By JOE STEVENSON-
The image that Paul Wleklinski developed of a high school coach when he was growing up was that of someone mean and strict, someone who ruled sternly and often yelled to get their point across.
That image was shattered, in a good way, when Wleklinski made it to Hampshire’s varsity football team. Whip-Purs coach Dan Cavanaugh was none of that.
“He was the exact opposite,” said Wleklinski, who played on Cavanaugh’s 1995 Class 2A state championship team. “He was basically like a father figure to you. He was never yelling at anybody, not knocking anybody down (mentally). He was a really nice guy, always cared about his players, always in the locker room talking with everybody all the time. He was kind of like one of the guys.”
Hampshire’s school and community were saddened Tuesday morning by Cavanaugh’s death at age 59. Cavanaugh, who taught in District 300 for 33 years and coached the Whips’ football teams for 25 years, had been fighting pancreatic cancer.
Cavanaugh’s wake will be from 3 to 7 p.m. Friday at St. Catherine of Siena, 845 W. Main St. in West Dundee.
Those around the school remembered him this week as someone who acted with class and dignity, and forged countless relationships with people he worked with.
Hampshire boys basketball coach Ben Whitehouse, who played quarterback for three seasons under Cavanaugh and later worked as an assistant football coach, was hit particularly hard.
“He had impeccable character,” Whitehouse said. “He treated everyone with the utmost respect and was an extremely classy individual. I never met an individual who could balance being competitive and coaching and driving kids to give their best, yet also care about them as individuals and understand that life was bigger than winning and losing. Aside from my father, he’s been the most influential male in my life. I know a lot of former players and coaches feel the same way I do.”
Cavanaugh was 121-122 in his 25 seasons as coach. The 1995 Whips defeated Moweaqua Central A&M, 20-18, for the 2A title, giving Hampshire its third football state championship. Former coach Ron Ellett took the Whips to the Class 1A championships in 1976 and 1979.
“We’re devastated,” Hampshire Principal Brett Bending said. “We have known he was fighting pancreatic cancer. When we got the news [Wednesday] morning, it was a very sad moment. He was certainly a special man. He spent 25 years leading a program, won a state championship, built all kinds of relationships, mentored not just the young men he coached, but those who coached with him and other teachers who had nothing to do with football. It was just him being a consummate professional and really a great person.”
Cavanaugh stepped down as coach after the 2013 season. The 1995 team celebrated with a 20-year reunion two years ago with Cavanaugh and numerous players returning for a Friday night game.
Cavanaugh went to St. Charles High School, then attended the Air Force Academy and the University of Iowa.
Wleklinski remembered serving as ball boy when he was a seventh-grader in 1989, Cavanaugh’s first season as head coach.
“The work those guys on that coaching staff put in for us to reach our goal of winning state was just unbelievable,” Wleklinski said. “It takes a certain kind of special person to put all that effort into helping us reach our goal.”
Jake Goebbert, a 2006 Hampshire graduate, played quarterback for Cavanaugh before he went on to play baseball at Northwestern and eventually made it to the major leagues with the San Diego Padres.
“(Cavanaugh) was someone I built a friendship with after I left high school,” Goebbert said. “During pro ball in the offseason, I’d go to a football game, and I’d go out with the coaching staff. He always welcomed me, always wanted to hear my opinion, he was always a leader, but yet he was willing to listen. It was a beautiful relationship that I will sorely miss.”
Goebbert enjoyed lunch with Cavanaugh in October.
Whitehouse knew Cavanaugh long before he reached high school. When Cavanaugh married his wife Debbie, he became a stepfather to one of Whitehouse’s grade-school friends.
“I got to know him as Mr. Dan first,” Whitehouse said. “He had this way about him, and I try to emulate it myself, where you’re consistent and you’re positive and very even keel, but when it’s time to raise your voice or correct the behavior, or demand expectations are met, you do it. There’s a clear difference. As an athlete, you pick up on it instantly.”
Hampshire athletic director Dave Hicks appreciated Cavanaugh’s ability to reach young people more than sports.
“What he did more than anything was he taught kids values,” Hicks said. “He was an example, not of how to play football, but how to do things in life the right way. He expected the best out of his kids and he showed everyone he worked with respect, and in return, they had respect for him.
“There’s never going to be another one like him anywhere, because people just don’t coach for 25 years anymore. Dan never complained. If he had a great team or an average or below-average talent, you would never know the way he went about his business. He did it for the kids, he didn’t do it for himself.”