Someone unfamiliar with Coach Bob Hyland would be hard pressed to believe that the head guy of the Fond du Lac St. Mary’s Springs football program has mellowed in any way.
Hyland insists he has mellowed “quite a bit.” His wife Carol and his son Rob — two people who know him best — concur. Longtime assistants agree.
Anyone who watches the veteran of 44 Springs football campaigns and 13 state championships in day-to-day action, however, would gauge such talk as unthinkable. From a distance, Hyland exudes that old-time coaching fire and snarling demeanor that brings back memories of George Halas, Vince Lombardi, Forrest Gregg, Woody Hayes and Barry Alvarez.
“He’s a teddy bear,” his wife Carol says, with a knowing smile. “He might look and act hard on the outside, but he isn’t that way really. The Hallmark Channel is one of our favorites, and he gets tears in his eyes watching the shows. He gets emotional for a lot of reasons. He’s an emotional guy.”
Rob Hyland pointed out, “People who know him know he gets choked up at times. He doesn’t try to hide it. That’s him.”
He added, “There’s no doubt he’s not as intense as he used to be, but sometimes the early ’80s Bob comes out … sometimes his younger version jumps up there.”
For the record
No matter which version of the coach is on display along the sidelines or on the practice field, it’s the passionate and successful Bob Hyland who is running the show. The record speaks for itself — 415 wins, 101 losses and two ties (as of Aug. 21) in a career dating to his first year at Springs in 1971; 22 appearances in state championship games; 13 state championships; state football playoffs in 13 of the past 15 seasons; consecutive state championships in 2011 and 2012; the Division 6 state championship and a 14-0 record in 2014; four consecutive Flyway Conference championships since 2011 and 29 straight conference victories in that time frame — in fact, the Ledgers have never lost a game as members of the Flyway Conference.
The accomplishments are mind boggling, but it was not always the case for Coach Hyland and Springs.
He and Carol arrived in Fond du Lac in 1971, not yet married a year, with Bob set to begin teaching math and a full slate of coaching at Springs, and Carol poised to begin an internship and her final year of clinicals at St. Agnes Hospital. Carol recently retired as chief executive officer of Consultants Lab at Agnesian HealthCare.
A difficult start for Coach
“It was rough at the start,” the coach said. “My record after the first two years was 1-15-2.”
One win in two years…it seems incomprehensible in hindsight. The winningest coach in Wisconsin football history had one win and two ties in his first two years of work.
Hyland laughs when he says it now, but it was demoralizing at the time: “It made me question whether I could coach or not. We didn’t unpack for three years,” he said. “We didn’t think they would want us to stay on.”
For Hyland the glut of losses was foreign to everything he had known in athletics. In four years at Wisconsin Rapids Assumption High School and four years at North Dakota State University, he had experienced losses a mere five times.
Members of the search committee that brought Hyland to Springs were more than patient. They saw overall improvement and reason for hope, even though “the kids hadn’t learned how to win yet,” Carol recalled.
“I said to myself, ‘Just give me four years to work on the fundamentals and we can get it done,’ Hyland recalled. “Our fifth year we went to State.”
Hyland describes himself as a “fundamentals guy,” with emphasis on proper blocking and tackling and devotion to detail and discipline.
Building a program
The players learned how to win, expected to win, refused to lose, Hyland pointed out.
That is the tradition he has strived to preserve and fortify over four decades.
“The kids know what the goals are. They know the expectations from the minute they get here,” he said.
Hyland’s son, Rob, a member of the Class of ’92 and one of Springs best overall teams in ’91, is back for his eighth season as an assistant to his Dad. He says the keys to his father’s coaching success are his regard for teaching and his ability to assess players’ strengths and abilities and place them where they can be the most effective and successful.
“Yes, he motivates them, but he also develops them,” Rob pointed out. “You need a variety of talents to make a team. He really knows how to do that.”
Rob, who has a degree in electrical engineering, is employed at Mercury Marine as a member of the IT Department management team. He finds time as often as possible when the work day is done to help out at Springs with the high school team, then turn his attention to coaching his son Isaac on the sixth-grade St. Mary’s Springs Academy team and hopefully get home for dinner by 8 at night.
“We’re starting to see some of the next generation (sons of his teammates) playing in grade school,” Rob said. “They want to play for Springs when they’re in high school.”
Sense of family
It speaks to the sense of family that Bob Hyland refers to at Springs.
“It is the families that set Springs apart,” Hyland said. “We get families from all backgrounds; there are significant sacrifices that go along with that. We get great crowd support and we have excellent school spirit.”
“Another huge factor, I think, is the Catholic identity we have here,” Hyland said, noting the historic impact of the Agnesian sisters and the school’s core values.
“Just as an example, we start the day with prayer and we say grace at lunch,” Hyland noted. “It makes you stop and think that there is more to it all than meets the eye.”
He also points to his coaching staff as a key factor in Springs’ success from year to year.
Among his staff are Shawn O’Laughlin, 38 years; Kyle Krueger, the school’s athletic director, 25 years; and Kurt Krueger and Tom Lemke, each with 20 years.
“They know the goals, the system and the expectations. They carry it on,” Hyland added.
Not surprisingly, Hyland believes deeply in the value of football as “the ultimate team sport,” a bastion of mental and physical toughness, and a repository of life lessons.
“Football is one of the last places I know of where toughness is developed in people and valued,” he said. “It is about standing up for the person next to you, teamwork, working with people, developing pride, doing the job, and being successful.”
“I really believe that football teaches life lessons,” Hyland insisted. “You are going to get knocked down. Life is not kind…it’s not fair. How well you pick yourself up when you’re knocked down or fall down is what really matters. You have to have toughness and you need to have discipline.”
Support of wife and family
With 44 seasons under his belt, Hyland realizes that he is a rarity in the world of coaching.
“To be around as long as I have, you have to have a good and understanding wife and a family that is totally supportive,” Hyland pointed out. “That’s one of the reasons you don’t see as many career coaches any more. Wives and girlfriends just can’t take it for very long…or won’t.”
“To be successful, you have to spend the time, make the commitment,” Carol pointed out. “You have to have common goals and vision. Your partner has to be supportive.” And it works both ways.
They think back to the years when Bob worked days and Carol worked nights to make ends meet and to coordinate the demands of jobs, family and child care.
They remember when their son Rob and their daughter Molly were “little kids” and spent hours playing near the practice field as their Dad fumed, yelled, corrected and coached his teams.
Bob and Carol laugh now — they didn’t when it happened all those years ago — when they recall the day Molly wandered into a nearby cornfield and got hopelessly stuck in the mud. Assistant coach Shawn O’Laughlin heard her calling for help after practice was over, searched for her and pulled her out. Her shoes remained behind.
Thankful for the rewards
“Springs has been wonderful to us,” Carol said, noting that there have been sacrifices and struggles, and lots of good times. “We love our life here. I give credit to the men who brought Bob here and gave him the chance.”
“One of my proudest moments was seeing Bob selected as Coach of the Year and Rob as Player of the Year (in Wisconsin) in the same year (1991),” she said.
And she says it’s uplifting when players from a year ago or 10 years or 30 or more approach her husband and tell him the positive impact he has had on their lives.
Football ‘safer than ever’
Despite societal concerns about concussions and injuries, trends toward specialization by high school athletes and the competition for players in other sports, Hyland views the future of football as “very bright.”
“High school football is safer than it’s ever been,” he said. “We’re teaching the fundamentals better. Coaches are better educated. The equipment is much better.”
Hyland has given no serious thought to retirement, even though he has notched his 68th birthday.
He has two grandsons he would like to coach before he hangs up his whistle, and a granddaughter he would like to coach in track.
Peyton is in eighth grade, Isaac is in sixth, and Brody, who is sometimes referred to as “Little Bob,” is in third.
If all goes according to plan and coaching still trips his trigger, Hyland will be on the sidelines for Brody’s final game as a Ledger in 2024. The Coach would be 77 years old with 54 seasons at the Springs helm to his credit. A championship game would be the ultimate icing on the cake.
Michael Mentzer, now retired after a 40-year newspaper career, writes a monthly column for Scene.