The President’s Coach – From Eureka College to Capitol Hill

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.Coach Mac's plaque

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

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Posted in education, family, inspiration, relationships, social view, sport.


  1. Pat, you make me feel like I’ve met the inspirational Coach Mac in person as you keep his spirit alive through your lovely tributes. I’ve experienced both the negative and ( mostly)positive impact a coach can have on the lives of young athletes through my children’s and grandchildren’s involvement in sports. It’s clear that coaches do have the power ,by their example, to shape the minds,hearts and characters of those they coach. My favorite line here is “the only record that really matters has little to do with the final score.” Love this post!

    • Kathy, this is so true. Coaches can have a positive or negative impact and destroy self-esteem in an unfair criticism at an untimely moment. That is why good coaches, like good teachers and good parents, should be lauded for guiding children into productive adulthood. It is one of most demanding and most crucial jobs in world.

  2. Pat, I had NO IDEA!! What an inspiring tale. I totally agree, good coaches can’t be paid enough for all the positive influence they wield. My son Domer was blessed with wonderful coaches and mentors — men who helped him develop his athletic abilities and model good behavior. I, too, was blessed with good coaches. How fortunate young people are when they come into the sphere of an outstanding coach!!

    • As students and athletes we often don’t realize until later years just how important good mentoring can be. And when I was growing up I certainly never realized how extraordinary it was that my grandpa was friends with the President. Only in looking back with the wisdom of age can I truly appreciate the crucial role good coaches played in my life.

  3. As a child growing up hearing the stories of Grandpa and Reagan’s friendship, I didn’t fully appreciate what a special legacy it was. Now as an adult, I realize what an amazing friendship they shared and how much Grandpa had to do with shaping Reagan’s life. Your blog gives well deserved credit to coaches everywhere whose commitment, encouragement, and caring influence so much more than just athletic prowess. As we both know, the best coaches help build character, too. And I know that you have used what you have learned from Grandpa and Dad to make a difference in the lives of those atletes you coach.

    • We were blessed to have grown up in the Mac family. With our grandparents and parents as role models, it is no surprise that we entered the teaching/coaching field where we have continued shaping lives in emulating the standards of Grandpa Great (as his first great granddaughter used to call him.)

  4. Athletes, actors, students everywhere who have had the opportunity to work with a coach, director, sponsor, or mentor as caring, dedicated, and motivated as Grandpa Mac are truly blessed! What an inspiration he has been to many as his legacy is passed on to others!

    • One should never under estimate the impact of good teachers in any field and I am sure that you and Sue have mentored hundreds of students in your role at YHS.

  5. Pingback: Aging Gracefully Hanging Up Car Keys - Pat McKinzie

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