John Dunlop, coached Thornwood High ’91 baseball champs, has died

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John Dunlop coached his high school athletes with endurance drills, tough love, positive visualization and a don’t-even-think-about-it scowl they knew as “The Look.”

His Thornwood High School Thunderbirds won the Illinois state high school baseball championship in 1991. When he retired after 19 seasons at Thornwood, he had a record of 439 wins, 194 losses and four ties, said James Dye, the school’s athletic director.

“He was the winningest baseball coach at Thornwood,” said his son Jon.

His players — including three who went on to play Major League Baseball — say they never forgot the lessons “Mister D” taught them.

“You weren’t a star player to him,” said Cliff Floyd, who went on to a $290,000 signing bonus and a long pro career that started with the Montreal Expos in 1993 and ended with the San Diego Padres in 2009. “You were just a kid he wanted to turn into a man when you left high school and be successful in whatever you did. That’s one of the things I loved about him. He pushed us to be great men.”

He also coached future Major Leaguers Mark Mulder and Justin Huisman.

Mr. Dunlop, 71, died of a heart attack March 23 — as his family put it, he “slid safely home.” He was out for pizza with friends at Traverso’s in Orland Park when he collapsed, according to his son Steven.

In 1991, his Thunderbirds captured the state baseball title, capping a 64-game winning streak by beating the Edwardsville Tigers.

“They were No. 1 in the country when we played them,” said Steven Dunlop, who played on the championship team with his brother Jon.

The same day, Thornwood’s girls softball team beat East Moline — the first time in Illinois that a boys baseball team and girls softball team from the same school won titles in the same year.

“Oh, it was great,” said retired athletic director Gary Lagesse. “South Holland was the baseball-softball capital of the world in the early ’90s.”

Young John grew up near 81st and Bennett, the baby in a family with three boys. He attended Horace Mann grade school and South Shore High, where he played baseball, football and basketball. His dad Hugh, a bricklayer, coached him but died when he was 18, said Jon Dunlop.

Mr. Dunlop discussed his father’s influence in a 1991 Chicago Sun-Times interview.

Cliff Floyd, then with the Florida Marlins, in 2000. | AP

“I said a prayer before every game and summoned my father to guide me,” he said. “All the kids are my kids … . That’s the greatest thing about coaching. You’re a father to them all.”

The coach’s father and older brothers instilled manners and sportsmanship, saying, “You don’t act like that. You’re a Dunlop.”

“He had such control over a bunch of kids, like I’d never seen,” Floyd said. “He would give you a look — and you pushed your mute button.”

If Floyd was late to practice, he said, “He used to make me run.” He learned not to be late.

When Mr. Dunlop taught racquetball and other games to his own kids when they were young, he’d keep things interesting by spotting them 20 points. But his son Michael said, “He wouldn’t let you win a game. He would make you earn it.”

In grade school, John Dunlop met Susan Frook, who became his wife of 49 years.  On dates, they’d go to movies at the Avalon and Jeffery theaters, then to Cunis and Mitchell’s ice cream parlors.

She was key to his success, according to Floyd, who said, “She was at every game. She pushed us. She made food for us. She drove us.”

John and Susan Dunlop on their wedding day.

Mr. Dunlop played baseball when he attended what’s now the University of Illinois at Chicago. He earned a bachelor’s degree in physical education from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. In the early 1970s, while earning his master’s at the university’s Chicago campus, he taught P.E. there and coached baseball. For a time, he also sold insurance, but “he was miserable because it didn’t have baseball,” his wife said.

At various times, she said, he helped coach baseball, football and basketball at the Latin School and at high schools including St. Francis de Sales, Thornton and Thornton Fractional North. He also taught English at Thornridge and Thornwood High Schools. In 1987, he became Thornwood’s baseball coach.

Almost all of his players from his champion 1991 team came to his visitation. He loved TV’s “NCIS,’ so his family tucked a cap with the show’s logo into his casket.

Mr. Dunlop is also survived by six grandchildren. His ashes will rest on the mantle of his retirement home in northern Michigan, alongside the cremains of his two dogs, Sadie the golden retriever and a yellow Labrador retriever with a home run of a name: Round-tripper.

John Dunlop, his wife Susan and their three sons. | Supplied photo

John Dunlop, seen with his wife Susan and sons, coached the 1991 Illinois state baseball champion Thornwood High School Thunderbirds. | Supplied photo

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