Although he enjoyed a long career in college athletics in the Chicago area, Bob Hallberg made his biggest impact at St. Xavier University (SXU).
He served as athletic director when SXU started its athletic department in the early 1970s, and he coached the men’s and women’s basketball teams in their fledgling years, leading both to national success.
Friends, family and former players are now mourning Hallberg’s death.
Hallberg, who retired from SXU at the end of the 2018-19 academic year, died on Nov. 19 at age 75 after battling liver cancer for a year.
A South Side native and a hall of fame inductee at several area schools, he was known for his passion, innovation and winning ways.
“He was the best boss a college coach could ask for because he cared about everybody,” said SXU football Coach Mike Feminis. “He cared about everybody having the chance to be successful. As an administrator, you got battles to pick with the folks above you. Bob was so respected here by all the [vice presidents] and presidents who have been here.”
Hallberg, of Oak Lawn, amassed over 1,000 wins in 49 years of coaching basketball at the high school and collegiate levels.
His most recent role at SXU was as athletic director and women’s basketball coach. He had served in the latter role since the program started in 1999, and he was successful from the start, winning over 20 games every year.
The Cougars won the 13 Chicagoland Collegiate Athletic Conference (CCAC) regular-season titles and appeared in the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) national championship in 2017.
The court at the SXU Shannon Center was dedicated as Bob Hallberg Court in 2013.
Hallberg won his 500th game while leading the women’s program in December 2018, and his wife of 52 years, Linda, a fixture at his games, sat next to him on the bench at a home game in February when he was honored for that milestone win and announced his retirement.
Kara Krolicki was alongside Hallberg for five years. She starred as a player for four years at SXU, then served as an assistant coach in 2018-19.
The Mokena resident started every season and was a two-time national player of the year. She took her time in the college recruiting process, she said, but she’s grateful she decided to play for Hallberg.
“Coach was very adamant about how much he wanted me, how much he believed that I could come in and make an impact,” Krolicki said. “I’m really glad I came to my senses and decided to go to St. Xavier. Looking back at it now, it’s definitely the best decision I could have ever made.”
Krolicki said she and Hallberg were similar in their competitive nature. She said that while serving as his assistant she could see his deep knowledge of the game.
She called it an opportunity “to learn from a legend.”
“They don’t make ’em like that anymore, to say the least,” Krolicki said. “He just changed the game, and he changed a lot of people’s lives.”
Hallberg was SXU athletic director from 2001 until his retirement. Nine teams competed in his first year, but the school now boasts 19 varsity sports. Each has reached the postseason at least once.
In 2011, the football team won the NAIA national title.
Hallberg told The Beverly Review in February that he was proud of the coaches he hired because they were “all good people.”
Feminis and Hallberg were both hired in January 1999. Feminis said that when Hallberg became athletic director two years later, he always did his best to make sure coaches could provide financial assistance to recruits to build strong programs.
“As a coach, that’s all you can ask for,” Feminis said. “Obviously, he did an incredible job with his own program, but he made sure we all had a chance to compete and play at a high level. For that, I’ll always be appreciative because that’s something that you can’t take for granted at our level. He really sincerely cared.”
Hallberg may have been short in stature, but he was known for commanding respect from his players, and off the court, he was down-to-earth, Feminis said. At meetings with coaches, Hallberg never acted like a superior.
“He was just a witty guy,” Feminis said. “He always made you feel good about yourself. He never put himself on a pedestal, as if he was above everybody else. He made everybody feel the same. He was just one of us, and yet, he was the leader of the group.”
Hallberg first worked at SXU as the men’s basketball coach and baseball coach in 1971. Over six years, during which he also served as athletic director, his basketball team won two CCAC championships.
Hallberg left SXU in the middle of his career, enjoying success at other Chicago colleges.
He became the men’s basketball coach at Chicago State University, his alma mater, in 1977, and the team averaged 25 wins per year over 10 seasons, earning the No. 1 ranking in NAIA and appearing in the national semifinals.
When CSU moved up to NCAA Division-I competition, Hallberg won 16 games, a record for a team in its first season at that level. He is a member of the CSU Hall of Fame.
Hallberg was the men’s basketball coach at the University of Illinois-Chicago (UIC), a Division-I program, from 1987-1996. He won 134 games, and his teams nearly reached the NCAA tournament several times.
To the start the 1990-91 season, his team upset the University of Illinois in Champaign. The Flames surpassed the 20-win mark in 1993-94, and the following season, they won at Marquette University.
Hallberg was inducted into the UIC Hall of Fame in 2009.
St. Laurence High School boys basketball Coach Jim Sexton played for Hallberg at UIC. Sexton, an Evergreen Park native who starred at Br. Rice High School, transferred from Creighton University, and he grew up watching Hallberg play at Leo High School, as Sexton had relatives on the team.
After college, Sexton worked at Coach Hallberg’s Instructional Program (CHIP), teaching the game alongside Hallberg.
Sexton said Hallberg had a “huge presence.”
He coached with passion and gave “great halftime speeches,” and his teams played with the same energy he displayed. Players were given freedom on the court.
“He liked to press,” Sexton said. “He liked to get up and down. He was kind of a positionless guy, years before it was popular, 20 years ago. … He was definitely a players’ coach.”
Earlier this year, Hallberg said that as a sophomore at Leo, he was called up to the varsity for a playoff game, and his coach implored him to make a steal.
Hallberg said he was so fired up that he “would have stolen the ball from a teammate.” He knew that year he wanted to be a coach.
Hallberg is also in the Leo High School Hall of Fame.
Hallberg coached boys basketball at Kennedy High School, in the Garfield Ridge neighborhood, from 1966-1971.
He is also in the Chicago Catholic League, Illinois Basketball Coaches Association and Chicagoland Sports halls of fame.
Sexton said Hallberg enjoyed the game so much that while coaching at UIC, he once called for a practice at 5 p.m. on a Sunday. Assistant Coach Denny Wills remarked that it was Super Bowl Sunday, and Hallberg had a humorous response—“What’s the Super Bowl?”
Hallberg was a devoted family man, Sexton said, who balanced his coaching duties with home life.
Sexton said Hallberg ranks near the top of people he knows who love basketball.
It was always clear, Sexton said, that Hallberg put his heart and soul into the game.
“That was his life.”
Funeral services were held Nov. 25 at Our Lady of Loretto Roman Catholic Church in Hometown. Interment took place at Holy Sepulchre Cemetery. Curley Funeral Home handled the arrangements.
Hallberg is survived by his wife, Linda (Thurow); his children, Bob, Bill (Deanna) and Brian (Joy); his grandchildren, Nathan, Grace, Ben, Sofia, Gavin, Evan, Jason, and Jake; his siblings, Jack (Mickey), Tom (Judy), Jim (Pat), Den (Paula) and Mary Kay (Skip) Malham; and many nieces and nephews.
Editor’s note: Sports editor Tim O’Brien contributed to this report.