RED GRANGE HAD PUT WHEATON football on the map, but he had hardly saved it. Wheaton High School had already been tearing up the gridiron in the six years it had been playing football before Grange’s arrival in 1918, sporting a 29-10-4 record (a 73.4 winning percentage) during that time. In Grange’s four seasons, meanwhile, the Tigers would compile a record of 21-6-3 (a 77.8 winning percentage). Discounting his freshman 2-4 season when he rarely touched the ball, the Tigers were 19-2-3 (a 90.5 winning percentage) once Grange had become the integral part of the offense as a sophomore.
After Grange had moved on to the University of Illinois and the NFL, the wins kept coming for Wheaton as the Tigers amassed a record of 269-101-13 (a 77.2 winning percentage) in the next 45 years (from 1923 through 1968) with eight undefeated seasons and only six losing seasons.
But by the late ’60s, however, a moribund predictability had begun overtaking the once-proud program as it began a two-decade slide from gridiron greatness to unremarkable mediocrity. Perhaps it was simply a matter of a diluted talent pool with Wheaton North coming into existence in 1964 and Wheaton Warrenville in 1973. Or perhaps it was something else.
Since becoming Wheaton Central in 1964, the school had won only 58 percent of its games through the 1987 season. From 1969 through 1987, the program was a mere six games over .500 (89-83), winning 51.7 percent of its games. The Tigers would suffer through six losing seasons during that period while never winning more than six games in any single season.
The Tigers had become a middle-of-the-road program with an annual record hovering between 5-4 and 4-5 with uncanny regularity. In the midst of this malaise, the greatness of Wheaton football embodied in the spirit of Red Grange seemed to have become a mere apparition – a ghost of greater times lost to history’s fond remembrances.
John Thorne had grown up in tiny Milford, Illinois, where he starred at quarterback at Milford High School, graduating ninth in a class of 60 students. He began his teaching career at tiny Stanford-Minier (now Olympia High School) in Danvers, 11 miles northwest of Bloomington, in downstate Illinois, where he coached basketball because the school was too small to field a football team.
Thorne would soon learn that coaching was more than an occupation; it was in his blood.