Fred Kroner: Kellar ready to join father

COLFAX — Some might call it pressure.

A rookie coach gets his start at his high school alma mater. His assistant coach is his father.

Rodney Kellar saw it as a win-win situation when he took over as boys’ basketball head coach 28 years ago at Octavia High School.

“That learning curve was greatly benefited from his knowledge,” Kellar said. “He let me do my thing, as far as game management, and didn’t interfere a lot. I was fortunate I grew up in the community where I started as head coach.”

Leon Kellar was a popular head coach with a lengthy tenure in the community where he still lives with his wife, Marilyn. Leon Kellar coached football, basketball and track. Rodney Kellar was raised at various athletic venues in the 1970s.

This spring, the Kellar men will have more in common than their coaching backgrounds. When Rodney is inducted into the IBCA Hall of Fame on April 26 in Bloomington, he will join his father in the state basketball shrine.

It’s not where he envisioned ending up when he started coaching at Octavia in the fall of 1986.

“When you start out in this business,” Rodney Kellar said, “you’re trying to make it from game to game, then week to week, then year to year. After a while, it adds up.”

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The numbers are quite impressive. Rodney Kellar needs two more wins to reach No. 500 for his career in the district. His current team (16-0 record) is on its way to his 14th 20-win season.

Folks asked Rodney Kellar if he’d retire after his son, Michael, graduated from high school in 2005. Now they’re wondering if he’ll step aside after he enters the Hall of Fame.

His answer was — and is — the same.

“I will get out when there’s not the thrill of victory and not the agony of defeat,” he said, “when losses don’t matter. I’ve never been in that position. I still feel I can make a difference. It’s great to see kids when they have success, but it’s more great when kids come back from the adversity and bumps in the road.”

Rodney Kellar learned a lot from his father. Forgetting losses, however, is not an inherited trait.

“My dad was better than me at putting things in perspective,” Rodney Kellar said. “He’d say, ‘It’s a game. The sun will come up tomorrow.’ I never totally agreed with him. To some extent, I’ve taken it a little too far.

“The regional championship loss, my first year, was heartbreaking even though you’ve been there as a player. As a coach, you almost feel like you let them down.”

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As a teenager in 1979, Rodney Kellar enrolled at Illinois State University — where he earned three varsity letters in football — as a business student.

His folks had tried to steer him away from the education profession because of “the money and so forth,” he said.

Kellar’s best business decision was switching majors.

“After a semester, I went where my passion was,” he said. “The money was irrelevant. I’ve never paid too much attention to that.

“I enjoy what I’ve been able to do. Not many people can say they get to do what they truly enjoy.”

Like his father, Rodney Kellar was able to coach his son, but that was never a priority.

“I didn’t get into this to coach my son,” he said. “I got into it to coach. It just so happened I got to coach my son (on what was then a school-record-setting 27-win season in 2004-05).”

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If he’d had a crystal ball when he started his student-teaching at LeRoy — where he wound up coaching and teaching from 1983 to ’86 — Rodney Kellar would have known his career path would be with basketball.

Had he originally been asked to predict, he would have thought football first or perhaps track and field, the one sport in which he earned head coach status before leaving LeRoy.

Basketball found him.

“It came down to opportunity,” Rodney Kellar said. “(Basketball) is where the opportunity was, and I fell in love with it, the strategy part of it.

“I have to give kudos to Gene Jontry, the superintendent at the time. He had a great basketball background (as a former ISU player) and took a chance on me.”

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Starting with his dad, Rodney Kellar has worked with an assortment of quality assistant coaches. He believes the Mustangs’ combined won-lost record is a tribute to the combined efforts of those who have been on staff.

The group includes Mike Ayers, Andy Jones (now Ridgeview’s girls’ head coach), Charlie Hall, Scott Ghere, Scott Kelly and Jake Kennedy. Kelly and Kennedy are assistants with the current team, which is ranked fourth in Class 1A.

“As to how you explain survival for 28 years with some level of success, it’s easy to explain the importance of loyalty when your assistant is your father,” Rodney Kellar said, “but I have been blessed with coaching peers who were not only outstanding with strategy but more importantly they were and are for Ridgeview first and foremost. The success of our program over the years is a direct reflection of their selflessness.”

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Rodney Kellar’s favorite memories aren’t centered around games — or championships — won. His personal highlights revolved around people, either ones he has coached or ones who’ve watched him coach.

“The best story is Tim Taylor. He was on my first team, a passionate kid who made my job easy,” Kellar said. “Tim has been my scorekeeper for 20-plus years. He has been with us through thick and thin, and his wife, Carla, is our cheerleading coach. I got to coach his son (Treavor). Our tradition is because of people like Tim.”

Also on one of Kellar’s early teams was Scott Maupin, who has experienced success as a high school head coach. Maupin has more than 200 wins and is the winningest boys’ basketball coach in the 92-year history of Peotone’s program.

“His senior year, we made it to the sectional finals and lost to Dennis Miller and Watseka,” Kellar said. “Those are games you never forget. You think of those on every bus ride you’re on, and they motivate you to find ways to get better.”

Among the ever-present fans in the stands are ones who were in attendance when Rodney Kellar was wearing a uniform and representing the Octavia Rockets.

“Chet and Gladys Eyer had sons play at Octavia and grandsons play at Ridgeview,” Kellar said. “He’s in his 80s and still coming to games. It’s very rewarding to get support from people like that. Chet and his wife are lifelong supporters.”

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For Kellar, there has been one individual whose role has been as significant as that of his assistants. His wife, Teri, is the reason he has been able to devote nearly three decades to an after-school job he loves.

“At the end of the day, it comes back to ‘Who do you get to share it with?’ ” Rodney Kellar said. “My wife has been as supportive as any coach’s wife could be. When I go to scout, my wife usually goes with me. It’s time we get to spend together. It’s our date night.”

Though she is originally from Lexington — one of Ridgeview’s rivals — Rodney Kellar said, “She was an easy convert. Love does overcome a lot of those things. She has been the heart and soul of my success.”

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When the couple’s children, Michael and Lauren, were choosing their career paths, Dad didn’t step in and discourage the education profession.

“It has been a fantastic journey,” said Rodney Kellar, who is a junior high social studies teacher as well as the athletic director.

Another generation of the Kellar clan is entering the teaching world.

Lauren — who played softball four years at ISU — is now student-teaching at LeRoy and is interested in coaching. Michael is the pitching coach and recruiting coordinator for the baseball program at Siena College in Loudonville, N.Y.

Author Thomas Wolfe is associated with the phrase, “You can’t go home again,” but it’s not a theory that Rodney Kellar believes.

“I wouldn’t give that advice to anyone,” Rodney Kellar said. “I never thought that. I found it to be more advantageous. You already have a feel for the culture of the community, and they know you a little bit, too.”

For Rodney Kellar, he’s comfortable in two homes: his residence in Colfax and in basketball gymnasiums.

Fred Kroner is The News-Gazette’s executive sports editor. He writes a weekly high school-related column throughout the school year. He can be reached by phone at 217-351-5235, by fax at 217-373-7401 or at fkroner@news-gazette.com. Follow him on Twitter @fredkroner.

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