CROWN POINT -- Even when Craig Buzea left Northwest Indiana to coach football at Homewood-Flossmoor in 2010, he never really left the area, continuing to live in Portage Township, just a few miles from the high school where his career first took flight 16 years earlier.
While he hasn't come entirely full circle by becoming the coach at Crown Point, the return to the Duneland Conference is bringing him back to where it all started.
"The Region is my home," said Buzea, who played at Griffith for Les Thornton. "I never left, but I always wanted to get back and coach where we started, have one more shot to coach another program."
The move may have caught some people off guard considering Buzea had built the Vikings into one of the top programs in Illinois as well as the Midwest, but the dots actually connected for what Athletic Director Bill Dorulla called 'a home run hire.'
"Four years ago, I put in for retirement in Illinois," Buzea said. "I knew this was going to be my last year as a teacher. I still wasn't sure if I was going to coach there and not teach. Most of the time, they don't allow that. They were going to allow me to coach. I was going to do a year, see how it went. I'd also given some thought to taking time off and go back to teaching."
Then, on Dec. 18, Kevin Enright, Buzea's former defensive coordinator at H-F, resigned as C.P.'s head coach. The next day, Buzea and Dorulla spoke. Within 10 minutes of the initial chat, Buzea knew he was interested.
"I certainly thought it would be a great job," he said. "I think it's an awesome place. I just felt the potential was fantastic. This is the job I've always wanted, the job I always thought I would get and hopefully do something with it. They say timing is everything and I believe it. There's no reason why to think it would, but it worked out. Everything is set here. I think everything's in place. I think the sky's the limit. It was an opportunity I had to pursue."
Dorulla joked that 'a little birdie' told him Buzea was interested.
"I've known 'Buz' over 30 years." he said. "I never thought we would have a chance to get someone like him. I just thought it was a longshot. Then when I first talked to Buz, he was committed, he really wanted to make it happen. When we interviewed Buz, he knocked it out of the park. It was a thorough process and he stood out. I said this today in this room, the record and what he's done is one thing, what he does for kids, his program is about promoting kids. I just felt we would be cheating our kids if we didn't hire him."
During the interview process, Buzea liked how the administration, from Superintendent Dr. Todd Terrill to Principal Russ J. Marcinek to Dorulla were all aligned in their goals.
"Being in this business for a long time, that is ultra important," Buzea said. "If you don't have that, which very few schools have, somewhere along the line, it's going to be a road block. You don't get a chance to work for an A.D. like (Dorulla). Our relationship goes back so far, we're on the same page. A lot of things are in place that aren't in other schools, support systems. Nobody had to convince me it was a great place, but talking to Bill and what they've got in store, you look at the facilities, it was a no brainer. They're set up right now for success."
Another plus was the chance to build from the ground up as he did at Portage.
"We had camps for Kindergarteners through third grade, which I think is really important for the community, and we'll do the same thing here," Bueza said. "It has nothing to do with a feeder system in Illinois. They have park ball. You know who's coming most of the time. You sort of have to take whatever comes through the doors. You're in control from middle school up here, the Junior Bulldogs. That's the way it has to be. You can set a foundation, coach up the younger coaches. That's the type of stuff that excites me, to see them come all the way up."
With no prep football in Illinois in the fall, Buzea spent most Fridays at Duneland games, including one at Crown Point, when the Bulldogs hosted Portage.
"It got the juices flowing a little bit," he said. "(Wife Barb) said, do you ever have the desire to come back to Indiana? I said the only job I would even consider was Crown Point. We came to the Portage game and it blew us away, the support, the admiration it seemed the fans had for the team. All the things I'd thought about for a couple years, wow, this could be something special. Sure enough, it opened up. The stars aligned."
Had Illinois played, Buzea's coaching status may have been in question after he underwent a bone marrow transplant July 2.
"It went as good as I could ever expect," he said. "I've been in total remission since. My immune system, it's 100 percent my donor's. The last month or two, I've felt as good as I've felt in 10 years. Looking at my blood work, the doctor told me he would not know it was a person who's gone through what I've gone through. I'm really rejuvenated, I think. When I do things, I do them from one to 100 miles per hour. I sort of recharged the batteries. I'm ready to go. I had to pass the test with the boss (Barb) or I wouldn't be here."
After seeing him have to spend close to a year-and-a-half at home, unable to be around anyone else due to the leukemia, Barb said she knew he would have to get back into coaching whenever he was physically able.
"He's good to go. He's excited," she said. "I always knew he was dedicated to football, had the love of football, but his whole personality changed without football in it. It taught me a few things, too. I knew he wasn't done. Sitting around the house, only the two of us, you learn a lot about somebody. He needs to get back in it. That's who he is, that's what he does. I just decided, I've got a few years left to work, you might as well work, too. He's got to get out of the house, he's got to stay out of the house. This is our hobby. I think what makes him so successful is he has a supportive family."
Buzea officially takes over at Crown Point on June 30. If Illinois has a spring football, which may be determined Wednesday, he will coach H-F.
"I feel extremely loyal to the people there who have taken great care of me, our players," he said. "If there is a season, I will be 100 percent committed, like Crown Point would want me to be if I was in the same situation. (That program)'s humming, it's (clicking) on all cylinders. They're going to be fine. If we can find a way to duplicate our success over here, we're going to be fine. I think we'll make up for that time."
Dorulla and CP have no issues with Buzea coaching H-F if it has a spring season.
"We support him 100 percent, taking care of those kids," Dorulla said. "We hope they have a season and he gets to coach there."
The next step in the process is putting together a coaching staff. Buzea's H-F staff includes CP grad Tom Cicero, former Merrillville coach Zac Wells and former Gary West Side coach Alexander Pratt. Will any of them be joining him?
"It's always a possibility," said Buzea, who will teach Strength Training at CP. "They have a great staff over there. We're going to roll up our sleeves, and I told Bill we're going to put together the best staff in Indiana. It may take a while because of all the logistics, but I'm anxious to meet the current staff, too, talk to them, see who's interested."
A 30-year old when he started at Portage, Buzea coached against the likes of Don Howell, Mark Hoffman, Bob Schellinger, Rick Wimmer and Elmer Britton, Now he's on the other end of the age spectrum.
"Those were all hall of famers," he said. "I was just hoping I could even keep up with those guys, give them a game. Now it's a little different. It doesn't mean it's any better or any worse. There are quality programs in the Duneland. That's something I look forward to. This is what I do. I don't foresee doing anything else. I told Dr. Terrill I'll be here until they don't want me anymore. I plan on being here for the long haul."
Crown Point went 50-46 in Enright's nine years, winning three sectionals. If history matters, it won't take Buzea long to take the Bulldogs to the next level. Portage went to state in 1994, his first year, and H-F came within a play of doing the same in 2010 after Buzea took over a 1-8 team that scored 60 points the previous season.
"I told the committee, if I would've set a time line my first year at Portage, we never would've made it to the state finals," he said. "The same thing at H-F. I'm not going to limit our guys. Hopefully it takes us where we want to go sooner rather than later. If we don't get it done like we want to get it done, there's not going to be any excuses. I really want to commit to this program and get it to be the top program in Indiana. I think we'll get there, it's just a matter of how quickly we get it done."
Crown Point hired Craig Buzea as head football coach Monday. Buzea, pictured with wife Barb and C.P. Athletic Director Bill Dorulla, has coached at Homewood-Flossmoor (Illinois) since 2010 and had stints at Michigan City and Portage prior to that.