'Genuine' coaching legend Gary Korhonen dies

  • Written by Jeff Vorva




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Photo by Bob McParland

Richards legend Gary Korhonen, right, congratulates basketball coach John Chappetto after the Bulldogs won the IHSA Class 4A state championship in 2008. Korhonen, who won two state championships as the school’s football coach, died Saturday at age 77.



Freshman Tony Sheehan was walking the halls of Richards High School in the early fall of 1992.

Coming toward him was Gary Korhonen, the Bulldogs football coach, who was a big name and larger-than-life figure after winning Illinois High School Association state championships in 1988 and 1989.

“I was a pimple-faced freshman and here comes the legendary Gary Korhonen,’’ Sheehan said. “I wanted to put my head down and not say anything. But I said ‘hi coach.’ He said ‘Hey Tony, how are you doing? You had a good game the other day.’ I was a lowly freshman. How did he know who I was?

“But that’s the type of person he was. He knew everyone in the program. He knew what you were doing. He knew what you weren’t doing. He knew when people graduated. He had a memory like no other.’’

And the memories that he created for thousands of students and athletes have been pouring out after the news of his death Saturday at age 77 from congestive heart failure.

Korhonen coached at Richards from 1972-to-2007 and is sixth on the Illinois High School Association list for all-time wins with 315. After retiring as a head coach, he joined his son Kris as assistants at Eisenhower High School and the past two seasons, he and Kris coached at Shepard.

Dominic Passolano, who resigned as Shepard’s coach in November, had Gary on the sidelines in 2016 and this past season, Gary worked behind the scenes breaking down film and working on scouting reports.

But on Korhonen’s final year on the sidelines, there didn’t appear to be any generation gaps.

“He is a very genuine person,” Passolano said. “He was genuine with everyone involved whether it was with the coaches or players. You can’t say enough about the guy in that regard. He might have been a guy who coached in the 70s but he was able to relate with the coaches and the kids and families involved with Shepard football.

“He could relate to a kid who was 14 years old or 16 or 17 because of how genuine he was.’’

Even the Richards baseball program had a little of Korhonen’s fingerprints on it in an indirect way.

In the spring, when Bulldogs baseball coach Brian Wujcik won his 500thgame, he credited Korhonen for his inspiration.

“One of the blessings that I’ve had is to have an opportunity to work in the same building as Gary Korhonen,” Wujcik said. “He was a coach here for (35) years so I got a chance to witness the longevity, the stability and the dedication to a program. That was a big inspiration. I tried to emulate his program and run the baseball program the same way.’’

Oh, and that “pimple-faced freshman” played for the Bulldogs varsity in 1994 and 1995 and in 2008, Sheehan was named Korhonen’s successor after the veteran coach retired.

Sheehan said he learned a lot of life lessons from his parents as well as the coach.

“He taught us a lot about life,” Sheehan said. “He taught us about responsibility, teamwork, accountability of being there every day and on time.  It’s something that the generation today might take for granted. You go to work every day. You don’t get paid unless you go to work.

“You shake hands. You look people in the eye. He taught us all of those little things. He told us that these are the little things that count in life. He was a great man and took a lot of pride in what he did.’’

Sheehan was also on Korhonen’s staff for two years before taking over the Bulldogs program in 2008.

“I was lucky enough to play for him and coach for him,” Sheehan said. “He was a great man. He went way out of his way to help all of his kids.

“There were a lot of kids who didn’t have dads and a lot of these guys looked up to him as a dad. And he cherished that role. He took a lot of responsibility. Being a coach and a teacher was very important to him and we were all lucky to play for him.’’

Korhonen was survived by his wife, Eileen and children Kris (Andrea) Korhonen, Kelly Korhonen and Katey (Bob) Perkaus.

Visitation was scheduled to be held Tuesday at Our Lady of the Woods Catholic Church in Orland Park.