SHELBYVILLE — Thirty-two years ago when Kevin Kramer pulled up for his interview at Shelbyville High School, he was welcomed by a cinder track that wasn't measured right and had paint for hurdle marks.
More than three decades later, the track and field program and cross country programs at Shelbyville have consistently been among the best in the area with top-notch facilities.
At the heart of that success is Kramer, who will retire from teaching and coaching at the end of the school year. The Rams will run in the Class 1A Sullivan Sectional on Thursday, and if all goes well, Kramer will have one more stop to O'Brien Field in Charleston for the Class 1A state meet.
"I'm ready for the next chapter in my life," he said.
Kramer has coached boys and girls cross country and track and field at Shelbyville for 32 years. In that time, he has coached athletes to state championships on eight occasions — four in cross country and four in track. His 2015 boys cross country team earned the state runner-up trophy. Kramer has coached athletes to a state medal in every event except the triple jump. His cross country teams have qualified for state 16 times and have finished in the top 10 on seven occasions.
His cross country and track teams have won 22 conference, 12 regional, and eight sectional titles. Kramer has coached athletes to state medals 23 times in cross country and 32 times in track. He has served for meet manager for numerous conference, regional and sectional meets.
Kramer is proud of what his programs have done during his tenure, but it's not simply the medals that have provided him joy.
“I would hope when people think of Shelbyville track and Shelbyville cross country that they think, ‘Hey, that’s one of the top schools — not only how they perform, but how well their kids act,'" Kramer said. "The character of the kids and the character of the program — I feel like that’s something we should be proud of, just as much as the accomplishments."
Kevin is one of the most caring coaches in this area. He coaches his beloved Rams with all the passion & enthusiasm he can give, but he shares that same passion for athletes from all area schools. Several athletes have received a pat on the back & a "Great job" from Coach Kramer. https://t.co/VnewuTbKqY— Central A&M HS Principal Brown (@CAMPrincipal) May 14, 2019
He knew this would be has last year as a teacher and the decision to retire from coaching came at the beginning of the school year. He has four grandchildren and one more on the way. He and his wife are avid travels and snorkelers. He wants to travel more and play yard games with his grandchildren while being present in their lives.
“I want to make sure I can put in all the time I can to be fair to the kids," he said. "The other things become more important when you have grandkids. The way I look at it is: My wife has always been there for me and supported me through coaching. Now it’s my time to give back to the family and be a granddad."
Just now saw this, but Coach K is responsible for so many wonderful men and women who have had the privilege of being part of the cross country and track & field programs. We are forever thankful for everything he has done for us #hofcoach https://t.co/gXQgFioVyl— VG-H Blue Devils XC (@vg_devils) May 14, 2019
He's raised the bar for Shelbyville track and cross country during his 32-year tenure. Kramer is a native of Erie and spent his first year of teaching there before budget cuts eliminated his job. He and his wife re-located to Shelbyville, a small town he was familiar with after running at Eastern Illinois University in college.
Shelbyville Athletic Director Tony Pullen said he's seen first-hand the influx of former athletes who come back to hang around the program, and the current runners know why.
“Coach Kramer had a really large impact in my as a runner and also just as a person," senior Lucas Brown said. "It wasn’t just about there being our best on the course. It was about afterwards being a better person and becoming stronger because of it."
For as many kids as he's impacted, he's also been a mentor for some of the area's top coaches, including St. Teresa cross country and girls track coach Todd Vohland and Tuscola boys track coach Ryan Hornaday. Before the running events began at the Central Illinois Conference boys track meet last season, Hornaday and Kramer stood on the track while a long list of Kramer's accomplishments rang over the loud speaker. The two hugged and went back to coaching.
“For me, especially a decade ago as a young head coach, he was a guy to look up to," Hornaday said. "I see him as a mentor and a friend. He’s an absolute gentleman in this sport and I would venture to say even kind of legendary status, being a Hall of Fame guy and all the regionals and sectionals and state medalists. He’s got an amazing track record. A great guy.
“What an impact on a small community, a small school system and hundreds upon hundreds of kids."
Vohland has gone on to have his own successful coaching career. But he still remembers arriving at St. Teresa and the coaches in the area who helped mold him into who he is — Kramer was one of them. They've grown into close friends who attend seminars and coaching clinics together.
“I think we’re losing somebody ... I don’t know if anybody is irreplaceable, but he’s pretty darn close," Vohaldn said. "Kevin has been such a great ambassador for the sport because he loves it. He has put so much into it and yet he has represented himself and Shelbyville in such a first-class manner.
“I’m happy that he’s going into retirement because that’s what he wants, but I’m going to be very sad as an individual and as a coach because we need a lot more like him."
Kramer has been around long enough to coach his current runners' parents. It wasn't an easy decision to know this was the time to walk away, but it felt right. The junior high track and cross country programs are on the upswing and the current boys track and field team is young, but talented. He's got assistant coaches who will keep the program in good hands long after he's gone.
Finding the exact time to go, though, is never easy. There's no natural break for a coach to leave after such a long tenure. There's always a class or a specific runner to not see through. The cross country banquet in the fall was tough — much tougher than Kramer thought it would be, in fact. There were tears and realizations. The banquet offered a finality for that sport. Now, these last one or two track meets will offer a finality for this sport.
“You’re always going to leave somebody who is important to you," Kramer said. "You look at cross country and we have Ailey Mitchell, a three-time all-stater. She would be coming back last year. That was probably one of the most difficult things, but you have to leave sometime and it’s just time. You just kind of know in your heart it’s time."
Kramer won't ride off into the sunset. Good luck keeping him away from the program that he's poured his life into building into the monster that it is. He'll still be at meets watching the runners he's seen since they started the sport. Kramer will even have time to go to college meets to see former athletes, maybe a football game here or there to check in on those athletes.
He's got a full slate, but it's on his time.
“He’s been a staple of this cross country and track program for 32 years," Pullen said. "An individual like him can’t be replaced and we just hope that he stays around and helps at track meets and lets our younger coaches bounce ideas off him, and he will do that."