Remembering Howie Romanek, a coach and mentor
Glenbrook South High School lost one of its greatest friends with the passing of Howard Romanek last month.
The hall of fame girls basketball coach led the Titans to the 1994 Class AA state title in just his fifth year directing the program. He had a terrific record of 184-72 in nine seasons from 1989 to 1998 before serving as a volunteer coach in the program for the next 21 years.
But Romanek meant much more to the school where he taught social studies from 1971 to 2003.
"The biggest thing is that he loved Glenbrook South," said Steve Weissenstein, another Glenbrook South Hall of Fame coach who replaced Romanek when he stepped down in 1998. "Even after he retired, he was still there almost every single day whether he was subbing or coaching. He just loved the place."
It was his "home away from home" since he arrived from Geneva High School where he taught and coached in 1969 and 1970.
Romanek, 72, passed away peacefully in his sleep on May 20 at the Citadel Nursing Home in Northbrook after battling brain cancer during the last year.
"He was the kindest, most generous, selfless person," Weissenstein said. "He just had a pure spirit. When he was coaching it was never about him, it was always about the kids."
Romanek was an outstanding basketball player at Niles East High School where he graduated in 1965.
He earned a bachelor's degree from the University of Illinois in 1969 and later a master's degree from Northern Illinois University in DeKalb.
Bob Shoenwetter, who coached the Titans football team from 1976-1993 (112-63 record) started at South about the same time as Romanek.
"We knew each other for more than 50 years as teachers and he was a very close friend of my family," said Shoenwetter, whose son David is current head football coach at South. "It's a sad time."
Shoenwetter was an assistant in the girls basketball program for Romanek's entire time as head coach.
"He had a feel for the kids," Shoenwetter said from his home in Arizona. "One thing you'll hear about Howie Romanek is that he was a selfless individual. He treated the school and the kids as if they were his family and I think that is a real magical formula for any coach. He cared about the kids and they responded."
Romanek began coaching freshman boys' basketball at GBS in 1976.
After 13 successful years he became the head coach of the girls varsity team, establishing it as one of the most respected in Illinois.
From 1993-1998, Howard's teams went a remarkable 153-27 including five conference championships, four regionals, one sectional and the state championship in 1994.
"In his first year, I remember his team was not that good and lost to Evanston by like 60 points," Weissenstein said. "Five year later, they were state champs.
"A lot of it was because he opened the gym for the girls, morning and night. Whenever the girls could fit it into their schedule, he opened the gym for them and really gave them a belief that they could play."
And never did they believe more than 1994 en route to the school's first girls basketball state title.
It came with wins over Libertyville (85-75 in supersectional), Joliet (52-40 in quarterfinals), Mother McAuley (60-54 in semifinals) and Marshall (67-62) for the title.
"The thing I remember about that Marshall game is that it was pretty close at the end," Shoenwetter said. "Howie pretty much knew the Marshall kids were tired and he made a pretty key decision to push the ball and take advantage of our conditioning.
"It really made a difference in the last minute or two. They kind of folded and we kind of rose. Big games come down to a few decisions and that was the biggest one."
And a freshman, Dana Leonard, had the biggest shot of her outstanding career.
The future Northwestern guard hit a 3-pointer with seven seconds left that put the Titans ahead 65-62.
Sarah Peterson added two more free throws to secure Romanek's place in history as a state champion coach.
But you would have never known he had that title in the years to follow.
"The thing about Howie is that he was never like "I'm a varsity state champion coach so I'm only going to work with the varsity, Weissenstein said. "There were years he'd help at freshman level. If we had a bigger sophomore team, he'd be at that level. In my last year (2018-19), he helped with the varsity because we had a big varsity team. He would work with whatever level needed the most help."
Romanek's help outside of the sports world was just as impressive.
Among many things, he was a long-term sponsor of the Onward House, worked with the debate program and was the founder or co-founder of several social studies courses at Glenbrook South.
He was awarded the Board of Education's Teacher of the Year award in 1987.
Weissenstein appreciated Romanek's dedication to the athletes.
"The thing I loved about Howie is that whenever we had camps in the summer, he would always be the first person in the gym and the last person out," he said. "For girls who wanted to get better, it didn't matter if they were an all stater or a girl who was barely going to make the freshman 'B' team.
"If that girl wanted to work individually on her skills, he would get there as early as she wanted or stay as late as she wanted. He was just so generous with his time and willingness to help who ever needed help."
And off the court, too.
"He never spent money on himself," Weissenstein said. "If kids were selling lottery tickets, he would buy them all. He started Onward House where he would take a group of students to Chicago to tutor inner city kids. He was just incredibly, incredibly generous with his time and willingness to help anyone who needed it."
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