Former Elk to lead football team

Todd Ghilani received many accolades during his high school career

By Travis Pipes


Todd Ghilani, Elkhorn Area High School alum and Northern Illinois graduate, has officially accepted the head coaching job for the Elks football team.

Elkhorn is a quiet city nestled among rolling cornfields, farms and light industry in the geographic center of Walworth County between Milwaukee and Beloit. It’s the kind of blink-and-you’ll-miss-it place whose major landmark has long been the skyward light poles surrounding the football field at Elkhorn Area High School just off Interstate-43.

There’s a long, deep connection to sports there that have been cultivated by decades of success in between the lines of that field. Those bright lights illuminated generations of players, wins, conference championships and countless memories made on Fridays every fall.

Over time plenty of big names have crossed through the halls of EAHS and dominated on the gridiron for the thundering herd.

Althaus. Gay. Stallings. Earle. Lundvall. Beaver. Wedige.

And, near the top of that list is Todd Ghilani.

In 2000, following a series of Southern Lakes All Conference nods in 1998 and 1999 Ghilani was named to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Preps Plus All Star team and a member of the Shrine Bowl South team. Rated the No. 14 Division 1 prospect in the state he was faced with a choice: stay in the area and pursue goals of becoming a teacher. Or, as Ghilani put it, set out on a path toward something more challenging and representative of the values he learned growing up playing a part amidst a tradition of excellence that Elkhorn was synonymous with.

So, he made his way two hours south to Northern Illinois University on a full scholarship to play for head coach Joe Novak and the Huskies.

Thirty-six starts spent paving the way for future NFL star Michael Turner as an All Mid American Conference center (including three signature, program shifting wins over Alabama, Iowa State and Maryland in 2003) led to a tryout with the Dallas Cowboys.

After graduation, Ghilani stayed in the Land of Lincoln, meeting his future wife, Heather, while making his way into the ranks of teacher coaches at Richmond Burton Community High School in Richmond, Ill.

Ghilani recently shared his thoughts about football, culture and what he’s learned along the way as a player, coach and mentor to student athletes. He also talked about what led him back to his hometown.

“The grass isn’t always greener everywhere you go. Those were some lessons that I had to learn along the way. It was important for my development that I stayed at Richmond Burton for as long as I did to learn from Pat Elder, my previous head coach. I have evolved from his teaching to my way of doing things but the foundation from where I am today goes back to him, Tom Lee, Joe Novak and Dean Wilson. These men are the coaches that I have been molded from,” Ghilani said.

In 2015 he was named a member of the inaugural EAHS Hall Of Fame class. While reflecting on that accomplishment he said he’d always dreamed of coming home to coach the sport he loves while helping shape student athletes in a community that’s so important to him.

Now he finally has the chance.

He’s earned respect

Ghilani’s close childhood friend, Dave Mogensen recalled what it was like to share the field with him.

“I knew early on that Todd was a special athlete. It was great being a part of that run of championship teams at Elkhorn and I am so happy to see arguably the best player we produced during that 90s run come back to take the helm and get the program turned around,” he said.

Randy Ridout, who was the defensive coordinator on Wilson’s staff also had positive things to say about Ghilani – including about more than his talent on the football field.

“Defensively, he was more than a two-gap tackle. I was able to play games with everyone else because Todd held down his side beyond his gap. But the coolest thing ever was going to see our star tackle sing the lead in Guys and Dolls. He was good at that, too,” Ridout said.

Ghilani, undoubtedly, has some big shoes to fill.

Dean Wilson and Paul Yanke – who roamed the Elkhorn sideline for a combined 40 years – racked up a total of 239 wins including 10 Southern Lakes Conference titles and three state semifinal berths. Both are members of the Wisconsin Football Coaches Association Hall Of Fame.

Ready for the challenge

Ghilani is acutely aware of the challenges that lie ahead.

“Football is an amazing sport. It has made me into the man that I am today. It is an honor to be the head football coach of any program, let alone the program that I went through as a kid. I feel that there is a sense of responsibility and urgency to get the program back on track to where it was when I played here,” he said.

Ghilani said it’s truly humbling to be put into this position of leadership of his alma mater.

“I owe it to all those who played before and after me to put a sense of pride into the community for our football program,” he said.

The new coach said he wants the Elkhorn community to be proud of the young men that go through the football program.

“Besides the understanding of words like respect, commitment, motivation, brotherhood – which are all taught in the program to make the young men better people in life – one of the most important words we will teach is community,” he explained.

For Ghilani that goes beyond what happens under the glow cast by those prominent lights blazing on Friday nights.

Football, he said, is merely a vehicle to something greater in life.

“One of the most gratifying things in my life is to see and be invited to pinnacle events in my past student athletes’ lives. Numerous student-athletes that I have coached and taught over the years consistently ask me for advice about big life decisions. Being invited to weddings is an amazing experience as a coach,” he explained.

“Building relationships with young men is so important to me that it is a requirement for my assistants that coach with me. Otherwise, why are we doing this? If the only thing that I or my staff has taught a young man after going through our program is football then we have failed them,” he added.

Ghilani sees his role primarily as changing mindsets as it’s about setting kids off onto a life path punctuated not just by athletic success but by a drive to find happiness and a positive direction while helping others. Those things can be created by being part of a team and experiences from sports, which can shape the resolve and self worth of kids.

He credits the development of those same traits from the support of family, friends and several coaches along his own path.

Among them are Richmond Burton head coach Pat Elder whom Ghilani spent 11 years with; New Orleans Saints offensive line coach Dan Roushar; University of Arkansas head coach Sam Pittman and former EAHS coaches Steve Simonson, Ross Gahart and Randy Ridout.

Ghilani said he still exudes the pride and sense of joy forged as a kid competing for the love of the game on those fields next to the interstate and he understands the path ahead because he has walked it.

He wants to lead the Elks back to a place they’ve been before. One that he says should be filled with lifelong camaraderie and new memories in purple and gold.

Ghilani is a guidance counselor at Elkhorn Area Middle School and his wife, Heather, is a teacher at the high school. They have three children: Landon, Harper and Hayes.

Contributor Travis Pipes went to EAHS and graduated a year ahead of Todd in 1999. He’s a former NFL writer and currently hosts Double Coverage Radio with Dave Mogensen available on Facebook and at


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