May 9, 2013

A peek behind the Kehres curtain

More news about: Mount Union
Mount Union coach Larry Kehres with quarterback Zac Bruney in 2002.
D3sports.com file photo
Kehres, a former quarterback himself, had success with many quarterbacks, including Rob Adamson.
2003 D3sports.com photo
Home playoff losses were truly rare under Larry Kehres, with the last coming in the snow to Mary Hardin-Baylor.
2004 D3sports.com photo
Kehres has been a steadying force on the sidelines for the Purple Raiders.
2006 photo by Ryan Coleman, d3photography.com
Between 16 Stagg Bowl trips and an occasional other visit, we estimate Larry Kehres has spent a little more than two months of his life in Salem.
2007 photo by Ryan Coleman, d3photography.com
Kehres was gracious in defeat, even though he had few chances to practice.
2011 photo by Ryan Coleman, d3photography.com
Even after one of the most thrilling fourth quarters in Mount Union football history this past season against UMHB, Kehres maintained a stoic exterior.
Photo by Dan Poel, d3photography.com
Kehres let loose for a few moments of postgame celebration in Salem in December with his grandson.
Photo by Ryan Coleman, d3photography.com
And yet, his calm, measured exterior returned for his final postgame news conference.
Photo by Ryan Coleman, d3photography.com

By Keith McMillan
D3sports.com

We have just watched the greatest college football coach of our time, if not all time, exit stage left.

Those who watched Larry Kehres’s performances from out in the audience perhaps saw only a stoic taskmaster, and envied the way his teams routinely beat other very good teams by 30, 40 or 50 points.

Those who took the stage alongside him, his assistant coaches and players, consider him a mentor, a father figure, an idol.

From the time D3football.com went online in 1999 through the end of 2012, when Kehres went out a champion, winning his 11th Stagg Bowl, we’ve been able to peek behind the curtain. Not knowing him intimately, but spending enough time with him to know how he acts when the spotlight is dark, he only earned our respect.

Though he became known throughout Division III as the master of the in-game adjustment, some of the memories Kehres leaves behind took place when the clock wasn’t ticking. Like the time he told UW-Whitewater coach Bob Berezowitz at midfield before the national championship game that if he had to lose, he wouldn’t mind it being that day – in Berezowitz’s final game in 22 years in charge of his alma mater. (Kehres’s Purple Raiders won, 35-16). Or the time he pointed out that of all his trips to Salem – Mount Union was 11-5 in Stagg Bowls under Kehres – the only time he actually got to enjoy the city was when his daughter Jan’s Wittenberg volleyball team made it to the 2007 national final. Or when he asked me about my son as we chatted on the sideline minutes before the national championship game was about to kick off.

Kehres broke character at times, taking off the Purple Raiders visor and reading glasses to crack jokes in a postgame press conference. Asked following a loss in Salem about UW-Whitewater winning three of four Stagg Bowls, Kehres said, “They’re kind of ticking me off. I might have to come back and win three of the next four.”

He once said after a game, with the straightest of faces, that a drawback to going five weeks deep into the playoffs each year was that Mount Union would fall that far behind its Ohio Athletic Conference rivals in recruiting.

Kehres is so competitive you couldn’t always tell if he was joking.

Mount Union wasn’t always The Machine. Kehres played quarterback for the Purple Raiders, rooming with a fellow by the name of Dom Capers as a sophomore. He was an assistant to Ken Wable for 11 years, and lost in the 1985 quarterfinals to Augustana as Bob Reade led the Vikings to the third of four straight championships. Kehres took over in 1986, when Mount Union again was against ousted by Augustana. The Purple Raiders lost in the 1990 and 1992 playoffs before breaking through for their first title in 1993.

Kehres’s Raiders lost by one to eventual champion Albion in 1994 and by three to champion UW-La Crosse in 1995. In 1996, the Purple Raiders again beat Rowan in Salem, and the run of dominance began. They won six of seven title games between 1996 and 2003, winning by a field goal each in 2000 and 2001. In 2005, Kehres’s Mount Union team played the first of seven consecutive Stagg Bowls against UW-Whitewater, a program that credited its ascension largely to having played a home-and-home series against the Purple Raiders a few years prior and seeing how it would have to raise its level to compete.

Kehres leaves behind some staggering numbers beyond the championships and winning percentage. His teams won 23 conference titles, including 21 in a row, and had 21 undefeated regular seasons. They made at least the national semifinals, in a division of the NCAA that features 241 teams, from 1995 to 2013. The Purple Raiders played in 15 of 17 Stagg Bowls between 1996 and 2013.

Still, the most staggering number from Kehres’s career might be that at one point in 2007 the Alliance Review counted 39 of his former players coaching in college, and dozens more in high schools. Matt Campbell took Division I Toledo to a bowl game. Mike Hallett, Dean Paul, Mike Sirianni and Erik Raeburn put their Division III teams into the playoffs. When Widener made it three rounds deep into this season’s playoffs, coach Isaac Collins told a story about how he spent three days in Alliance with a man he’d never met when he first got the job, so he could build the Pride the right way.

It wasn't just D-III coaches who looked to Kehres for advice.

“At national coaches conferences, all these Division I coaches come up to Larry [Kehres] and ask him how he does it,” then-John Carroll coach Regis Scafe told the Cleveland Plain Dealer’s David Campbell in 2008. “They can't believe it. What has Larry won? Something like 93 percent of his games?”

Kehres attracted interest from Kent State and Princeton, but chose to stay at Mount Union. He could have won anywhere for anyone who hired him, but he was from Ohio and was more concerned about raising men – he always referred to his players as “men” – than raising his profile.

Kehres is so very Division III. Not only does he preach the ideals of the non-scholarship, education-first student-athlete, but he won with those players. He had transfers from scholarship-level programs along the way, and in his later years, a couple of his players made it to the NFL. But the vast majority of Mount Union’s championship teams were built with the same kinds of players the other playoff-caliber D-III teams recruit. Kehres just got more of them, and more out of them.

He liked to say his favorite recruiting questions were “Are you a good man?” and “Do you have a passion for football?”

But make no mistake. He wasn’t all hokey sayings and abstract theories. He was a master tactician.

D-III aficionados can rattle off his brilliant coaching decisions: Pulling out a basic play from a prior season’s summer camp to get quarterback Mike Jorris comfortable in a national championship game; Throwing deep posts twice to a then-little-known Cecil Shorts III early in a different Stagg Bowl against a UW-Whitewater defense geared to stop NCAA all-time leading rusher Nate Kmic; Using Shorts, a quarterback-turned-wide receiver, as the signal-caller and running strictly read option to salt away a semifinal win against a game Wesley team in 2009; Giving Kmic 42 carries in a 2006 semifinal win over St. John Fisher, and having Kmic rush for 371 yards, while star wide receiver Pierre Garcon quietly nursed a fractured hand.

He also saw the big picture. Kehres let his young assistants coach, but stepped in when necessary. He did that after the 2005 October loss to Ohio Northern, which turned out to be the last regular-season loss of his career. Kehres built teams around great passers when he had them (Jim Ballard, Bill Borchert) and great runners when he had them (Chuck Moore, Dan Pugh, Kmic). He built around great offensive linemen (Derek Blanchard) and best-in-the-nation defenses, coached in recent seasons by his son, Vince, who takes over the program.

The heart and soul of a Kehres team could be a player who later would become a professional wrestler (B.J. Payne) or a physics major (Greg Micheli).

Kehres figured out how to get the best out of them all.

It wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows. Kehres had a star defensive end suspended just before a national semifinal kicked off. He called a reporter’s question stupid after a Stagg Bowl, although he later asked privately if he had been out of line. He was known for kicking field goals on second down during blowouts in an attempt to avoid running up the score, but there were times when he wanted to beat teams badly.

All-time wins leader John Gagliardi coached one of those teams in 1993; He and Kehres weren’t always friendly. But Gagliardi, who also stepped down this year after 56 seasons at St. John’s, told Frank Rajkowski of the St. Cloud Times that beating Kehres' Mount Union team in 2003 and nearly beating it in 2000 were two of his career highlights.

Wesley’s Mike Drass might have a national championship or two under his belt if it weren’t for Kehres. The Wolverines are one of a handful of national powers that hasn’t been able to get over the Purple Raiders hump. Yet Drass holds no ill will.

"We have played most all of the elite teams," Drass wrote in a text message Wednesday, "and I have to say, Coach Kehres was a class act. And I can't say that for all of them ... He always treated us with a lot of respect."

On Twitter Wednesday, Shorts and Garcon, both in the NFL, praised their former coach. So did Campbell. And Paul. And Hallett. And All-American Nick Driskill. And virtually anyone who’d come in contact over the years.

Kehres was the same star off the stage as he was on it. Ask Collins or Drass or those who played and coached alongside him. No matter how many championships he won, he always kept in mind that for someone on his roster, it was all new, and an experience to be cherished for life.

In that 2003 Stagg Bowl loss to St. John’s, when quarterback Jesse Burghardt threw an interception that the Johnnies intercepted and ran back for a touchdown that effectively put the game away, Kehres publicly blamed himself for the playcall.

That’s Kehres in a nutshell. Competitive. Honorable. And the greatest coach of our time.

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