Brian Papa has left a memorable soccer footprint in the south suburbs of Chicago.
From Rich Central to Bloom then Sandburg and Lincoln-Way (East), Papa helped 1,000s of student athletes on and off the field for nearly 40 years as a head boys soccer coach, making him one of the most decorated coaches in the U.S.
Since retiring three years ago as a physical education teacher, Papa is now content with taking a backseat as an assistant coach on the staff of first-year Lincoln-Way East boys soccer coach Matt Ribbens.
Papa says talking to and watching Ribbens is like a trip down memory lane for him. Besides taking over the boys program as a young man, Ribbens also is following in Papa’s teaching footsteps.
“Matt comes here with a lot of experience,” Papa said. “He’s a former area player (at Andrew) just beginning his coaching career.
“He’s me when I was young. Matt is energetic, he has a lot of ideas on how he wants things to run and he’s very proactive.
“Matt also got my job in the physical education department. I told him, ‘You are me when I was younger.’ I told him to move into my old desk.”
Ribbens, who played college soccer at the University of Rhode Island, laughed when talking about his similarities with the hall of fame coach.
“I’m right next to his old desk, and I’m in the same office,” said Ribbens, who came to Lincoln-Way East after a successful coaching stint at Soto High School in Chicago.
As expected, Ribbens is anxious to embark on the next chapter of his young coaching career. He’s the next in a long line of family members to get involved in the coaching profession.
His grandfather, Elmer, coached basketball for 30 years in Michigan. His father, David, was a distinguished college (Trinity Christian) and club (Chicago Magic) soccer coach in the Chicago area for nearly 25 years and is currently the athletic director at U-High in Chicago. His mother, Debbie, coached high school basketball, volleyball, cross country and track for more than four decades.
“Coaching has been in our family for a long time,” said David Ribbens, who along with his wife, played field hockey and soccer respectively at Calvin College. Their daughter, Elizabeth, also played soccer at Calvin College.
“(Coaching) has been passed along for decades,” David Ribbens continued. “Matt has a good idea of what it means to be a coach.”
After starting his career with a highly successful four-year stint in the Chicago Public League, Ribbens returned to his roots when he was named the head boys soccer coach at the Frankfort school.
Ribbens is wisely using his extra time of late, leaning on Papa to aid him during the transition. Instead of running a program with his own vision, Ribbens chose to blend his ideas with experienced coaches from the area.
Papa, who is closing in on 900 career combined wins as a boys and girls soccer coach, led Sandburg’s boys to a 29-0-1 record and the school’s first state title in 1993.
“There’s something to be said about someone who has been doing something so long and successful,” Ribbens said. “With Brian, I’m excited to see where we can bring the program.
“He’s someone great to have by my side, because he will teach me his ways. I will teach him my ways. Once we get old and new school together, (Lincoln-Way East) will be a dangerous program.”
While excited to be a part of a new staff, Papa plans to stay in the background to let Ribbens establish his own voice with his players and the community.
“I’ll throw my two cents in from time to time,” Papa said. “Matt has some great ideas, and he will experiment. I know what works and doesn’t work, but he has to find his way.”
Most importantly, Ribbens has ton of soccer experience to lean on between his father and Papa. That will be needed through the good days and rough ones, as Ribbens sets out to rebuild the once proud program that has grew stale over the past five years.
“I’m eager to learn from Brian and my dad,” Ribbens said. “It’s funny how the stars have aligned and now I’m back in the area I grew up in. I’m excited, and it should be a lot of fun.”
Bio on reporter: Bob Narang has been covering prep recruiting and sports for the past 25 years. His work also appears in the Chicago Tribune, Daily Herald, Athlon Sports and the DeKalb Daily Chronicle.