Coach Kemp

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Gordon Ginder

Glory Days

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Laying a Wreath

Harvest of Love

John Zuschka

Illinois Stories - Springfield PBS station WSEC

 

© Springfield State Journal Register
used with permission

By BUFORD GREEN

Published Tuesday, August 29, 2006

It is probably a safe bet that this writer’s first impression of Don Kemp was not unique among the many who crossed paths with him in the next five-plus decades.

I remember the first time I saw Kemp, when he was coaching basketball at Arenzville High School, and this high school fan observed that he seemed very intense, even mad or grouchy, all the time on the sidelines.

Just three years later and a rookie sportswriter in Jacksonville, dealing with Kemp from a different standpoint was an early challenge. He still seemed intense and not overly friendly or talkative, although a slight grin might creep through once in awhile.

Those early impressions could not have been more wrong. During the next 45 years Kemp and I became close friends on and away from the athletic sidelines and shared a lot of good times.

The news Monday that Kemp had died in an Iowa hospital at age 79 after a period of health problems in recent years, hit hard here and elsewhere among the thousands of people he touched in west central Illinois and throughout the state for well over half a century.

The thoughts of some of them went well beyond the wins and losses that put him among the winningest coaches in the state.

For the record, Kemp was a native of Stronghurst and played football at Western Illinois University. He began his coaching career in Homer and stayed there for two years before taking over as coach of all sports at Arenzville. That town, along with Concord and Chapin, consolidated into Triopia High School in 1959. Kemp stayed there for 30 years before retiring in 1989.

According to Illinois High School Association records, Kemp finished with a 254-79-9 football mark, good for eighth all-time in wins and best among past and current area coaches. His record at Triopia was 205-64-7, a winning percentage of more than 75 percent. His first Triopia team was 3-4-1, and the Trojans didn’t have another losing mark until 1986.

Kemp had three unbeaten teams, two of them before the playoffs existed. He guided the Trojans to the Class 1A championship game in the first three years of the playoffs, 1974-76, winning it all in 1975 and coming in second twice. Ten of his teams had only one loss.

Kemp undeniably loved football the best but also coached basketball for most of his career, compiling a 564-236 record that is 38th on the list of Illinois prep wins.

Through the years Kemp picked up a long list of admirers and friends among his fellow and opposing coaches, and each has a “Coach Kemp story’’ that is often humorous but respectful.

Jay Wessler played for Kemp during those three title-game appearances and later became coach of the Trojans before retiring after last season.

“He was perceived by some as kind of a tough guy, but he was family to many people,’’ said Wessler, who still sought Kemp’s advice during Wessler’s very successful coaching career. “His legacy will live on forever. I was fortunate to spend a lot of time with him and fortunate to take over in the role he was in and for all the advice and wisdom he gave me.

“He is still the face of Triopia, maybe not to this generation, but he was there when the school started and he built the athletic programs. He and Mr. (Jim, former superintendent) Brim and Mr. (Ken, former teacher) Bradbury were the three guys who kept this place pretty special. The dedication he had to this place was incredible, and he was always humble.’’

Greenfield coach Dan Bowman, who is 10th on the football wins list, coached against Kemp at both Jacksonville Routt Catholic and Greenfield.

“My first year (at Routt), I was 23 and Routt-Triopia was a huge rivalry,’’ recalled Bowman. “They beat us, then he asked me to help him watch films for their playoff game against Villa Grove. He said coaching is too hard and we have to be in this together. I learned so much from him. They may have thought he was a hard-nosed coach, but he cared about other coaches.

“He was really the only one who gave me the time of day and I was very impressed. He was from the old school and hard-nosed, but he was also very smart. He was one of the true coaching legends.’’

Gene Farmer was an assistant to Kemp for 26 years and later was head coach at Triopia and Winchester.

“He was the greatest football coach I’ve ever seen,’’ Farmer said. “He did more for me than anyone. He was old-school, but he was willing to change if he thought that was the right thing to do. He was really fundamental (in his approach) and stuck to the basics. It was all block-and-tackle, block-and-tackle in practice and everything was repetition.

“He was big on discipline. He and Mr. Brim ruled the school. He did so much behind the scenes and came out of his own pocket for many things. There was not a kid who went without a letter jacket. This is really the end of an era for coaches.’’

Current Carrollton athletic director and former head football coach Greg Pohlman took student teaching at Triopia and assisted Kemp before becoming head coach at Routt.

“He was one of a kind, a unique individual,’’ Pohlman said Monday. “I can say that I’m a better person because I knew Don Kemp. He taught me a lot about everything, coaching with him and coaching against him.

“When I was young and coming up, he would always make time for me. Nobody can say a bad thing about Don Kemp. He took me under his wing and treated me like a son. I think he did that with everyone, and he was always very interested in your families.’’

Kemp was the recipient of numerous state and national coaching awards and an active member of the Illinois Football Coaches Association that got the football playoffs enacted. The football field at Triopia is named Don Kemp Field, and Kemp kept his “Trojans’’ license plates after his retirement.

Kemp once told me that when he came to Arenzville, he made a point of getting to the only town restaurant about 5:30 a.m. to eat with the local farmers. That relationship, he said, was one reason he never had any discipline problems because he had the backing of the town. He also admitted a few years ago that his strong discipline demands probably would not be possible in today’s climate.

That is probably true, but he did it right the first time and left a legacy as a great coach and a great friend to many.

Reader Comments – from the website of the Springfield State Journal Register

C.B. wrote at 8/29/2006 7:46:26 AM

Great article Buford. I never met Coach Kemp during my days around prep sports, but many people brought up his name. Now I know why. By all accounts, he was a well-respected coach who influenced many individuals.

redbirdhawkeye wrote at 8/29/2006 8:03:04 AM

Don Kemp is a legend. Being a Routt High School graduate doesn't mean you have to hate your rival, although we did sometimes back in the early seventies. He was always respectful of the competitors, but deadly in his ability to prepare for the areas' best teams. It saddens me today to learn of his passing. My football and basketball teams at Routt rarely lost to Triopia through the years, but don't mistake that for cockiness. We were fortunate to have been gifted athletically during that period. Triopia was fortunate to be gifted with his presence for decades. Bless his memory.

mark jones wrote at 8/29/2006 12:43:33 PM

Thank you for remembering Coach, Buford. Thanks to the others who shared their admiration and respect that many of us have for him. He was gruff on the outside, warm on the inside, wise and caring. His old school, fundamental approach was effective (usually gruffer than warmer, as I remember) his competitiveness infectious. I admire him most because he really symbolized and accomplished the things that are great about athletics. One of his greates strengths was that he could motivate his players. He really made you belive that being a Trojan (one of his)was something special. You had a tradition to uphold, expectations to meet, you had to be tough, you had to be accountable. As a result, we won and we always won as a team. There were no stars no pampering, just a committment to do your best. The special feeling didn't stop and start with the players it affected the whole school and the community; everyone felt a part of it. We are very proud of our late Coach; I am very proud and privileged to have been one of his former Trojans. It was a wonderful experience; he gave us wonderful memories. Thank you, coach.

Bruce Penstone wrote at 8/29/2006 2:34:35 PM

Thank you Buford for the wonderful article. I feel very fortunate to have been able to teach at Arenzville and be an assistant coach under Coach Kemp during the class 1A championship run 1974-1976. It was indeed and honor to serve under him. I fondly remember Coach Kemp would take Coach Farmer and I to the football seminars in St. Louis. All the big time coaches would give their individual seminars, coaches like Barry Switzer, etc. The biggest crowds were always packed into Coach Kemp's hotel room to learn about Coach Kemp's X's & O's!!He had a heart of gold and touched many kids' hearts including mine. "As far as the situation on the deal is concerned",as Coach would always say, he was a great man and will be remembered fondly. Thank you Coach Kemp.

Patty Clinton wrote at 8/29/2006 6:41:01 PM

Coach Kemp may have been intense and grouchy, but as a Routt graduate and a Triopia teacher, when I walked into my classroom the day of the Triopia/Routt game and found a purple rose on my desk, I knew exactly who had put it there!

Molly Daniel wrote at 8/30/2006 6:23:09 AM

Thank you, Buford, for this wonderful tribute to a man who touched so many lives. Coach commanded (and earned) respect from his colleagues, students, parents and the community. He was a great coach and a wonderful teacher. His classroom methods might have been unorthodox (how many generations of students learned to say "monecule" because of Coach?), but the lessons he taught us about fairness, the importance of doing our best, and respecting what is right were things he taught by the way he lived. We will miss him.

JL wrote at 8/30/2006 11:51:06 AM

Triopia is a special place because of people like Coach Kemp. We need to learn from his life and understand that one can be demanding yet understanding. Expectations should be set high and we can achieve when we have faith in ourselves. I did not stand on his side of the field in the 70's, but he taught me anyway. Goodbye Coach.....Thanks

Karl (Kent) Hansmeier wrote at 8/30/2006 5:26:51 PM

Wonderful article Mr. Green -- right on the mark. What an icon in the Arenzville, Concord, Chapin area, and indeed the State of Illinois. I had the pleasure of playing Quarterback for Coach Kemp and being exposed to his no-nonsense approach to the game of Football and life in general. Last year I attended a play-off game at Triopia, and there was Don Kemp sitting in a lawn chair in the end zone with his car conveniently parked behind him (why not-- it WAS the field that he built). I'm sixty three years old, and when I approached him I said "I bet you don't know who I am." He gave me that frown look and said Karl Kent -- I was blown away. We had a great visit, which he terminated as soon as the raffle numbers were called out from the P.A. He said "will you help me out of this chair", to which I said "I think that's the first time you asked me for anything." He responded with, "Not so -- you were the only quarterback who I let call their own plays." Lots of laughter by all within earshot. I don't know if that is true, but he was still about the business of making one feel good. God Bless his family.

Jim, James... wrote at 8/30/2006 7:28:54 PM

Thank you ALL for the trip down memory lane. To a great man and coach! These words can not begin to express the gratitude and respect I had for Coach. Coach only asked you to do it right and give 110%. We did! For him, for the ourselves and for the school. A school that is known through-out the state because of him...forever our "Coach".

Kathy wrote at 8/30/2006 9:31:40 PM

He was more than a football coach - & even coached a few girls teams in his time. He was a professional, an encourager and made you believe that you could be better...he was also the Yogi Berra of Arenzville - on the situation on the deal! I spoke with him this past spring & even after 25 years after high school - he was the same old coach! He will always be remembered.

Jack Hull wrote at 8/30/2006 9:45:19 PM

Buford, thanks for the memories of "Coach". It took me nearly 18 years before Coach decided my wife, a former Triopia graduate, was going to keep me around. After that, the times he took to visit me and share his memories filled the afternoons. He, Jim brim, Ken Bradbury, Jim Phelps, Dick Bartholomew, and Gene Farmer, along with Mrs. Robertson and the office ladies, helped to make many have the special ideals others need. If you add up the score, Coach Kemp, won the game of life. Jack Hull

Sara (Clark) Burrus wrote at 8/30/2006 10:18:45 PM

Most people will remember Don Kemp as a great coach, but he will also be remembered by the many students from his biology and driver education classes. How many busloads of kids did he drive into the countryside to collect leaves or bugs? And, how many hundreds of kids learned to drive with Coach? ("Man! Didn't you see that sign? It said 'S-O-T-P! STOP!'") He was a unique and special person. Godspeed, Coach.

John Hackman wrote at 8/30/2006 10:39:04 PM

Don Kemp was not only a great coach he was a great teacher. He made class interesting. Because he had done things in his life that kids like to hear. Army, Smi-pro ball, Stockcar Driver, he loved to hunt and fish. He made school more interesting than most. I will miss Coach Kemp as a teacher and friend.

Wes Hendricker wrote at 8/31/2006 10:05:37 AM

Buford Thanks for a great tribute to a man who influenced my life far beyond athletics. I quit competitive sports some years ago, but am thankful that God is not finished with me yet in this game of life. Don Kemp taught me how to play both well!

ICBasketball wrote at 8/31/2006 10:10:29 AM

Triopia became known forevermore across the state in 1974, the outset of the state playoffs, and Coach Don Kemp is the reason Trojans football is best. Celebrate his memory and team accomplishments. Condolences to Triopia program, its boosters, student athletes, and the community.

Jim Paul class of 66 wrote at 8/31/2006 2:37:35 PM

I played basketball and football for this man for four. I respected him and learned a lot. After school, I spent some time in Viet Nam and was wounded in action. Upon my return to the US, I was in the hospital in Denver Co. Coach Kemp and coach Bartholamew both cam out there to see me. This speaks greatly of both of thes men. Coach Kemp was a one of a kind person.

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