For most of 13 years, Steve Spoden offered Marian Central football players constructive criticism and advice, a sort of big brother who was not afraid to dish out tough love.
Spoden, who owns a pair of master’s degrees in counseling, often talked to players, as well as other Marian students, about things other than football. They considered him a good listener.
In the past 20 months, since Spoden was fired as the Hurricanes' offensive line coach, the roles have reversed. Players have called and texted to pick up Spoden’s spirits. Often, he looked to them for counseling and usually received the same reply: “Spodie, [coaching] is what you were meant to do.”
Deep down, Spoden probably knew that. But it helped to hear confirmations from former Hurricanes such Greg Whalen, whom Spoden considers a “modern-day Socrates,” Chris Streveler and Liam Kirwan.
Spoden had spent every year since 2000 on Marian’s sideline, until last season. He will be back this fall as offensive line coach at St. Viator, which coincidentally hosts Marian on Oct. 10 in Arlington Heights in an East Suburban Catholic Conference game.
“I’m really happy I’m back in it,” said Spoden, who played offensive tackle at NCAA Division I Northern Iowa. “As all these kids have been telling me – I asked their opinion – they said I should do it. Man, it’s nice to be back.”
Spoden now wears “Saint Viator Lions Football” T-shirts instead of his Marian garb. The Marian “MC” sticker on the back window of his black Escalade has been removed, but some adhesive still makes the letters readable, serving as a reminder that part of Spoden remains with the Hurricanes. He misses coach Ed Brucker, assistants Dirk and Terry Stanger, and sophomore coach Tim Lalor, all who were on the staff during Spoden’s 13 years at the Woodstock school.
“It’s going to be kind of strange [on Oct. 10],” Spoden said. “I was there for 13 years. … I coached with them for a long time. Win or lose, they’ll get a hug from me after the game.”
Spoden earned a reputation at Marian, and in group coaching sessions at Davis Speed Center in Crystal Lake, as a “Lineman Whisperer.” The Hurricanes produced a D-I linemen almost annually, starting with Green Bay Packers right tackle Bryan Bulaga in 2006, Notre Dame defensive tackle Sean Cwynar in 2007 and then others.
Spoden comes with no nonsense or filters. This got him in trouble with Marian after the 2012 season when he posted disparaging remarks about Montini on a Marian player’s Facebook page. The Hurricanes were distraught after losing to Montini in the Class 5A playoffs for a fourth consecutive season. Spoden said he wanted to take a bat to the knees of Montini players and suggested that Lombard be carpet bombed.
Spoden was fired. Although Montini coach Chris Andriano said he was not offended and that he respected Marian’s staff, Marian’s administration felt too much damage was done.
“When we determined to have him conclude time of employment, the intention was we felt at that point we needed to sever ties and move on,” Marian superintendent Tom Landers said. “Let him move on and be a coach in his own way. [St. Viator] is good for him.”
Andriano even offered Spoden the Broncos' offensive line coaching job. He knew the distance from Spoden’s home in Crystal Lake to Lombard would make it difficult, but he still asked.
“I have great respect for the work he’d done with the kids he’s worked with at Marian,” Andriano said. “He had arguably the best player to come out of our [Suburban Christian Conference] in Bulaga. I would have loved to have [Spoden]. You go against good people, you’d like to have them on your side.”
That’s the thing, despite his rough edges and brutal honesty, Spoden is considered “good people” by those who have been around him. Now a State Farm Insurance agent who works in Lake Villa, he has owned his mistake from the beginning.
“I made a mistake, there’s no doubt about that,” he said. “Did my punishment fit my crime? That’s not up to me to say. It never was. I know I’m sorry that it happened. I don’t get to see people I care very deeply about. I’m moving on. I’ve always been fortunate to land on my feet.”
His daughter, Madeline, will be a freshman at Marian this year and eighth-grade son Carter plans on attending Marian next year.
St. Viator coach Brandon New discussed what happened at Marian in depth with Spoden and had no problems with hiring him. New actually offered last year, but Spoden was working at a new job and unsure of making that commitment. They stayed in touch and Spoden told New this summer he was ready.
“What he did was wrong. At the same time, he cares so much about his kids that he let his emotions get away from him,” New said. “You can’t fault a guy the rest of his life for a making a mistake on social media, especially when he’s defending his kids.
"Everyone is owed a second chance when you make a mistake and admit it. He brings a great sense of accountability and a knowledge of offensive line play. We’ve been blessed with him joining us.”
Spoden still does the sessions at Davis Speed Center. He also plans on doing sessions at Elite 7 Sports in Lake Barrington. He loves doing grunt work with the big boys. He charges $20 for each 1 1/2-hour group sessions, although he usually waives fees for college players who previously have worked with him.
Two players who Spoden worked with at Davis were Prairie Ridge graduate Shane Evans, now at Northern Illinois, and Cary-Grove senior Trevor Ruhland, who is committed to Notre Dame.
Spoden said he has had great talent with which to work. But he also has that knack for being able to criticize, yet still drill solid fundamentals into their heads.
Kirwan holds fond memories of linemen camps on Thursdays in the summer at Marian, where he first met Spoden.
“There’s something special, I can’t really tell you what IT is,” Kirwan said, “but he’s got IT. He’s a disciplinarian for sure. If you did something wrong, he’d decide what you were doing [for punishment]. But at the same time, he’s a caring person. He cared about his players. Do wins and losses really count? [Heck], yeah! But what really counts with him are the relationships.”
Spoden is back on Facebook. When his wife, Ann, recently posted a new profile picture for him, it received 150 “Likes” in half a day, most coming from recent Marian graduates.
“I treat them how I want them to act,” Spoden said. “It’s always been my philosophy. I measure my success by how many kids, when they see me, have a smile on their face. That’s success to me.”