MICHIGAN CITY — This wasn't quite the way it was supposed to pan out for Tony Lombardi.
An integral addition to the coaching staff which has steered Michigan City to the doorstep of its second consecutive Class 5A regional title, he has the freedom to go see his son Rocky play quarterback for Michigan State on Saturdays. The only piece missing is his youngest son Beau, who was projected to be Wolves quarterback when he came with dad to M.C. in the summer.
"I knew as soon as I met (coach) Phil (Mason), it would be a good fit for me, that we would get along great," Lombardi said. "I'm old school, tough, hard-nosed. I had three, four opportunities and I thought this was the best fit for Beau."
Tony had high hopes for Beau, a 6-foot-3, 220-pound senior at West Des Moines Valley, Iowa, to do big things in the Wolves offense. It just didn't work out for his son.
"Seeing what we do offensively, as a quarterback, you can ring up some pretty good numbers," Tony said. "He saw me do that for years. He fully intended to come here, but there was some pressure back home, which I understand. I told him all along I want him to love it here, for it to be a great situation for him. He just had some hesitation."
While Tony didn't get a sideline view of Beau's senior season, which ended last week in the second round of the state playoffs for his previously-undefeated team, it's worked out about as well as could be hoped otherwise.
"Being a dad who's coached his son, I was relieved," Mason said. "It was going to be a tough situation for a guy to come into a new environment, a new town, with a new staff, new everything, with his son. Beau's a great kid. The kids accepted him really well. Bryce (Hayman) said, as long as I'm on the field, I don't care. I told (Beau) it was one of those decisions you have to do for yourself. If you don't want to do this, you can't because you'll never be comfortable here. You can't do it for anybody else. I'm glad it's really worked out for everybody."
What City's offense would have been like with Lombardi spinning it and Hayman catching it can only be imagined. Then again, given the Wolves' prolific production the last seven games, who's to second guess?
While there's an irony in Lombardi becoming a QB whisperer of sorts for the player who stood to change positions if his son had stayed, it's turned out to be a great relationship.
"The one thing about Bryce that is amazing is his great leadership," said Lombardi, who coaches the receivers and is passing game coordinator. "The kids like playing around him. The key to being a good quarterback is he makes the people around him better. You don't have to be a star."
So how did Lombardi, a veteran of 30-plus years in coaching at the high school and college level, end up here anyway? The trail of bread crumbs leads back to Wolves assistant coach Roy Richards.
"I was coaching at Wisconsin-Stout," Lombardi said. "Beau was entering his senior year and wasn't getting the recruiting traffic we thought he should. Coupled with the fact I knew Rocky was going to start playing, I thought, I don't know if I want to be coaching small-college football on Saturdays and miss their careers. It didn't make any sense. I need to go back and find a high school job."
By chance, Lombardi grew up in Park Forest, where he lived a few blocks from Richards, who was a couple years ahead of him in school. Both of their dads were hall of fame prep football coaches in Illinois.
"Roy came in and saw me in the spring and said, hey, do you know who Tony Lombardi is?" Mason said. "I said, yeah, and he's like, well, he's looking for a job. Our administration has been great about helping us get good people in here to help us. Bringing Tony on board was a great move."
Mason, admittedly, is a run-first coach with simple offensive concepts. Lombardi has helped him expand his playbook, particularly with his acumen in the vertical passing game.
"That's something I needed help with," Mason said. "He helped me get out of my comfort zone. As you get older in this profession, you like to bring in people you can trust. He's a perfectionist. He brings a lot to the table. We collaborate on play action. The last couple weeks, he's done a good job pressing me on tempo. If Bryce likes it and is comfortable with it, I'll go with it."
Lombardi's also hit it off with quarterbacks coach John Maurek, making the dynamic all the better.
"It's a great collaborative environment," Lombardi said. "It's fun to interact with (John). I've had a lot of quarterbacks over the years who went on and played at the collegiate level. I really enjoy the relationships with the kids, the other coaches, talking about why we do things, why certain details are important."
Mason and Lombardi are both Alpha-type personalities, which makes for some intense moments, but the end results are positive.
"He's a big boy," Mason said. "He understands I'm the play caller. Either I'm going to say yes or say no, and he has no problem. It's never personal."
After commuting roughly an hour, 20 minutes each way from New Lenox, Illinois, to M.C., Lombardi, who still has a home in Wisconsin, rented a spot in town to cut down on his weekday hikes. The weekends are a different story as he jumps in his vehicle late Friday night and drives to wherever Rocky, who took over as the Spartans starter Oct. 20 against Purdue, is playing.
"We tell him, you do what you have to do on Saturdays," Mason said. "We'll take care of the rest."
Last week, Lombardi trekked overnight from La Porte to College Park, Maryland, making it there a couple hours before the game.
"It's your kid," he said. "It's where he plays, so it's where I have to be, where I've got to go. I knew he was going to play at some point and I wanted to be there when it happened. He's gotten the opportunity and he's played well."
Beau's college plans are still to be determined, though Michigan State is on his list of possible schools. As for Tony, who teaches at Barker and will also coach City wrestling, he hopes he to put down some new roots in M.C.
"That's coach Phil's call," he said laughing. "I would hope so. You just better earn your keep. I know how that goes. I love the kids, I love Phil, I love the staff, I love the community. Hopefully, I'm making some sort of contribution. It's been great."
Class 5A Regional
Concord (6-5) at Michigan City (9-2), 6:30 p.m.