Prep Football

Football Coach of the Year: Cornell mixes toughness with right amount of fun

In his second season at the helm, Quincy Notre Dame coach Jack Cornell led the Raiders to a 9-4 record and a berth in the Class 3A state semifinals. | Photo for the H-W/Paul Baillorgeon
By Herald-Whig
Posted: Dec. 29, 2019 12:10 am Updated: Dec. 29, 2019 12:16 am

QUINCY — Gruff, rough and all business.

Jack Cornell's demeanor screams it when he walks the Quincy Notre Dame football team out of the locker room and onto the field for warmups. He stands 6-foot-7. His beard consumes his face. His voice bellows. And with his sunglasses on and his arms crossed, he's a tower of toughness.

"Intimidating," QND all-state junior defensive end Jack Marth called it.

That serves him well on gameday, especially since the Raiders' attitude mirrors their second-year head coach.

They were tenacious defensively, relentless offensively and opportunistic on special teams during a 9-4 season in which they reached the state semifinals for the third time in program history. Their willingness to dig their heels in and not be bullied comes from a coach who refused to give up on an NFL dream before he finally played on Sundays.

"You can see and hear his confidence," offensive lineman Sam Hea said. "He makes you feel confident because he tells you he has confidence in you. He's tough, but he wants you to do your best."

And he wants to celebrate that, too.

The rugged exterior hides one of the biggest reasons the Raiders made a dramatic turnaround from going 3-6 in Cornell's first season to a magical playoff push that earned him the 2019 Herald-Whig Coach of the Year honor. This team and this coaching staff had fun, so much fun they learned to embrace every moment.

How often do you see the head coach revving up his team the split second before they storm the field? Not often, but Cornell did. He wasn't afraid to chest bump coaches or players, especially after tide-turning plays. He injected life into mundane practices while always getting the necessary work accomplished.

"Coming to practice every day was enjoyable," senior all-purpose back Johnny Ohnemus said. "You knew you were playing for coaches who cared about you and believed in you, and they wanted to enjoy it. That starts with Coach Cornell and how much he loves coaching and how much he showed us he cares for us."

Sitting on a tailgate of a pickup truck on a cold November night with the lights that had flooded Advance Physical Therapy Field for an early evening practice dimming to dark, Cornell smiled and said there is no place he'd rather be and nothing else he'd rather be doing. He only hoped the ride could last a few weeks longer.

It didn't. A loss to Williamsville in the Class 3A semifinals ended the run, but the effort it took to get there and to push the Bullets to the bitter end epitomized what Cornell wants his program to be.

Determined, tenacious and feared.

Beyond that, Cornell put his growth as a coach and the maturity of his staff on display for all to see.

They worked the sidelines with spirit, reveled in their players' success and showed how a lot of toughness and a needed amount of tenderness can go hand-in-hand in creating the right culture.

"Coach believed in us and pushed us every day since last season ended," senior defensive end Zac Becker said. "We wanted to be great and he wanted us to be great. It's fun to play for someone who believes that's possible."