Stagg head coach Colt Nero believes the Chargers returning to the playoffs isn’t a matter of if, but when. And he thinks that will happen sooner rather than later.
Nero will bring an infusion of energy to a program that has not qualified for the IHSA postseason since 2005. That was also the last year the Chargers had a winning season, finishing 9-2 and advancing to the Class 8A quarterfinals. They have nine victories in the past five seasons combined, and that includes a four-win campaign in 2017, Mike Fahey’s last in Palos Hills.
Nero understands the challenges ahead of him, but isn’t at all intimidated by them, or doubtful of what he believes Stagg will accomplish under his watch. He called the Chargers “a sleeping giant” and he is embracing the adversity that comes with leading a program that has been starved for success and plays in the SouthWest Suburban Conference, one of the toughest in the state.
“I love adversity,” he said. “Adversity is what creates people and what defines people, and how they respond shows you a lot about someone’s character. I think coming to a school like Stagg, where the success hasn’t been where they want it to be, I look at it as an opportunity to get in there and turn this thing around and show people Stagg football is going to get back to a program that is known around the state and is going to get back to the winning ways we envision as a staff.”
Nero comes to Stagg from McHenry, where he was defensive coordinator for the freshman team in 2017 before serving the past two in the same role under head coach Jon Niemic.
He grew up in Crystal Lake and attended Crystal Lake South, where he was a member of back-to-back state quarterfinals teams in 2010 and 2011. He went on to play at Minnesota State, a Division II school in Mankato, helping the Mavericks to a national runner-up finish in 2014.
Now, just three years removed from graduating college, did not take the Stagg job merely to satisfy his ambition to build his own program.
“I don’t think you just take a job to be a head coach; I think it has to be a good fit for you,” he said. “I’ve always enjoyed being the guy that takes on a big role at a young age, so being able to take this jump was huge.”
Coming to Stagg roughly two months before the start of the 2020 season, Nero is focusing in building relationships with his players and fostering the belief that the Chargers’ struggles the past 15 seasons mean nothing in regard to the future of the program. His coaching staff has been incredible in helping him instill that culture, he said.
“We have guys that are motivated, who want to build relationships with kids, who want to push kids,” he said. “A kid will run through a brick wall for you once they fell like you believe in them.”
And that hinges primarily on trust.
“If I came in and said, ‘Hey, I’m the football coach and I need you to do this for me cause we’re going to win football games if you do this,’ you probably wouldn’t have a lot of kids buying in,” he added. “But if you come in and show kids you care about them as football players, but care more about them as individuals and that you’re going to do everything you can to help them get to where they want to go in life, you’re going to see the buy-in from kids is going to go up immensely.”
Nero, who was officially hired June 26, said that in his short time in Palos Hills he has felt the hunger for a winner. He described himself as a “very optimistic” person who believes in the power of positive thought.
“You have to literally speak things into reality,” he said. “We’re using last year as motivation for this year, and we’re constantly ingraining into these kids heads that it’s not impossible for us to win at Stagg. Just because we haven’t seen success in the past doesn’t mean that has to be our future, and the kids have totally bought into it.
“The energy has been phenomenal.”
Well-meaning people have told Nero how daunting a task they believe it is to build a winner at Stagg. Aside from playing in the SouthWest Suburban Red, the Chargers have to contend with area private schools drawing away local talent. Brother Rice, Marist and St. Laurence have all built strong programs that are perennial contenders to make deep playoff runs.
Nero understands the attraction of the private schools to youths who want to play for a winning program, and he knows there is really only one solution to keeping players at Stagg.
“Winning solves everything,” he said. “If we can get Stagg winning some football games I think some of those kids in the private schools are going to be interested in going back to the public schools. But we have to worry about the kids that are coming in before we can worry about the kids that are going to private schools. We have to win football games for that to happen, and I have no doubt in my mind that’s what we’re going to do.”