Anyone affiliated with sport knows that team connections can last lifetimes; lessons learned on the field have an everlasting impact. I witnessed this with the teams I played for and coached. However few teams can compare to the extraordinary bond created by the 1950-51 back-to-back Illinois Intercollegiate Athletic Conference championship baseball team that my grandfather coached at Northern Illinois University.
At that time no one could imagine that seven decades later those same ball players would stay in contact, reuniting annually to play golf, swap stories over a meal and commemorate their time as Huskies playing baseball for Coach Mac. “The tradition has gone on for 40 some years,” Grant Cummings, an outfielder, said, “We have been getting together for so long no one can remember when we held our first of the first reunions.”
“We revered your grandpa,” Bill Eiserman, First Team All Interstate Athletic Conference catcher and captain, told me. “We won a lot of games, but he taught us that being a good person is more important than winning. He built character.”
“He taught a lot of lessons,” Bill continued. “But that was the greatest. I tried to impart that in all the teams that I coached. Everybody loves to win – not every team has the talent to win – but everyone can still take that valuable lesson away from the game.”
McKinzie, a seven time Hall of Fame Coach served as head basketball coach where he also won 3 state conferences in 8 years, before becoming head baseball coach. He also served as tennis, track and field coach, as well as an assistant football coach and athletic trainer at NIU from 1940-63. Though he officially retired from NIU in 1963, he continued coaching football into his nineties at his own alma mater, Eureka College.
Every year until my grandpa’s death at the age of 96, my dad, a dedicated son also part of that team, made sure Coach Mac made it to the annual baseball reunion.
Once a year the guys rally past personal setbacks, the loss of loved ones, and limitations due to declining health, to gather in celebration of not so much their ol’ double plays and home runs, but to honor the memory of the coach who shaped their lives and the camaraderie that developed under his leadership.
“Every spring we drove down to New Orleans for a tournament, stopping to play games along the way,” Cummings told me, a trip that I found remarkable for that time period.
“I wasn’t a drinker,” my dad said, “so I ordered a coke on our night out on the town. The guys still razz me; my coke cost more than those fancy cocktails everybody else was drinking.”
Typically, college stadiums are named for big-time alumni donors. My grandpa, son of a tenet farmer, lived modestly even donating his coaching salary back to Eureka College in his later years. He never made a fortune coaching, but he sure made friends.
In the late 80s, fueled by Bill Eiserman, Jack Brumm, Bud Nangle, former SID at NIU, and including the support of my grandpa’s Eureka College football player, President Ronald Reagan, the 1950-51 NIU team instigated naming the NIU baseball diamond, Ralph McKinzie Field. Mike Korcek, who can still recount the win-loss record of every team during his tenure as NIU’s sports information director, and Cary Groth, one of the first female large college athletic directors were also instrumental in the process.
On May 8, 1993, at the dedication ceremonies, my dad threw the game-opening pitch. “Poor Bill scooped my pitch out of the dirt,” my dad said and chuckled. “Bill kept me from looking bad, my pitch never made it cross the plate. I was an outfielder, not a pitcher.”
My grandpa won countless honors; the NIU baseball field and Eureka College football field bear his name. But accolades aside, what made my Coach Mac proudest, was seeing what kind of men his players became.
Each member of the 1950-51 NIU team became successful in his own field, as high school and college teachers, coaches and athletic directors and exemplary civic leaders in business and education.
My grandpa also played a key role in my life. I miss him to this day, so I find comfort knowing his name lives on in the hearts of his former athletes.
These ol’ ball players have done him proud in turn by serving their family, community and country. The field may bear Ralph McKinzie’s name, but it carries the spirit of the 1950-51 ball team.
Athletes that step up to the plate at NIU today have no idea who Coach Mac was, still I hope that my grandpa’s moral standards seep into their souls through the diamond dust on that field of dreams.
Thanks for sharing these warm memories from your Basketball legacy, Pat!
As always appreciate your support, Clara.
Great memories, and such great dedication, Pat. It sounds like your grandfather was one helluva mentor.
He was Belinda. I still marvel at his ability to motivate athletes across so many different sports.
What a beautiful tribute to an extraordinary man. It’s clear to see that his legacy has extended on to his family. You, too, Pat instill good values and life lessons onto the players you coach and the students you teach. Coaches are such important people in kid’s lives, often serving as that one charismatic adult he or she needs to pull them through and help build resilience.
Thanks, Tina. Wish you were still over here helping me coach kids to step up and into their own greatness.
Pat, what an eloquent and passionate tribute to an extraordinary man. Thank you for sharing him and his lasting legacy with us. His spirit definitely lives on through you and your words. Coach Mac must be beaming right now, knowing his granddaughter is following in his footsteps. I always love reading your posts for you bring out the best that sports has to offer beyond the actual game. High five, my friend!
Thanks, Kathy. I always appreciate your feedback and support as we try to bring out the best in each others writing.
What a touching, inspiring story, Pat. I see where your sports passion comes from! Such a wonderful family legacy. The hall of fame photo is wonderful – you really see the shining spirit of those men. I love your well-worded last line: “I hope that my grandpa’s moral standards seep into their souls through the diamond dust on that field of dreams.” I have no doubt that he’s very present when young athletes step up to home plate. 🙂
Thanks, Rebecca. Do you ever travel across the border from your beautiful Italy? Would love to see you in Switzerland.
Such a nice tribute to such a nice man. You certainly have continued the legacy in your family for the love of sports and all that is good about them.
Unfortunately we hear and read so much about what is wrong with sports today and though there are certainly bad coaches, egotistical athletes and endless examples of poor sportsmanship out there, I thought it would be refreshing to read about a coach and a team that exemplifies sport at its best.
good memories of both your dad and grandpa from the days at Neyati
Yes, Jim, I am still amazed that after teaching and coaching all school year, they would want to run a boys’camp all summer. Truly remarkable.
We had dinner with your Mom an Dad last night, and I showed them the write-up that was in the local newspaper about their latest reunion. What a wonderful group of men!
Grant had me print your blog so he could show it to his friends. He is on the phone right now telling his friend what a great writer you are.
This was such an inspirational piece on so many levels.
Keep up the great work!
Thanks, Jeannette. My grandpa always enjoyed his trips to Rhinelander to see Grant and now my dad (and mom) enjoy carrying on that tradition. Tell Grant to keep passing on the word. I will send this post out to all the old ball players that I have an email addresses for. If you have Bill’s or his daughter’s email, please send it on to me, so I can be sure he sees this?
If I ever wonder about an afterlife, I will think about such stellar human beings as your grandpa, who will live on in the hearts and DNA of his family for centuries. What an amazing guy, and what an amazing family. Your book is a testament to the love, ethics, and sacrifice that apparently runs through the veins of the McKinzies. Great post.
Thanks, Lynne. When I was growing up, I never dreamed of a coaching career because well girls couldn’t play sports. Then when I saw that door open, I felt like I could never follow in my forefathers footsteps because I would never measure up to my grandpa or dad, and yet over time, step by step, I feel like I am growing into those shoes and in my own small way contributing to a better world by passing on the gift of ancestors to future generations of athletes from around the globe.
I absolutely love this story. Nothing means more to me as a mother than when one of our kids has a coach that realizes we are raising citizens. What a legacy your grandpa left to the countless lives he touched, including my own today. Beautiful.
So true, Elin. In the end it is not about winning, it is about staying in the game and contributing to the team and taking what is best about the sport into our future endeavors – commitment, self-discipline, teamwork.
Our son will be playing his first year of division 3 basketball this year – we are hoping he has the type of experience you have described here. But even if he doesn’t, there is so much to learn from playing sports, especially at the college level. You came from great athletic stock, didn’t you? 🙂
That is so exciting. DIII offers the best balance for student/athletes because they still emphasize academics first. Hope that your son has a good coach and a wonderful experience.
We’ve been so fortunate with our daughters’ coaches over the years. They’re co-parenting our children along with us. Thanks for this lovely piece.
Yes, Shannon, the best coaches will take a stake in the future of the athlete. The girls’ high school basketball team my dad coached, still call him Papa Mac, and I have often felt that I am helping raise kids. It is an privilege and honor that I take to heart.
Pat, what a beautiful tribute to Grandpa and the fine men he coached. I believe that his spirit~ and his values~ live on in each of us as we touch lives through our work. We were truly blessed.
Pat, this is a splendid tribute to your grandpa! I find it so heart-warming when people sing the praises of a special teacher or coach. Those educators were privileged to mold young bodies and minds. Some lived to get a “Thank You,” too! It sounds as if your grandpa influenced a whole lot of young men — good for him, good for them. Thanks for sharing such a lovely memory.
Thanks,Debbie. I think of my grandpa every time I walked into the gym. In fact, I am heading there right now. My team has a game.
Wonderful story! Great example.
Thanks, I try to follow his example in my own teaching and coaching.
Your grandfather left an amazing legacy for his players, his family and the community. What a terrific role model he was, too. You should be very proud. This reminded me a bit of That Championship Season which I saw twice on Broadway and I think it was a movie as well. Did you see it? Lovely post, Pat.
Thanks, Helene. When I was growing up I was in awe of my grandpa, but it wasn’t until much later in my life that I truly understood his contribution.
Pat, What a great tribute to your grandfather. I never met him, but it is not hard to see what a great man he was. As a 19 veteran high school coach, I truly appreciate the real message of your story. Thanks!
Yes, Dave, and I know you know how much dedication goes into coaching for you have sure contributed to YHS athletes over the years.