'He believed in kids even if nobody else believed in them;' Coach Phil Erickson remembered

Mike Trueblood
Special to The Register-Mail
In this file photo, Phil Erickson is escorted from the floor by his grandchildren and GHS cheerleaders after being inducted into the Galesburg High School Athletic Hall of Fame in 2008.

GALESBURG — The man called "The Chief" by many during a 43-year coaching and teaching career at Lombard Middle School died at age 83.

Phil Erickson, for whom the current Lombard gym is named, was linked to Zephyrs athletics for decades and grew as beloved as the throwback old gym which he proudly tagged "The Zephrydome."

His team's games with crosstown rival Churchill Junior High and coaches Bill and Bob Morgan are still the stuff of local legend.

More:Nick Sutton: Phil Erickson exuded 'Lombard spirit'

"I first met him in the Babe Ruth baseball program," said Joe Thompson, a longtime local sports official.

"I had a great respect for how he coached. He taught the fundamentals and the right way to play.

"I picked up on it when I ended up coaching the Hi-Lo team," Thompson added.

"Everybody called him Chief and they did it out of respect."

Phil Erickson

"I knew him from the aspect of playing basketball for him, but the things I remember most were away from the court," said Robby Dunn, who was a star player for Erickson.

"What I remember is his persistent kindness more than anything else.

"He coached basketball but he believed in kids even if nobody else believed in them."

Erickson had a 43-year teaching career and 38-year coaching career at Lombard.

"I used to watch my brother Jimmy play for coach Erickson and I couldn't wait to play for him," said Joey Range, Galesburg High School's all-time leading scorer who later played at the University of Iowa. 

In a 2015 interview, Range added, "It wasn't about basketball. It was about him.

"He could be a friend, a teacher and at times a father. He could be everything you needed him to be," said Range. "He laid a foundation in me."

"I only played basketball for him," said Joe Dennis. "But what I learned from him was that he was a tremendous baseball mind.

"I used to go to him and sit down and talk about baseball.

"He was a super guy, a great coach, a great teacher and a tremendous father."

Erickson ran the city's summer farm league baseball program for several years and many stories still circulate about how he allowed many kids to participate even though they might not quite meet the age requirement or couldn't afford the signup fee.

"When I was in sixth grade, my locker was right across from his classroom," recalled Dunn.

"Like all sixth graders, I had issues with my combination and he would come out and coach me through it.

"It's a memory I still have." 

Erickson graduated from Galesburg High School in 1957 and graduated from Knox College in 1961. He served in the United States Army from 1962 to 1964 and was a tank commander stationed in Korea.

Erickson had two undefeated teams shortly after he started coaching in 1967 and took teams to the IESA state tourney late in his coaching career.

But most memorably, he stood in the center of the legendary Lombard-Churchill rivalry for years.

"Back in the-2 man (officiating) days, my partner then Bob Berry and I would do the Lombard-Churchill games and the (GHS) gym was packed even in the upper sections with Phil going against the Morgans," Thompson said.

"They told us, if you can work this game, you can work any game in the area."

And how was Erickson on the sidelines?

"Phil was fair," said Thompson.

"He'd want some calls like everyone does. If it looked like Bob (Morgan) was in your ear, he'd try to get in your ear, too.

"He always thanked us for officiating the games. I consider guys like him very instrumental in my career. I'm still doing it 48 years later."

Erickson was inducted into the Galesburg Athletic Hall of Fame in 2008.

He is survived by his wife Terri. Also surviving are two sons, Scott (and Carrie) Erickson of Knoxville and Lance (and Erika) Erickson of Washington, D.C., four grandchildren, a great granddaughter and several nieces and nephews.

"He is revered," said Dunn.

"He is one of the five most important people in my life. It's hard to put into words what he means."