High School Football

Jim Monken, one of the metro-east’s great high school football coaches, dies at age 85

Known as a father-figure to many and a leader and inspiration both on and off the playing field during a legendary 25-year high school head coaching career, Jim Monken passed away on Saturday. He was 85.

The oldest of five brothers, all of which were high school football coaches in Illinois, Monken was the head coach at East St. Louis Assumption High School from 1967-88, leading the Pioneers to eight Illinois High School Association playoff appearances in a 10-year span from 1979-88.

Following the closing of Assumption in 1989, Monken moved over to coach at East St. Louis Lincoln, where he led the Tigers to several successful seasons.

This past Friday, more than 10 of Monken’s former players visited their coach, their friend and the man who played such a huge part in their lives.

Although unable to speak, the visit was a blessing for Monken, who several hours later passed away with his family at his side.

“You have no idea what that meant to him and our family,” Monken’s son Jim said. “It really perked my dad up for a couple hours. He couldn’t talk but he was able to let them know he knew they were here with either a handshake or a thumbs-up.

“After they saw my dad, they went out on the driveway and just talked and told stories about not only playing for my dad. They shared stories about not only how he helped them on the football field, but what he has meant to them in their lives. That was the thing about my dad. If you played for him you were a member of his family for life and he would do anything he could to help you.. To me, he was everything. He was my best friend, he was my hero. He was my dad.”

Visitation for Jim Monken is from 3-9 p.m. Friday and the funeral Mass is at 10 a.m. Saturday at the Cathedral of St. Peter in Belleville. Burial will be at Green Mount Cemetery with a reception to follow.

Monken is one of the top coaches in metro-east high school football history. In 25 years, he posted a record of 177-67-7I and led his teams to 15 playoff appearances. He averaged seven wins a season.

Four of Monken’s teams teams reached the IHSA state semifinals. Monken was inducted into the Illinois High School Football Coaches Association Hall of Fame in 1990.

But it all began at Assumption where after several seasons as an assistant, Monken was named head football coach .

Among the many great players who starred under his guidance were Jerome Heavens, who won a national championship with Notre Dame, and NFL player Eric Wright.

Wright, who went on to star at defensive back at the University of Missouri and later was an all-pro with the San Francisco 49ers Super Bowl championship teams, was a 1977 graduate of Assumption.

“We had good teams. But it was a couple of years after I graduated that they really had some excellent teams,” Wright said. “We had players come from all over the city who had played in different (junior) programs. But coach Monken brought us in and made us a team.

“Another thing coach did was he made sure you went to class and graduated. He was like a second father figure to a lot of us.”

After retiring from high school coaching in 1992, Monken spent a decade away from the sidelines. But despite suffering a stroke that made it difficult for him to speak, he returned to football in 2003 as a member of the McKendree University football program under coach Carl Poelker.

“I recruited Assumption kids for years and one of the things that impressed me was that Jim made sure the college was the right fit for his kids. It was obvious to me that he loved his players and his players loved him,” Poelker said. “One day, I asked him Jim, do you miss coaching? He got tears in his eyes. I said, we’ll find a way to make this work.

“We would ride around in a golf cart and we would go around to the different positions and if a player had the smallest thing he was doing wrong or struggling with Jim would see it. He was my kicking coach. He couldn’t communicate verbally very well. But he could communicate.”