Former Cahokia High School head coach and Belleville West assistant Gene Muzzarelli is in a class of 15 that will be inducted into the Illinois High School Football Coaches' Association Hall of Fame.
The ceremony will be held at noon Saturday at the Hilton Garden Inn in Champaign, with University of Illinois football coach Tim Beckman serving as the guest speaker.
"It really is (a thrill)," Muzzarelli said Wednesday afternoon in a telephone interview from his longtime home in Morton. "It's getting close. I'm getting more anxious all the time.
"I received my letter about the induction around Christmas. I had just had some surgery. My wife (Lura) opened the letter and gave it to me. I looked at it and said, 'What's this all about?' So I read it again and it hit me what it all was about. To be honest, I got a real pit in my stomach. It's quite an honor."
Muzzarelli, 79, coached at Cahokia in 1967 and 1968, leading the Comanches to a 13-6-2 record. He was the offensive line coach at West from 1969-71, spending the first season under Bob Samples and the next two under the late Bruce Arnold.
"Those were really great times for me," Muzzarelli said. "The people that I met down there (were great). There were a lot of great coaches, a lot of great players. My affiliations with all of them were wonderful."
Samples remembers his Maroons being overwhelmed by the Comanches in a muddy regular-season game in 1968 in Cahokia.
Samples said the Comanches had a fullback, Mike McGuire, who ran wild on the Maroons, and he credited Cahokia's offensive line. Samples was extremely pleased that Muzzarelli opted to leave Cahokia and coach West's offensive line.
"We really had a good team and they just beat the heck out of us," Samples said. "They had that big fullback and we just couldn't stop him in that rain and mud and so forth.
"The next year, I lost my offensive line coach, so I called up 'Muzz.' At that time, I think Belleville's salary schedule was a little higher than Cahokia's. But for whatever reason, I talked him into coming and being on my staff and taking over the responsibility of the offensive line. He came over and he was wonderful."
While it's unusual for a head coach to leave a program to be an assistant, Muzzarelli said the pay raise was significant.
"The salary was better, for one thing, at West," Muzzarelli said. "And I got to teach driver's ed in the summer, which was complementary. I think I moved because I needed to make a change. A lot of people have asked me that same question: 'Why did you go from a head coach to an assistant?'
"But I never felt that way. I just enjoyed coaching football. That had no bearing on it. I don't feel that it was secondary that I went to Belleville West and became an assistant there. We had an outstanding staff of coaches."
Samples said Muzzarelli had tremendous camaraderie with the offensive linemen.
"The kids really liked him," he said. "They would do anything for him. They bought into his system."
Muzzarelli, a 1951 graduate of Farmington High and a 1955 graduate of the University of Illinois, left Belleville for good in 1972 to become the head coach at Morton High, where he was 56-35-1 in 10 seasons, with three conference championships.
"When we came to Morton, Morton hadn't been too successful," Muzzarelli said. "My first year here, we took our lumps; we only won a couple of ballgames. Our second year was the best season they had (enjoyed) in 16 years. I think we won seven that year, and then the next year we went undefeated (in the regular season).
"Our kids got better. The kids came out and I had some real outstanding football players here, too."
Muzzarelli finished his coaching career at Eureka College, again working with the offensive line. He was a physical education instructor at Morton until he retired in 1993.
Muzzarelli and Lura, who have three children, six grandchildren and two great-grandchildren, will celebrate 58 years of marriage in June.
"I don't know what I would do without her," Muzzarelli said.
Contact reporter David Wilhelm at email@example.com or 239-2665.