Farewell to my First Coach – My Dad, My Hero

Dad was my lighthouse, guiding me ashore when lost in life’s stormy sea. He died on August 8, 2022 just nine days shy of his 91st birthday. Without him I drift bereft.

My dad and I shared a special bond made stronger through a love of sports and our fierce determination to overcome obstacles.

My athleticism was a genetic gift; my fighting spirit part of the McKinzie bloodline.

Growing up, I never appreciated his athletic talents. He never boasted about his own accolades, but was always the first to applaud others’ achievements.

As a college athlete at Northern Illinois State University, he was a 3 sport division I athlete and MVP in 2 major sports. He was inducted into the NIU hall of fame three times, as an individual player and as a team member in the 1951 football and baseball teams. He was part of the NIU Century Basketball Team and Decade “50’s” football team.  As a coach, he was also inducted into the Sterling High School Hall of Fame and the Illinois Basketball Coaches’ Association Hall of Fame.

But he remained humble. His passion lay in helping others achieve their goals. He impacted countless young lives in his role as an educator, coach, and mentor.

He will be remembered for his kindness, generosity, tolerance, humor and compassion for the underdog. He treated everyone equally regardless of class, age, ethnicity, nationality, religious affiliation or gender identity. He also advocated for women’s right to participate in sports in the infancy of Title IX.

Fondly remembered as ‘Papa Mac’ for leading his daughter Karen and her “Golden Girl” teammates to the first girls State Basketball Championship in 1977, he also guided the 1979 third place and 1980 Elite 8 girls state basketball teams.

And he coached me.

At a time when women’s sports was taboo, his guidance made me an outstanding pioneer basketball player — one of the 1st female athletic scholarship recipients at Illinois State University, professional players in the USA and American women to play in Europe.
In one of our last visits, we reminisced about the hours we spent shooting baskets. I re-enacted how he taught me to drop into 3 point football stance and run a v-slant pattern with my fingertips stretched to the sky, ready to catch his perfect spiral pass.

“You also taught me how to swing a baseball bat, serve a volleyball, swish a hook shot!”

“I betcha I taught you all the ball games,” dad said and chuckled.

“You also showed me how to balance a check book, change a flat tire, catch a fish, ride a bike, drive a car.”

“You were a good learner,” he told me.

“You were the best teacher.”

Just ask his former campers at Camp Neyati Wisconsin or the hundreds of students and athletes whose lives he touched in his 35 year teaching/coaching — basketball, football, baseball, track — career. He served as a pillar of the community, a brick in the foundation of Sterling High School.

My dad, a man of integrity, walked the talk. He saw the best in each of us and then coached it out of us.

How many of his former students and athletes went on to dedicate their lives to teaching and coaching?

Like my grandfather, and my father, when my playing career ended, I became an ambassador of the game. I guided athletes on the global arena teaching and coaching 33 yrs in Europe. I passed on not only dad’s basketball expertise, but also his philosophy of life.

In a ripple effect, my dad’s ethos — honesty, acceptance and fair play — echoed around the world when my former international players returned to their passport countries to advocate for social justice.

Dad, I wish I could play my guitar for you one last time.

“I can’t sing on key to save my life,” dad would say as he whistled along.

You may not have had a musical bone in your body, dad, but your life was a rhapsody. Your spirit united the chorus of humanity.

You were a gifted artist.

Whether teaching city boys to appreciate nature at Camp Neyati, counseling teens on the playing fields and in the classrooms, painting landscapes for loved ones, or writing a letters of encouragement, your work comforted us all.

A hug from you could lift a soul for a lifetime.

As I reflect back on how hard it was to stand after my accidents, I hear your voice inspiring me to walk again. Whenever I hike the Swiss mountains or wander Wisconsin’s Northwoods, I remember you.

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Every breath I take, every step I make, every word I speak, every kindness I share, I think of you.

Your light shines eternally as we offer our guidance to the next generation while whistling your song in our hearts.

You left the best kind of legacy.

Your love lives on.

A Memorial Service will be hosted on Sunday, August 28th at the Schilling Funeral Home in Sterling (visitation11-2 PM and service 2 PM.)   In lieu of flowers, his family requests donations be made in his name to Jim & Lenore McKinzie Scholarship Fund care of Sterling-Rock Falls Community Trust, (Midland States Bank, 302 1st Ave, Sterling, Il 61081) to help a deserving student going into education or to the  Sterling Schools Foundation (510 East Miller Rd, Sterling, Il 61081 www.sterlingschoolsfoundation.org

Cards to Lenore McKinzie 1424 W. 21st St. 61081 Sterling, IL USA

Happy 90th Birthday to my Pioneer Dad

If I pursued a career unheard of for women, moved abroad and rewrote my script after my dream collapsed in an accident, it is because of you, my pioneer dad, who believed in me every step of the way.

I inherited the McKinzie iron will, a drive to pursue lofty ideals in spite of obstacles.

In the controversial years of Title IX’s infancy, when girls and ball games were non compatible entities, your adamant belief in women’s right to participate in sports would empower all your daughters. Especially me.

Fifty years ago, dads teaching daughters jump shots were anomalies. Fathers discouraged daughters from playing ball games society deemed unladylike.

Yet, you fought for equal rights and shaped values in the athletes you mentored during your 33-year career at Sterling High School where you earned the affectionate title of Papa Mac while racking up Illinois’ 1st ever girls state basketball championship title, a 3rd place finish and an Elite Eight appearance. But what made you proudest was seeing how your athletic “daughters” grew up to contribute to society as principals, teachers and leading members of their communities.

No one felt your influence more greatly than me. When my slender frame took a beating on basketball courts at ever elite levels, you never said, “You’re too small to go pro.” Instead you helped develop my potential. When my American pro team folded, I stated, “I’m going to France to play.”

“What if you get hurt?” You tried your darnest to dissuade me. Then after the shock subsided, you offered your support and returned to the gym to rebound.

When I announced, “I’m engaged to a Frenchman,” you were the first to accept a foreigner into the family and remained my most faithful correspondent, sending manila envelopes to Europe. Rather than disowning me, you sacrificed time and money to make 18 trips across the Atlantic to be part of your gandchildren’s lives.

Though you never visited Scotland, the home of your fore-bearers, it is as if clan bloodlines transcended generations. Like your father and forefathers, you became a leader of men and women. You taught us a code of honor, respect for our fellowman, and fierce loyalty toward family.

Our resilient constitution, strength of character, love of nature, and reverence for honest work may have been virtues passed on from our ancestry, but we developed them by modeling your behavior in a life where you treated everyone equal.

As the head of our McKinzie clan, you set the finest example of what it means to be an honorable leader, a strong chief, and a benevolent father.

I grew up during an era when athletic girls felt shunned without role models. You encouraged me to be myself even when it meant being different and pursuing a career usually sought by men.

It was not easy being a modern day daughter, marrying a Frenchman and raising children abroad. Nor was it easy to be an up-to-date dad, whose dedicated coaching developed the talent that took his daughter away.

I was a selfish, smart-aleck kid; you were too overprotective. You grew up under the “work ethic” when it was a man’s world, only, yet you learned to accept a modern, do-it-herself daughter who lived by the “experience ethic.”

You leaned right; I left. Too much alike in temperament and too different in ideologies to always get along, yet our differences, spurred growth. I loved you enough to let you be a blundering father. You let me be a belligerent daughter. Through headstrong outbursts, we learned to compromise, to live modern dreams without losing old-fashioned values.

You were not a perfect dad, nor I, a perfect daughter. But our love was.

You taught me to shoot a jump shot, swim a lake, drive a car, balance a checkbook, but the greatest lesson I learned from you was “never give up!”

Thirty-five years ago, that fighting spirit helped me recover from a career ending, near fatal car accident 4,000 miles away from home. More recently that same resiliency helped me survive a life altering fall that resulted in a broken cheek bone, eye socket, jaw, nose and skull that led to a 5 hour brain surgery and over a year of rehabilitation. With no end in sight.

I may never play my guitar, type a blog post or swim again pain free.

Everyday as I struggled in physical therapy to squeeze my hand, raise my left arm, and walk without stumbling I think of you and repeat the mantra you ingrained through hours of practice spent correcting my jump shot, “Keep fighting!”

Every night when I called you reminded me,“I am proud of you sweetie.”

And you ended every conversation with these words,

“I think of you everyday and love you more each minute.”

Me too, dad, me too.

Happy Birthday to my 90 year old hero!

Punting in Cambridge To Celebrate Special Occasions

When my son’s British fiancé told us we were celebrating their engagement by going punting in Cambridge, I imagined kicking the pigskin around a ballpark. But the English don’t play American football. Then I thought it must have something to do with rugby, as her brother-in-law is an avid rugby man.

Well, what a surprise! Punting has nothing to do with playing ball on a pitch (field), but instead involves a boat on a river.

Imagine skimming across the water in a “punt.” Picture a Venetian gondola that is shaped like a flat-bottomed, mini-barge.

In Cambridge punting along River Cam leads you past the famous colleges of the University of Cambridge. Founded as far back as 800 years ago, each contains its own history, architecture and stories.

The punt, dating back to medieval times, allowed navigation in shallow water areas. Until recently commercial fishermen used punts to work the fens of East Anglia. In 1870 punting for pleasure began, becoming more common in the 1900s and today is considered a part of the Cambridge experience.

A person navigates by standing on the till (known as the deck) at the back, not paddling, but poling. It looks easy. It’s not. Imagine trying to propel a dozen hefty passengers forward by pushing off the river bottom with a pole vault stick.

Poles, usually made of spruce 12-16 feet long, have a shoe, a rounded lump of metal on one end in the shape of swallow’s tail. Without a rudder, the punt is difficult to steer and the pole can get stuck in the river bottom.

Our next dilemma was who was going to pole the punt?

I assumed David would guide us down the River Cam, but sidelined by a rugby injury, he couldn’t even bend his knee enough to climb into the boat.

Fortunately Larissa and her sister, Charlotte, had the foresight to barter for tickets that included a guide. From the Quayside Punting Station near Magdalene Bridge, we clambered into the low seats of the punt.

Like a modern day Huck Finn, a handsome, young man in khakis and a white shirt stood in the stern grasping his pole. In the voice of a great orator, he recounted the history and legends surrounding the colleges of Cambridge during our 45-minute ride up one side of the Cam and then down the other.

“The Backs refers to a one-mile stretch past the rear sides of some of England’s most prestigious and oldest universities,” our guide said. “A few of the famous colleges, which we will be passing include Trinity College, founded by King Henry VIII in 1546; Trinity Hall, where scientist Stephen Hawking studied; and St. Johns College, which was attended by poet William Wordsworth.”

Along the riverbank people dined at outdoor cafes, college co-eds lounged on lush lawns under weeping willows and boatloads of tourists drank beer celebrating the arrival of spring. A carnival like atmosphere prevailed. Punting was like being in an amusement park on bumper boat ride and sure enough another boat slammed into our side, jarring my back.

While the skilled college guides maneuvered between boats, amateur punters spun in circles and crashed into other vessels.

“On your right is St. John’s,” our guide said, “one of the oldest and most celebrated colleges in Cambridge.”

As we passed under the city’s famous Bridge of Sighs, named after the one in Venice, the scene felt surreal.

When we opened champagne and raised our glasses to Nic and Larissa, I thought, what are the odds of small town girl from Illinois marrying a French boy from Normandy and raising a Franco-American son who’s falls in love with a beautiful English/Irish-Ukrainian girl.

How extraordinary the fate uniting our families as we celebrate toasting to their future by punting in Cambridge.

Illinois Basketball Museum Commemorates Love of Game

Basketball symbolizes Illinois as much as sweet corn, the red bird and Abe Lincoln.

Generations of farm kids grew up shooting at hoops nailed above barn doors. City kids learned resiliency playing street ball on concrete courts in the ‘hood. Thousands of student athletes remember cheering and charging across the hardwood inspired by the American national anthem at tip off.

The Illinois Basketball Coaches Association (IBCA) wants to commemorate this history by building our own museum along the famous route 66 in Pontiac, but it will take a team effort to get the foundation laid.[embedyt] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nvqld8Vu5wI[/embedyt]

Illinois’ stars could easily fill the galleries from shot blocking, hook shooting legendary pioneer George Mikan to Doug Collins, former Illinois State University star, NBA player and coach, to Michael Jordan’s stellar Chicago Bulls era. Female standouts such as Olympians Charlotte Lewis (1976), gold medalists Cathy Boswell (1984) and WNBA’s Los Angeles Sparks superstar Candace Parker (2008, 2012) also deserve a spot.Illinois Basketball

My family holds a tiny piece of the legend. My grandpa, “Coach Mac,” a 7x hall of famer, led his Northern Illinois University teams to three Little 19/IIAC crowns in the 1940s. My dad, Jim McKinzie, a NIU Hall of Fame athlete was named on the All-Decade Team and All-Century Team for his contributions as a guard in the 1950s.

When I was growing up, girls were shunned from sports, but with athleticism as a birthright, I fought to be allowed in the game.  In the infancy of Title IX, I blazed a my own trail as the first athletic scholarship recipient to Illinois State before playing professionally in the first Women’s Basketball League (WBL) then for teams in France and Germany.

My hometown, Sterling, also played a significant role. My dad co-coached the Sterling High School team that included my younger sister, which went 21-0 and won the first IHSA state girls cage title (1976-77) hosted by Illinois State.

Three generations and four family members have been inducted into IBCA Hall of Fame – my grandfather, Ralph McKinzie, as a coach (1976), my dad and sister, Karen, as part of the championship team (2004) and me as a player (2005).

The list of Illinois’ basketball greats goes on from players, to officials, to coaching dynasties from Toluca High School’s Chuck Rolinski and Ray Meyer’s 42-year stint (1942-1984) at DePaul University to extraordinary fans like Sister Jean (Jean Delores Schmidt). The 98-year-old nun, a beloved member of the Loyola basketball community, who exemplifies our lasting bonds with favorite teams.

But no one in the state has done more for the game than Jill Hutchison. In a legacy spanning 28 seasons as Illinois State University’s head basketball coach, Hutchison was co founder and first president of the Women’s Basketball Coaches Association.

To appreciate her impact, we must remember how far we have come. Hutchison’s master thesis proved that a woman’s heart wouldn’t explode by running the fast break. This led to a change in rules – instead of a six-player half court game to the full court five-player game.

As tournament director for the Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women (AIAW), she helped establish the regions and the qualifying process for the first national tournament in 1971-1972, which was nearly identical to the regions used in the NCAA today.

At ISU, a powerhouse of womIllinois Basketballen including Hutchison advocated for women even before the 1972 Title IX enactment mandated equal opportunities in academics and athletics.

“Cultural change is slow, slower than you ever want it to be. And that’s what Title IX was—a cultural change, not just for athletics. Females…crossing the gender barrier, that was huge,” Hutchison said.

So often, the pioneers’ accomplishments are overlooked because history is not always recorded as it is being made, especially when the people in power are against the change. A museum could correct this oversight.

Like so many hailing from the Land of Lincoln, a love of basketball reflects my heritage.

Illinois basketball not only influenced me, it also shaped American history.

Find out more about how to help build Illinois Basketball Museum here.

Celebrating Girls & Women’s Rights to Play Sports

February 6, 2019 marks the 33rd annual National Girls & Women in Sports Day, an event that never occurred when I was a girl because females were not allowed to compete until Title IX passed in 1972.

But I loved basketball even before they let me play. As we celebrate extraordinary achievements of women and girls in sports, give a nod to the icons who have done so much to promote the women’s game.

Fittingly, last Saturday, Illinois State University named their women’s basketball locker room in Jill Hutchison’s honor. I felt privileged to play for Jill in the 70’s during the early infancy of Title IX, back in the day before we even had a girls’ locker room. We used to change in a bathroom or borrow the men’s locker room before our games in Horton Field House.

If I had my way, ISU would also put her name on the floor of Redbird Arena. After all, Hutchison led the way making changes in legislation at the national level mandating a woman’s right to be on that court.

That same Saturday, a legend in Wisconsin, UW-Stevens Point coach Shirley Egner notched her 300th win in the tough Wisconsin Intercollegiate Athletic Conference as her team defeated UW-Eau Claire. It was Egner’s 800th game as UWSP coach where she holds an amazing 546-253 record.

Unbeknownst to both us, I would have played against Egner when ISU played at UW-La Crosse. Three decades later Egner coached our daughter, born and raised in Europe, to a DIII Final Four in 2004.

Meanwhile at my old high school, Sterling – home of the first ever state championship girls’ team – Coach Taylor (Carbaugh) Jackson, a former standout player guides her team to a 19-4 record and 10th place 3A state ranking. Five sisters from the Borum and Gould families – the same girls who also starred on Sterling’s first state volleyball championship 2018 – help lead the way again.

And on that same day far, far away, we won our tournament at the International School of Geneva competing against teams from Austria, Germany, Poland, and Switzerland.

Around the globe, girls are playing ball driving the baseline, shooting the jumper, taking the charge and learning through sports to be tougher, stronger, and braver.

And yes, the granny of the game is still coaching.

At our tournament, the Basel coach heard other coaches talking about my history, and the younger woman approached me.

“I loved playing high school and college ball in New Jersey,” she said. “I just want to thank you for paving the way.”

As we shook hands, I felt a surreal connection to generations across time.

It was a humbling moment.

This February, as we applaud the accomplishments of female leaders in all sports – not only basketball – be sure to remember the real victory is the right to play.

An opportunity that may be taken for granted, but should never be forgotten.

The plaque on Jill Hutchison’s Women’s Basketball locker room reminds us,

“To play the game is great, to win the game is greater, to love the game is greatest.”

And capping off the celebration, never in my wildest dreams could I imagine that one day a Super Bowl advertisement would feature girls playing football to encourage girls to get in the game. Check it out!

Fall Means Football Season in my Family

Sugar maple seeds flutter to the ground like mini helicopters and leaves tinged in red signal fall and football season. As soon as my hand grew big enough to grasp the pigskin, my dad taught me to throw and catch a perfect spiral. On cool autumn evenings, we ran passing patterns – the down and out, button hook and v-slant – under the waning street light until mom called for dinner.

Back in the late 60s, I was probably the only girl in town that knew that a Hail Mary had nothing to do with the Catholic Church. The daughter of a Sterling High School football coach and the granddaughter of a former Northern Illinois University and Eureka College football coach, no one told me girls couldn’t love football. Though it was almost 2 more decades before girls would be allowed to participate on America’s ball fields, nobody in my family discouraged me from playing a game designed to build the character of men.

Only a half a century later did I realized how unique my upbringing and how privileged I was to grow up in a coach’s family in a community that valued sports.

My alma mater Sterling High School stadium sparkles in the night like a major university field. Dating back to the 40s, the football program brought pride to the community. My dad, a DeKalb High School Barb, remembers the challenge of playing against Sterling when DuWayne Dietz starred as a running back.

“Our game plan was simple – tackle Dietz!” my dad recounted, “Only problem, we had to catch him first. We chased him up and down the field all night.”

Last year, at the recently renovated stadium, the team made it to the semi-finals of a state championship and this season remain undefeated.

I grew up admiring the Sterling warriors, memorizing plays and tracking yardage gained. For me the only thrill greater than Friday night lights of American high school football was watching my grandpa’s college team play on Saturdays. As children, we cherished each excursion to Eureka, Illinois to spend time with our grandparents.

Sitting on hard bleachers, my sisters and I cheered “Go Red Devils,” and chuckled in amusement that a Christian college team could carry such a dubious nickname. But we knew the history behind it and felt proud; my grandma gave them that name when she started the pep club back in the 1930s.

Several Sterling High School athletes would go on to shine at Eureka College. In fact while I was playing basketball for Illinois State University, two of my best high school buddies – Mike Wietlispach and Chris Baldwin – wore the maroon and gold onto McKinzie Field.

Team loyalties transcend from generation to generation. I loved the Sterling Golden Warriors, the Eureka Red Devils and the Greenbay Packers long before the Brett Favre or Aaron Rodgers era because Greenbay was my grandpa’s favorite team.

In early adulthood, I moved to Europe in pursuit of my own passion to play professional basketball. I have remained in the land of soccer ever since. Though I would never see another football game live, the love remains.

When my children were young, my dad gave them a football. As soon as their fingers were big enough to spread across the white laces, I taught them to throw and run those passing patterns.

I still dream of attending an SHS football game and heading back down to McKinzie Field for a Red Devils’ game. But for now that goal remains on my bucket list because I am still coaching in Switzerland.

In the meantime, if I close my eyes I can hear my ancestors’ voices echoing across the gridiron. Memories of family, pep talks of inspiration and love of football are imprinted in my soul forever.