Town of Merton — Tom Taraska never thought he’d have to travel 1,500 miles to make the biggest decision of his life. But when Taraska and his wife, Sue, were in Miami last month, things became crystal clear for the longtime Arrowhead football coach.
“I got some clarity,” Taraska said. “I knew it was time.”
Time to say goodbye.
After 29 memorable seasons, Taraska announced his retirement Tuesday during a news conference at the school. Taraska, 59, also will retire from his physical education job at Arrowhead at the end of this school year.
Taraska’s wife, a teacher in the Mukwonago Area School District, also is retiring next month. The two wanted to have the freedom to travel for extended periods. Taraska said the likelihood that teachers will soon have their collective bargaining rights curtailed also played a role in his decision.
“Even if I was retired from teaching, the job of a football coach never ends,” Taraska said. “You probably work twice as many hours now than when I first started. I didn’t think I could ever get away for a month at a time if I was still coaching. So, I just felt it was the right time.”
People associate Arrowhead football with greatness today, but it wasn’t always that way. In the two seasons before Taraska’s arrival, the Warhawks were just 2-16.
Taraska turned Arrowhead into arguably the finest program in Wisconsin and one of the best in the country. Arrowhead won four WIAA Division 1 state championships (1993, ’94, ’96 and 2007) and was the runner-up five times.
At the center of it all was Taraska, a defensive wizard, an admitted film nut and a man who got the best out of his players.
“Coach T taught me a lot of valuable lessons during my time in high school,” said former Arrowhead defensive tackle Nick Hayden, who’s now a member of the Carolina Panthers. “He taught me how to be great, how to use my talents and how to be a great person.
“All the valuable lessons he has given me is one of the reasons why I went to a great college (Wisconsin) and then to the NFL. He has meant a lot to the program and community of Arrowhead. And I want to thank him and wish him nothing but the best.”
Taraska went 248-76 (.765) during his 29 years at Arrowhead and won 11 conference championships. Remarkably, though, Taraska almost never came to Arrowhead.
Taraska went 17-20 during four seasons at Franklin and then was hired in 1982 as the head coach at Middleton. A few weeks later, though, Taraska changed his mind and accepted the position at Arrowhead instead.
“I remember crying after Middleton won the state championship (in 1983) because I never thought I’d win one,” Taraska said.
Hardly. Taraska’s intensity and fire helped turn the program around. And as the talent level gradually improved, the Warhawks became dominant.
Taraska, whose specialty was defense, always ran a 3-4. Taraska largely let his coordinators run the offense, although he oversaw the Warhawks’ switch from the Wing-T to the veer in 2006.
“We always had a direct vision where we wanted to go,” he said.
That was to the top.
Arrowhead reached the state title game in nine of the last 18 seasons, something no other Division 1 school in Wisconsin had done.
Taraska also holds the Division 1 state record with 47 postseason wins and led the Warhawks into the playoffs 20 times.
Taraska was inducted in the Wisconsin Football Coaches Association Hall of Fame in 2004 and was the state’s coach of the year in 2007. Taraska also ranks ninth in state history in wins (265).
On Sept. 17, 2010, Arrowhead named its football stadium after Taraska.
“We brought big-time football to Wisconsin,” Taraska said.
Arrowhead athletic director Kevin Flegner said the job would be posted immediately. Flegner also said he’d like to hire Taraska’s replacement by July 1.
“I would think we’ll have some great internal candidates,” Flegner said. “We’ll also test the waters and see what other candidates are available.”