Dennis Litteken was 25 years old when he got his first head football coaching job at his alma mater, Mater Dei High School in Breese.
Litteken was leaving one of the state’s top programs at Springfield Sacred Heart-Griffin and a Hall of Fame coach in Ken Leonard to return to his old high school. Litteken probably never realized it at the time, but that move eventually helped lead to his being selected recently for the Illinois Football Coaches Association Hall of Fame.
“The biggest concern I had when I took the job down here was leaving someone with the knowledge and the skills that coach Leonard had,” said Litteken, a Carlyle native whose Mater Dei teams were 95-57 from 1986 to 2001. “That was 30 years ago and back then you knew you were working with someone that was very special — and I think the world of him still today.”
I’m definitely humbled by it simply because I know the work done by the many people who have been part of that group over the years.
Mater Dei’s Dennis Litteken on making the Football Coaches Hall of Fame
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Litteken and the rest of the IFCA Hall of Fame Class of 2016 will be honored at a noon luncheon April 2 at the Hilton Garden Inn in Champaign.
Litteken is now Mater Dei’s principal, but he never got football coaching out of his blood. He took a year off after one of his former players, Ray Kauling, succeeded him as head coach of the Knights, then rejoined the coaching staff as an assistant.
He still holds that job today even as the school’s principal, a rare double-duty for a school administrator. Litteken said the Hall of Fame honor is as much about everyone he’s coached and worked with as it is about him.
“I’m definitely humbled by it simply because I know the work done by the many people who have been part of that group over the years,” he said of the Hall of Fame coaches. “It goes back to the kids that you’re able to work with over the years. A lot of it’s also longevity, but we feel good about what we’ve been able to do over the last 30 years here at Mater Dei.
“I know where we were when we started and where the program is at today The kids that believed in that message at the beginning really helped make that happen.”
I know where we were when we started and where the program is at today The kids that believed in that message at the beginning really helped make that happen.
Litteken on how the Mater Dei football program has grown
A common theme in Litteken’s early coaching days at Mater Dei was “building a wall” after he followed Mike Abegg.
It was a metaphor for helping everyone connected to the program realize they were working together toward common goals. It was about championships in the old Mid-State Conference and later becoming a perennial state playoff contender.
Litteken’s best finish was 10-3 in 1993 when he guided the Knights to a Class 3A semifinal appearance. Mater Dei lost 7-6 to Waterloo in that game and the Knights reached the playoffs nine times in Litteken’s 15 seasons.
Mater Dei made its only state finals appearance in 2006 under Kauling, losing in the 3A state championship game. Kauling is now the head coach at Centralia, where he helped turn that program around.
“The wins and losses come and go, but ultimately you’re touching kids lives,” said Litteken, who says enjoys the practices and interacting with his players more than the games themselves.
“I just love the practices,” he said. “I could go every year and never play a game. That’s what it’s all about, building those relationships with the kids.”
Litteken enjoyed rivalries and good relationships with Hall of Fame coaches like Mike O’Boyle at Greenville and Nashville’s Bruce Reeder through the years.
“Competing against those gentlemen year-in and year-out, you develop relationships you develop respect,” Litteken said.
Litteken was on Jim Stiebel’s coaching staff this season with the Knights (9-4) reaching the Class 4A semifinals before losing to Althoff.
“It’s another chance to get to know the kids a bit differently and for the kids to know you a little differently,” Litteken said. “It is truly an extension of the school and the classroom, a chance to be directly involved with kids. I really enjoy it.”