A great coach is worth his/her weight in gold. But coaches rarely make a mint or garner front page news unless they coach on campuses making major marketing bucks or if they are involved in some scandal. That is why the story of my grandpa, Coach Mac, a small college coach and the small town boy, Ronald Reagan, who he mentored at Eureka (1928-1932) is so inspiring to coaches everywhere.
Consider the odds that the son of a tenet farmer in Oklahoma would find his way to Eureka College, a private Christian school tucked in the Central Illinois’ cornfields between Peoria and Bloomington. There, Ralph « Mac » McKinzie became a legendary athlete and coach.
No one recorded statistics on the hundreds of lives Coach Mac guided during a coaching career at Eureka, Northern Illinois University and Wartburg College, Iowa, that spanned seven decades. How incredibly unlikely that one of his prodigies would go on to become our 40th President.
Coincidence? Maybe, but not to those who knew my grandpa. Coach Mac, a simple, hardworking man demanded high standards and in his gruff, awe-inspiring voice could resurrect the dead in fiery, halftime talks. He set such a fine example that those who played for him wanted to do right by him.
In later years, my grandpa kidded that Reagan had more talent as a sports commentator talking with broomstick at halftime, than throwing blocks during a game. And Reagan, in his self-deprecating humor, often said that though he never became the football star he dreamed of, he learned more lessons on McKinzie Football Field at Eureka College than anywhere else in his life.
« Whatever I am today, » President Reagan announced during a halftime interview of a Big Ten game on national TV in 1981, « I feel Coach Mac had an awful lot to do with it. »
Coach Mac recognized when a boy needed the team more than the team needed the boy. After his freshman year, Reagan wanted to quit football and college, but Coach Mac, known for backing words with actions, walked Reagan to the president’s office to secure a work/study scholarship. Reagan returned to campus to play football, at starting right guard, and to graduate.
From broadcasting to Hollywood to the White House, Reagan never missed an opportunity to publicly thank my grandpa for the role he played in shaping his life. Coach Mac instilled a strong work ethic and a fighting spirit. Reagan never gave up. After he lost the first election, he ran again, and won.
Another not so famous former athlete, who my grandpa guided, was my dad, Jim McKinzie, who went onto influence the lives of countless other athletes (including me and my sister) in his 33 years of coaching at Sterling High School.
As an athlete, I was blessed with exemplary coaches. In addition to my dad and grandpa, I was shaped by Phil Smith at SHS and Jill Hutchison at Illinois State University. In a continuation of the family legacy, I went on to coach my son and daughter at the American School of Paris and International School of Geneva. My daughter had the good fortune to play for Shirley Egner at University of Wisconsin-SP where she was adopted into the Stevens Point community before going on to become the first doctor (pediatrician) in our family.
A coach’s imprint is everlasting, like a stone thrown in a lake, setting off a ripple effect. One life influences another one that goes on to impact a hundred more. Great coaching can’t be measured and not every good coach will have the opportunity to glow in the limelight of a national championship; however, a coach’s worth shines far beyond the record books. Like Coach Mac and Reagan, relationships between coaches and athletes can last a lifetime.
In 1962 at my grandpa’s Northern Illinois University retirement testimonial banquet, the keynote speaker, Ronald Reagan said, « We should wait until after the season, then look at the coach’s record in the hearts and minds and characters of the young men associated with him to see what their contribution has been in later life. The noblest work of man is to build character of other men. By this standard, no one is more deserving of retiring an undefeated champion, than Ralph McKinzie. »
Yet grandpa never really retired. True to character, Coach Mac returned to Eureka as assistant coach, where he donated his salary back to the college, until his final days.
In the real game of life, the only record that really matters has little to do with the final score. Small town coaches at small time schools make major differences in a noble way.
The story of Coach Mac and President Reagan is an endearing reminder to coaches at each level of every sport that even during a losing season, a coach’s influence goes beyond the game. Win or lose, ripple after ripple, great coaches make for a better world, one athlete at a time.
Jim and Lenore McKinzie celebrate Eureka’s 8-2 season and the commemoration of The Coach and The President plaque on McKinzie Football Field