliano Martinez said. “We’re all about each other. Everyone has a job to do, and if you do your job good thigns are going to happen.”
Xavier (1-0) will face Jefferson (10-), which managed 86 rushing yards and just over 150 total on offense, in a 28-7 loss at Cedar Rapids Prairie. The defensive tradition resonates with the Saints, who will look to continue their stinginess and secure a second straight win.
“You want to keep it going,” Martinez said. “You want to make the alumni (and) your coaches proud.”
Now, Jelinek is one of those coaches. He has a different view from the Xavier bench, but it was just good ol’ football in his return.
“Once the whistle blew, it was the same game,” Jelinek said. “I enjoyed the excitement on the sideline.”