“We lost a giant of a man”
ESCANABA – “We lost a giant of a man.”
That comment from Ken Hofer sums up the reaction expressed following the death of Jerry Cvengros. Cvengros, 80, died Monday evening in Lansing. The native of Ironwood spent 30 years as a coach and administrator at Escanaba Area High School before joining the Michigan High School Athletic Association as associate director in 1988.
Cvengros, who retired in 2001, lived in Okemos with his wife Shelley. Funeral services will be held Monday at St. Martha’s Church in Okemos, with visitation at 10 a.m. and Mass at 11.
Hofer, the ultra successful football coach at Menominee High School, was a roommate with Cvengros for one semester at the University of Wisconsin. He still has a photo of the two Badger football teammates on a scale, Hofer as the team’s smallest player and Cvengros as the biggest.
Cvengros and Hofer are members of the U.P. Sports Hall of Fame and were legendary coaching rivals during three decades. The two schools have a fierce but friendly rivalry that expanded with the personal connection, providing highly intense, competitive contests.
“We were tremendous competitors, but once the game was over we had a big hug and shook hands,” recalled Hofer Tuesday. “There is no question we wanted to win just as much as the other one did. It (friendship) inspired me to go the extra mile if I could.”
Hofer recalled losing 13-8 decisions to Esky in consecutive years, including 1981 when the Eskymos won the Class A state championship. The Maroons then won 24-6 in 1982, Escanaba’s lone loss that prevented a chance to defend the state title.
Cvengros was 161-42-3 as the Esky coach from 1962-84, including a state runner-up finish in 1979. He was U.P. coach of the year four times and Associated Press Class A state coach of the year in 1979 and 1981.
Dan Flynn, who joined the EHS staff in 1972 and succeeded Cvengros as head coach in 1985-2012, said he lost a “very good friend” and that the football field was his classroom.
“He coached coaches. He taught us how to take care of our job and how to do our job,” said Flynn. “He did not make an issue of small things. He made an issue of important things. He treated people with respect.
“He showed us how to work on respect, work on integrity, work on your work ethic. That was the message. Respect is an every day thing. Integrity and dignity are every day things.”
Flynn said solid preparation was a key to success for Cvengros, both in football and as administrator. He was athletic director from 1970-83, added activities director duties in 1975, and was principal from 1983-88.
“Getting athletes to adapt and adjust in game situations was his coaching strength,” said Flynn. “He prepared very well.”
Flynn said a notable game under Cvengros was the Class A playoff opener against Grand Blanc in 1979, the school’s first postseason appearance under a playoff format that began in 1975. Esky trailed 21-0 and Flynn recalled “we looked at each other on the sideline and thought maybe we don’t belong here. But we were not giving up. We got more aggressive and stayed patient with the kids.
“That was a big moment in our program. We came back and won (36-35) because no one panicked. We kept our cool.”
Tight end-linebacker Jeff Nault, an all-state selection on that team and a future University of Wisconsin tight end, also recalled that challenging position against Grand Blanc.
“Jerry stepped into our huddle and said ‘we’re gonna get them, we’re going to stop them and we’re going to score.’ He had that quiet confidence, that presence of always standing tall,” said Nault. “It was purely a mind trick, but he talked us into it.”
Nault recalled visiting Madison with Cvengros and several other Esky people that fall, and meeting Dave McClain, the late Badgers’ coach. “He is talking to me, an 18-year-old kid, then he talks just as easily with Coach McClain. He could talk to anybody and make friends with everybody.
“He was one of the biggest influences in my life, and a mentor in my life, behind my father (Tom). How many people do you think he shaped in Escanaba? Thousands of them.”
Nault, who coached football at Hortonville, Wis. and Neenah, Wis. in recent years, said Cvengros served as his role model. “He was a man we were all lucky to have him cross our path,” said Nault, now a guidance counsellor at Hortonville.
Former major league baseball pitcher Kevin Tapani, who was quarterback of that state title team, also benefitted from playing for Cvengros.
“He always gave off confidence because he knew what he wanted to do,” Tapani said. “He was a better person than he was a coach. He was really interested in his players. He put guys in position where they had a chance to be successful. That gives players confidence when you have that type of presence.”
Tapani, who played under numerous coaches at Central Michigan University, in the minor league and with five Major League Baseball teams, learned to appreciate what Cvengros provided. “He served as a mentor, not just a coach,” said Tapani, who is now a high school baseball coach in Wayzata, Minn.
Dean Altobelli, an all-state running back on that title team who became a four-year football letterman at Michigan State University, also saw the benefits of playing for Cvengros, whose family lived across the alley from the Altobellis when Dean was a youngster.
“We were all so fortunate to play for Jerry,” said Altobelli. “Jerry cared about his players and about the people in his program. He understood the importance of coming together as a team.”
Altobelli said he grew to trust Cvengros as a valued mentor, noting he visited Cvengros and his wife Shelley the night before deciding to accept the MSU scholarship offer.
“I trusted his input. He was someone I could always trust and count on,” said Altobelli, noting Cvengros had a big impact on his entire family, which included three brothers who also played football for the Eskymos. “We’ve always been able to depend on Jerry.
“Jerry had a spirit of goodness. It was never about him, it was about his players, how they could develop. He did it in a first-class way. He positively affected each of the players who played for him.”
Current Escanaba head football coach Jim Hansen and former Gladstone Braves head coach John Mileski played for Cvengros in his first decade, with Hansen later joining Cvengros on the administrative team at EHS before succeeding him as principal in 1988. Mileski went on to be head football coach at Gladstone High School, after serving as an assistant against Cvengros and Esky.
Hansen said “my success, if I had any, can be attributed to following his lead. If there was anybody I could emulate, Jerry Cvengros is the type of person you want to emulate.”
Hansen said he probably would have joined the U.S. Navy out of high school, but Cvengros helped steer him to college.
“He showed me there was a lot more to life than the Navy or a construction job. Without his direction, I probably would never have gone to college and have the lifestyle we have now.”
Despite being a head coach and administrator, positions that can lead some to rebel against authority, Hansen said Cvengros “never had an enemy, never made an enemy. He never forgot where he came from. It didn’t matter who you were.”
Mileski said he frequently met with Cvengros to discuss coaching and life in general after becoming Gladstone’s head coach in 1985.
“He was more than a coach to me, he was almost like a second father,” said Mileski. “He was a mentor to me, a friend. He was always honest with me. I relied on him an awful lot.”
Mileski was on the 1967 team that became the first in school history to win all nine games. “We didn’t know we had a good team, we thought we just had a bunch of tough kids. But he knew what we had and we took it one game at a time.”
Harold Johnson, who served on Cvengros’ first football staff and was also EHS varsity boys basketball coach and later school principal, said “Jerry knew what kids needed to be pushed and which kids to coddle. To get the most out of people, you have to understand people, you have to know people, and he had an ability to do that.”
Cvengros, who always made it a point to include associates in a variety of social activities, also impressed fellow EHS adminstrator Bob Koski, who noted how he kept athletics and administrative duties in perspective.
“He was a very humble, open, nurturing guy,” said Koski, also an Ironwood native. “He was a great communicator. He not only challenged himself but those around him.”
Cvengros left Escanaba in 1988 to join the Michigan High School Athletic Association as associate director, retiring in 2001. He was instrumental in creating the current football playoff format that expanded from 128 teams to 256 teams in 1999. He received numerous state and national awards during his tenure in East Lansing.
MHSAA executive director Jack Roberts, in a news release Tuesday, noted Cvengros’ importance as coach, athletic director and principal.
Roberts said “he was the perfect combination of fairness, toughness and diplomacy, able to draw on his vast knowledge of MHSAA rules and an understanding of educational athletics, fostered by his own various experiences.
“…his contributions have had a lasting impact.”
Hofer also noted that impact, adding “he was a great ambassador for the U.P. and the state. The state of Michigan lost an advocate for youth sports. It was nice to have somebody looking over our problems up here. He understood them.”
Cvengros is survived by his wife and sons Michael, Steve and David. He was preceded in death by a daughter, Lee Ann, and his brother Pat, who is also a UPSHF inductee.