ALLIANCE, Ohio — He had meetings, and administrative work, and players who needed talking to about things not related to football, and plenty of hands to shake.
In that way, Larry Kehres was a lot like just about every football coach at every college and university in the country.
But Kehres was not like every other coach, and it got to the point — a point that lasted for 20 years — that Kehres had an entirely different set of issues and concerns that occupied his time. Winning again and again, by larger and larger margins, tends to change lots of things, including the view and the landscape.
Trying to build from the top of the mountain is a job for the only most skilled craftsmen.
“And Larry Kehres might be the most intelligent man I’ve ever been around,” Mount Union basketball coach Mike Fuline said.
On Wednesday, the University of Mount Union announced that Kehres is stepping down at football coach after 27 seasons. He leaves behind what have to feel like size 59 shoes for his son, Vince, who grew up with Mount Union football, played on two national championship teams and has been an assistant coach on eight others.
Under Larry Kehres, Mount Union won 11 Division III national titles since 1993. Kehres steps away with the best winning percentage of any college football coach — .925, thanks to a 332-24-3 record — and fifth on the all-time wins list behind John Gagliardi, Eddie Robinson, Bobby Bowden and Pop Warner.
And he did it all at his alma mater. Kehres played quarterback at Mount Union in the 1960s and started working at the school as a professor, an assistant football coach and the school’s first swimming coach, a gig that lasted 12 years. He was named athletic director in 1985 — he’ll stay on in that capacity — and became head football coach the next year.
That athletic director made a hell of a good hire. Mount Union went undefeated in his first season and won the first of his 23 Ohio Athletic Conference championships. The Purple Raiders have made it to at least the national semifinals in every season since 1995, a run that included NCAA-record win streaks of 55 and 54 games. Yes, those are separate streaks.
The dominance continued through last year, when Mount Union went unbeaten and broke a three-year national title drought.
He last lost a regular season game in 2005. He hasn’t known what it feels like to lose consecutive games since 1988. Seems only fitting that Kehres goes out on top.
“I never got tired of winning,” Kehres said. “That’s too much fun. I did think it was time to step down as football coach.”
Football in Division III is different. There are no athletic scholarships. In the Ohio Athletic Conference, there’s no in-home recruiting. Players get grants and aid and can qualify for academic scholarships, but those who play Division III football do it without much fanfare and often while racking up student loans.
Kehres didn’t cut anybody who was willing to work to be part of the team. He never fired an assistant coach. He built it, and the players have come from points near and far. The coaches have stayed. The results are astounding.
“With Coach Kehres, it was never about winning and losing,” Toledo coach Matt Campbell said. “And that sounds silly, because he never lost, but it wasn’t about that. It was always about the process.”
When Toledo hired Campbell 18 months ago, he was the youngest head coach in the Division I FBS. And every time he was asked how he knew he was ready, his answer would start with some story from the time he spent playing and coaching under Kehres.
“There’s a sign in the locker room at Mount that says, “Faith, family, football,” Campbell said. “It’s the first sign you see as you walk into that locker room. When you spend a little time there, it’s made clear that those things, in that order, are more than words. The program is run that way. Coach Kehres is on top of every little detail and every part of the process that pertains to winning, but priorities never got lost.”
Said Jason Candle, Toledo’s offensive coordinator and receivers coach and another who played and coached under Kehres: “We as players always dreaded playing teams that we knew we could beat by 50 because we knew the preparation that week was going to just be so, so demanding. To get out of line and not stay in the mindset that anybody can beat you at any moment would be a terrible mistake, and Coach Kehres was just intimidating enough over your shoulder that you didn’t want any terrible mistakes.”
Kehres had offers to leave and coach elsewhere, and at points he thought long and hard about leaving for Kent State and Princeton, specifically. But he’d made Alliance his home, and Vince was waiting — first to play for his dad, now to succeed him — and now Larry can spend more time with Vince’s young sons and enjoying the fruits of what all the years sweating and grinding have produced.
He drives a golf cart to the office, which isn’t even a mile from home. That golf cart, of course, is purple.
“He’s a legendary coach, but he’s darn good at being a grandfather, a father and a husband, too,” said Fuline, who was hired by Kehres in 2011. “That’s a great lesson for every young coach. He’s really the face of the city of Alliance, too. What his program has done for this university probably can’t be measured by any statistic.”
Kehres never enjoyed talking about himself or spinning his program as anything larger than a dedicated group of people working towards a common goal. He liked to refer to his players as “men,” or more specifically, “the men,” and the ones who acted accordingly were treated accordingly.
He saw each week, each game as a separate task. Each season was different, too, but the goals and objectives stayed the same: Sweat the details, take ’em one at a time, build towards those games that would count and the one that would be for the trophy. Eleven times in 16 trips to the Stagg Bowl, the Division III national championship game, Kehres and Mount Union brought home that trophy. Even then, he’d be short on hyperbole at the season-ending banquet but quick to remind the underclassmen that the bar had been raised, again.
In some recent years, there weren’t banquets when the season didn’t end in a national championship.
Different problems. Different standards.
“His ability to rally 240 kids every day to focus on what’s going to happen in the next 15 minutes, not what’s going to happen four months down the road, it’s just amazing,” Candle said. “We all focused on winning the Stagg Bowl every year, but from day to day he made sure the focus was just on getting better.”
Kehres knew the personnel, habits and tendencies of every unit on his team, and by each Saturday he’d know almost as much about the opponent’s units, too. In some years, Kehres called the plays himself. In others, he delegated the duties. He’d run the ball when he had powerful linemen and experienced backs. Mount Union would be pass-heavy when Kehres trusted his quarterback and receivers. If that sounds simple, it’s because Kehres wanted it to be.
“All those teams had their own trademarks,” Kehres said.
When it started raining during practice the day before the Stagg Bowl in 2011, Kehres summoned a trainer for a large bucket full of water. He dipped footballs in the water himself and simulated errant snaps to his quarterbacks. He was going to make sure they were ready for every situation.
“You’d never catch him unprepared, but you’d never catch him panic or start screaming when something went wrong,” Campbell said. “And when we’d have what you’d consider a big win, he’d always point out some detail or some lesson from a previous experience that came up again.”
All the winning brought higher expectations, and Kehres always preferred that word over pressure. He had expectations for himself, for his staff and for his players, not just in their time at the school that now has about 2,200 students, but in their lives after football. His coaching tree isn’t just at Toledo, but also in the NFL, across Division III and across Ohio in the high school coaching ranks, too.
“I went to Bowling Green (as a graduate assistant) and came back to Mount Union, and I thought I was living the dream being the offensive coordinator for Coach Kehres,” Campbell said. “We had about 300 kids who wanted to play offense, and Coach Kehres always let me do my own thing until I screwed something up. I thought I’d never leave.”
Some thought Kehres would never leave. Just the way he likes to do it, he casually told people on Wednesday that he’d decided it was time.
“He wasn’t just one of the greatest coaches of all time,” Jacksonville Jaguars wide receiver Cecil Shorts tweeted on Wednesday. “He was a mentor and leader for me and many others that came there. I really don’t know where I’d be if I didn’t attend Mount.”
Shorts is Mount Union’s highest NFL draft pick ever, and there are only two. But there are 27 seasons’ worth of Mount Union football players who feel the same way.