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Spartans tab ex-Viking Blackmon to head football program

By Jason Maholy
Sports Editor

Harold Blackmon is no stranger to challenges.

The Northwestern grad and former Seattle Seahawks defensive back came to Saint Laurence in 2012 to lead a football program that hadn’t won a playoff game in nearly 20 years.

Four seasons later, the Vikings advanced to the IHSA Class 5A state semifinals. They repeated that achievement the following year, this time in Class 6A, and in 2017 made it to the 6A quarterfinals.

For those keeping track, that equates to eight playoff victories in three seasons, for a program that hadn’t sniffed the second round since 1993.

Blackmon will now attempt to resurrect another football program that has experienced its share of struggles over the past 25-plus years. Fired by St. Laurence in April after seven seasons at the helm, Blackmon found his next challenge a little more than two miles away at Oak Lawn.

The Spartans announced Blackmon as their new head football coach on May 1, exactly one month after he was dismissed from St. Laurence.

“Well, it was a long four to five weeks,” Blackmon said of his brief separation from football. “I was just very fortunate that the timing of things played out when they did, and that [Oak Lawn Athletic Director Jeremy Cryan] was able to get me in and go through the interview process and give me the chance to show what I feel like I can do from a football standpoint.”

Blackmon takes over a program that hasn’t made the playoffs since 2009, which was also the last season the Spartans finished at or above .500. Oak Lawn has won more then three games only twice in the past nine seasons, going 23-58 in that span. They were 2-7 last year after heading into the season believing the playoff drought was coming to an end. They haven’t won a playoff game since 1991.

Blackmon admitted he was not aware of the Spartans history until he went through the interview process for the job. He’s watched video of every Spartans game from 2018, and believes the team is on the cusp of breaking through.

“I’m excited about being here,” he said. “I thought a lot of those (2018) games could have gone either way. It’s a challenge for me, but I feel like compared to what I walked into at St. Laurence – in terms of culture, in terms of confidence – I feel like at Oak Lawn we’re so far ahead of where that was.”

Blackmon credits former Spartans head coach Nick Novak for building a strong foundation with which he’ll have to work. Novak stepped down from his post, citing his desire to spend more time with his family.

“I explained to the players that I don’t have all the answers, but what I’m going to do is take what coach Novak has built and take it to the next level,” Blackmon said. “I made sure to give him credit because he’s done great job with those young men. I don’t think they’re far away at all, but only time will tell.”

Blackmon noted the Spartans started seven sophomores in 2018.

“When you have seven sophomores starting, that’s tough – believe me, I know from my time at St. Laurence,” he said. “I think it was a little bit of a lack of maturity and lack of belief that you can win. But I feel like in terms of talent, they’re close.

“I think the players are excited. They welcomed me, and it seems like a great group of players. They’re excited to have this new start.”

Blackmon, who will fill the position of permanent substitute teacher, hopes his influence goes beyond the football field.

“I got into coaching to help high school athletes, to be a mentor and role model,” he said. “If I can do that and we can win some games on top of that, then things are good.”

Blackmon knows he will be faced with more than just the challenge of building sustained success at a struggling program, particularly in his first year. He understands the possibility exists that he will lose players who may decide he’s not the coach they want to play for and don’t want to buy what he’s selling.

He also said patience is essential. St. Laurence finished 1-8 and 4-5 his first two seasons in Burbank, before going 5-4 in the regular season and qualifying for the playoffs in 2014.

“As a coach that’s always the toughest thing, is to come in and put your stamp on a program,” he said. “I think it comes down to the type of kids you have, and I think that half the battle is just getting enough players to believe in the process.

“Showing up, working out, believing in yourself. As we did that (at St. Laurence) and stayed consistent, I think people started to see the progress, and eventually there was a breakthrough there, and I hope the same thing happens at Oak Lawn.”

Another challenge Blackmon is facing is keeping players at Oak Lawn, when they know they have a better chance for athletic success at private schools such as Marist, Brother Rice, St. Rita and Mount Carmel. He said the facilities and academics at Oak Lawn rival those at any private school.

“I can say this, having been in private school my entire life, I wasn’t aware of what the suburban schools have to offer,” he said. “When I toured the facilities I realized they’re great for players, for academics and athletics. There are a lot of things Oak Lawn has to offer that they don’t advertise because they’re not a private school.

“If this was a private school it would be $15,000 tuition a year, easy.”

Blackmon can’t guarantee wins or playoff berths, but his track record speaks for itself. He’s looking forward to getting on the field and molding a new crop of high school athletes into a perennially competitive program.

“It should be a great story, and I can guarantee I ‘ll give everything I have,” he said.

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