By Andy Sneddon
Reprinted from Centralight Fall 2015
For John Bonamego, it's been both.
A childhood in a military family and a career in coaching have kept "Bono" on the move. In coming to Mount Pleasant, he has reached his long-desired destination as he begins his first season
as Central Michigan's football coach.
The gregarious Bonamego was named the 28th coach in program history in February – the first alum to hold the position since Coach Bill Kelly (1951-66). His introductory press conference ran the gamut: laughter, tears, inspiration, passion, unbridled enthusiasm. At the core: heart-on-his-sleeve sincerity.
The ensuing six months have done nothing to dull the luster of that first impression as the former Chippewa player engaged students, alumni, faculty, staff, community members – anyone and everyone with an interest in CMU and its football program.
Bono knew he wanted to be the head coach at his alma mater when he played for the team in the '80s. He's 51, but possesses the enthusiasm and energy of a man half his age – something even a recent bout with tonsil cancer can't squash.
He shifts seamlessly from a self-deprecating quip – "Anybody who thinks I can't recruit, just look at my wife" – to serious and sentimental, inevitably striking an emotional tone, his voice wavering as he speaks of his undying love for CMU.
"It's more than a job for me," he says. "This is something highly personal. It's a tremendous mantle of responsibility. It's not something I take lightly."
A quarterback at Paw Paw High School in southwest Michigan, Bonamego could have made a go of it as a college player at the Division III level. But he became smitten with CMU when, as a high school student, he attended a game at Kelly/Shorts Stadium.
"The first time I walked into the stadium for a game, that was it," he says. "I loved the colors, I loved the passion and enthusiasm the fans had. It was clear that football was very important here and they had a tremendous amount of tradition. And they had an iconic head coach."
That coach was the legendary Herb Deromedi.
"John Bonamego is one of the most genuine people I know," says Deromedi, who has maintained a close relationship with Bonamego through the years. "What you see is what you get. He has a tremendous capacity to be able to relate to people."
Like all nonscholarship walk-ons, Bonamego started at the bottom, fitting in where he could, working with the scout team. He eventually climbed the depth chart and saw game action as a special teamer and as a scrappy backup wide receiver, lettering during his final two seasons.
No, he wasn't a star, but he earned star-like respect and admiration from the coaching staff and his teammates through a steely determination to make the most of his 5-foot-9, 180-pound body.
"You don't succeed by complaining about things you don't have, you build success by doing the best with what you have," Bonamego says. "I had to work very hard to prove that I belonged, that I was worthy of running out of that tunnel on game days, even if I wasn't going to play in the game.
"Even though my career may not have been as distinguished as some of the players I played with, I'm still very proud of what I accomplished here."
Bonamego's first college coaching post was at Maine in the late 1980s, then came stops at Lehigh and Army before the jump to the NFL, where he honed his craft over 16 years as an assistant with five teams, most recently as special teams coordinator for the Detroit Lions.
He could have, at turns, pursued a college head coaching job, but he didn't want to be a head coach at a college. He wanted to be the head coach at Central Michigan University.
"I've realize a dream," says Bonamego, who earned an honorary doctorate from CMU after serving as the university's commencement speaker in 2009. "I'm in a position I've always wanted to be in.
"It's the people that make this place special. It's not the buildings, it's not the trees, it's not the streets, it's not the books in the library.
"It's the young men in our locker room, it's the coaches on our staff, it's the people who work in the athletic department, it's the students who fill those classrooms, it's the faculty and staff, it's the alumni. It's a special place because we have great people here."
Including one who, at long last, has come home.
John Bonamego isn't the only alum coaching a CMU team. Over the years, many Chippewa players have returned to their alma mater as head coaches and assistants to help shape the next generation of students. Here are three current coaches who've come back: