Fortuna: Tyler Plantz is coaching for a state title, and so much more


Tyler Plantz has an irrational confidence in everything he does, and who could blame him? He walked on at Notre Dame more than a decade ago, earned a scholarship, then stuck around the program for six years in every role imaginable — as an offensive line assistant, special teams assistant, strength assistant, operations assistant, you name it.

If something needed to get done, the Irish could count on Plantz to do it. And when his middle brother, Zac, died two years ago on Thanksgiving, the program and university had his back, running a play in his honor during the following day’s game and then raising funds so intensely that the school recognized the efforts by lighting up its iconic Grace Hall No. 1 sign.

Tyler took over as head coach this season at his high school alma mater, Providence Catholic in New Lenox, Ill. Becoming a head coach back in his hometown wasn’t exactly the career path he had initially envisioned, but the timing of the opening — predecessor Mark Coglianese was retiring after 17 seasons — spoke to Plantz, who saw this as a calling to honor his brother.

When the Plantz family was drawing up Thanksgiving plans this summer with Zac’s memory in mind, Tyler — newly married to his wife, Jana — told them he’d be busy coaching in the state championship that weekend. Considering the Celtics went 3-6 last season, this drew a round of laughs.

Sure enough, Providence is state-bound. The Celtics have won four straight playoff games, setting up a Class 4A state title game against Sacred Heart Griffin on Friday night at Illinois’ Memorial Stadium in Champaign.

“It really means a lot,” Plantz said. “My brother’s obviously a motivating factor in a lot of things I’ve always done. Being able to do this for Zac, I told my parents and talk about it all the time: It’s cool that my only goal here is to carry the guy on and lead young people through the game and to have a pure intention. And for it to come to fruition like this …”

He paused, trying to find the right words.

“I kind of had a moment last game where I just walked off the field and was like, ‘Dude, we’re doing this, Zac.’ ”

The Plantzes are tough people. Tyler and youngest brother Logan walked on to the Irish football team — the latter showing off his persistence after being denied entrance three times to the school — and yet both agree that Zac was the best athlete of the trio. Tyler and Zac played rugby at Notre Dame. When Tyler was interviewed in 2014 as part of an ESPN “College GameDay” segment highlighting walk-ons, he deadpanned: “It cost me nine grand (to walk on), but I would’ve paid nine million.”

From left to right: Tyler, Logan and Zac Plantz. (Courtesy of Logan Plantz)

At 5-foot-8, 219 pounds, Tyler was a fullback, built more like an old-school bouncer than a 21st Century Power 5 football player. When Notre Dame looked to pay tribute to the Plantz family the day after Zac’s passing, offensive coordinator Tommy Rees brought in a four-tight-end set that spoke to the football soul of the Plantzes, whose father, Ron, had played on the offensive line under Gerry Faust. (Their sister Abby is a junior at nearby Saint Mary’s College.)

But that gruff exterior belies the sentimentality at play this season on the Providence sidelines. Not only is Tyler leading the program, but Ron and Logan — who is commuting from Austin, Texas — are serving as assistant coaches, giving new meaning to family business.

Laura Plantz, the boys’ mother, has become the unofficial team mascot, with Tyler joking that if she comes around the field any more than she already does, he’ll have to leave and take a job elsewhere. For Tyler’s birthday earlier this month, his mother placed a bunch of blowup superhero dolls around the table in the coaches’ office to surprise him. When Tyler went from that room to a special teams meeting, he was greeted by a class full of players wearing Batman, Ironman and Captain America masks.

“I’m trying not to laugh because I’m trying to be a hardass,” Tyler said, “but I couldn’t hold it in.”

Running a program, even a high school team, has been a change of pace for a guy whose football life has largely been spent fulfilling the orders of others. Plantz joked he’s coming from a GA world in which his opinion didn’t truly matter on anything to being the final decision-maker on all program issues, big and small.

“Our last game we had to decide whether to go for it on fourth-and-1 to ice the game or punt it, and I’m like, ah, shoot, someone else is going to make that decision, right?” he said. “We ended up punting it because I’m a sissy.”

Plantz has had no shortage of college resources to rely on, from Rees for offensive advice, to Chris O’Leary (Notre Dame safeties coach) and Nick Lezynski (Vanderbilt linebackers) for defensive advice, to Matt Balis (Notre Dame) and Jake Flint (LSU) for weight-room advice. Bo Pelini and Irish offensive line coach Harry Hiestand came by in the offseason. And every day on the way to work, Plantz gets to pass by Zac’s name and picture, as Providence dedicated its weight room to him before a game last season.

The Plantz brothers shared everything growing up, including a 2005 GMC Canyon that lasted through college before Zac took it with him to Chicago after graduation. Because of that ride, and because of a victory hawk that is part of Providence folklore, Tyler takes special note each time he sees a pickup truck or hawk of any kind.

When Providence trailed at halftime in this past Saturday’s semifinal game against St. Francis, Tyler grew a little uneasy. He knows not everyone believes in signs, and fate, quite like he does, but when he looked up out of the locker room and saw a hawk fly above the field during the second half, he took it as a form of reassurance.

“These kids work hard,” he said. “They’re gritty kids who play from the snap to the whistle. They’ve learned to get better every week. They take coaching. They play together. 

“We had no kids win awards, no all-state honors, no honorable mentions. Nothing. And for them just to play as a unit is their biggest strength.”

They have taken on the identity of their coach, and of the light that has guided him home to them.

(Top photo of Tyler Plantz: Courtesy of Providence Catholic High School)


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