College of DuPage Football Team Hopes to Make a Comeback
The Chaparrals won their first bowl game last season after nearly a decade. Interim head coach Gary Thomas is preparing COD to go bowl-ing again this season.
Throughout most of the 1980s and well into the 1990s, College of DuPage had the best junior college football team in the state, and one of the top clubs in the country.
Bob MacDougall’s Chaparrals captured the Region IV title—the equivalent of the Illinois state junior college championship—11 times from 1983 through 1996, including eight in a row between 1989-96. The Chaps also participated in nine straight bowl games from 1988 through 1996.
Then—almost overnight, it seemed—football at COD disappeared.
Citing the cost of running the program, poor academic performance by players and fewer junior college teams in the state and across the country, then-COD President Michael Murphy and the Board of Trustees voted to eliminate the program in November 1996, despite pleas from MacDougall to keep it intact.
But after two years without a football team, the college reversed course and reinstated the program for the 1999 season.
Initially, COD did not miss a beat. The 2000 Chaps went 8-3 and were crowned state champs. Then the squad endured some lean years over the next eight seasons.
At one point, the Chaps won just one game during a three-year span (2003-2005) and suffered two straight winless seasons.
Fred Fimbres took the reigns as head coach in 2006—a campaign in which the Chaps finished 2-7. It was their fifth consecutive losing season.
The Chaps’ fortunes were about to change for the better, however.
Fimbres directed COD to a 6-4 mark during 2007, and followed that up with consecutive .500 seasons, including an appearance in the 2008 Graphic Edge Bowl. That bowl game was COD’s first since the program was reinstated.
The Chaps put together a benchmark season under Fimbres last fall. Another trip to the Graphic Edge Bowl at the University of Northern Iowa ended successfully with the Chaps (7-5) winning their first bowl game since 1995 after surprising perennial junior college power Coffeyville (Kan.), 20-14.
That triumph raised eyebrows in junior college circles, and beyond, notes Gary Thomas, who served as Fimbres’ offensive coordinator for five years.
“The win against Coffeyville was actually big,” he said. “We’ve been getting a lot of contact from four-year schools from around the country. They regard Coffeyville as one of the best programs in the country, and they’re saying, ‘Wow, you guys beat them. You must have some good players, too.’ We’ve always had good players. Everyone else is starting to take a little more notice, even in the high school ranks.”
Coffeyville is a scholarship school, while COD is non-scholarship. Furthermore, Coffeyville entered the bowl game ranked third nationally.
“They were a little overconfident, and I think there were probably some people in our own camp that weren’t sure how that (game) was going to go,” Thomas said. “They had a very talented group. Our guys played well and we were well-prepared. We had them a little bit confused at times and made plays when we needed to make plays.”
Is it a stretch to say football is enjoying a renaissance at College of DuPage? Thomas doesn’t think so.
“I don’t think that’s too far from the truth,” he said. “When we got on campus five years ago with Coach Fimbres, we knew we were going to take our lumps that first year. But we knew we could make a little bit of progress.”
Thomas now finds himself leading that revival.
In late June, Thomas received an unexpected, but welcome, promotion after Fimbres resigned to become head coach at Pasadena (Calif.) City College. Athletic Director Paul Zakowski quickly named Thomas interim head coach—a title that Zakowski hopes will change over time.
“We’re hoping we can remove that interim title,” he said. “I think Gary is going to do a real good job for us and keep moving in the right direction.
“It will be a pretty seamless transition. Fred had a great opportunity to go back to his home state. He hated to leave here, but it’s a good move for him and his family.”
Thomas, who is good friends with Fimbres, also hated to see him leave, but embraces the opportunity to take COD to the next level.
“Fred is one of my best friends and I’ve known him a long time,” Thomas said. “Some of my initial reaction was not necessarily disappointment in him leaving because he had to do what was best for him, but disappointment that I wasn’t going to be able to see one of my best friends every day like I’ve had the luxury of doing for five years.
“As far as being able to take over the program, that’s something I’ve always wanted to do if the right situation came along. There are a lot of feelings of excitement.”
Thomas, who also is COD’s student-athlete academic advisor, and his coaching staff have been burning both ends of the candle in recent weeks.
“I’ve been here at 7:30 in the morning every day this week and I’ve left at midnight every day this week,” he said. “All of our coaches here, they’re putting in 15-, 16-hour days right now. It will eventually calm a little bit and we’ll get into a normal workflow once we get everything settled.”
With solid returnees and depth on both sides of the ball, Thomas believes his team will punch another ticket to a bowl game this November.
“We have pretty high hopes,” he said. “I would be disappointed if we weren’t playing for a conference championship and be in a position to be in a bowl game.”