URBANA – In 1986, Urbana needed a boys' soccer coach. The Tigers turned to an assistant wrestling coach named Randy Blackman.
"When the soccer position opened up, nobody would take it," said his wife, Ann. "So he kind of had his arm twisted. But he'd never played soccer (and) he'd never coached soccer. He studied physical education at (Eastern Illinois) so he had part of one class dedicated to soccer, but that's about it."
Twenty-two seasons later, Blackman shakes his head at the long journey.
"I can't believe," Blackman said Wednesday, "that I've been doing it that long."
Before Wednesday's match against Centennial, Urbana paid tribute to him. If the Tigers play 19 matches this season, the 19th will be Blackman's 450th as Urbana's boys' coach. After Wednesday's 2-1 loss to the Chargers, Blackman is 271-124-47 in his 22nd season. He was 135-55-14 in 10 seasons as girls' coach, stepping down after the 2005 season.
Imagine what might have happened had Urbana not been looking so hard to find someone to coach the team in '86.
"Nobody applied for three months," Blackman recalled. "And I happened to say, 'Oh, yeah, I took a course in it.'
"I remember the interview. I said, 'Well, I know what offsides is.'
"And I just said, 'I've always been successful in sports. I'll work hard, I'll learn the game, I'll study it and I'll get good at it.' "
Mission accomplished, in all facets.
Blackman was a two-time wrestling All-American at 118 pounds at Eastern Illinois. While there, he took a coaching course taught by current SMU coach Schellas Hyndman, one of the most accomplished soccer coaches in the country.
"He was very intense," Blackman said. "And I got into it. I'll never forget, he said, 'You could have been a good soccer player if you had actually played.' "
Blackman has enjoyed sustained success and one of the primary reasons, his former players say, is his insistence on high standards and his ability to give – and demand – respect.
"The basic idea was that every time you came to practice you would put forth the same amount of effort that you would put forth on a game day," said Jonathan Weyhenmeyer, who played on Urbana's 2005 state qualifiers, one of two teams Blackman guided to state. "He wanted to make it like a game experience.
"It was his ability to inject intensity that really made that team something special."
Blackman's intensity is legendary. Weyhenmeyer said he can still vividly remember Blackman's halftime speech during a critical Big 12 Conference match late in the season. It spurred the Tigers to a victory.
"He comes off as very intimidating," said Ashley Bolen, a former standout on Blackman's girls' teams who now plays at Calvin College. "I remember my freshman year, I was so intimidated by him. But then over the years, and especially now, you definitely get to see his softer side. He really is a softie once you break through that outer shell."
His players know how to tweak him, too.
"We would be really scared to make him mad," said former Tiger Katie Stephens, a two-time Area Player of the Year under Blackman. "One day after a tournament we went to a restaurant and we told the server that it was his birthday. It definitely wasn't his birthday, but they brought out the entire staff with a cake and sang. He stood up and said, 'It's not my birthday!' He was so embarrassed. He turned bright red."
He has been known to turn red in the heat of battle, too. That's one reason he's been a success.
In an era when coaches who push their athletes hard to obtain excellence are often scorned, Blackman doesn't allow his players to settle for something less.
"He's just a competitor," Ann Blackman said. "He's a smart man. He can analyze, break things down, and he knows how to motivate people."
That intensity also was why Urbana kept Wednesday's ceremony a well-guarded secret from the coach. Organized by booster club president Sherri Bolen – "He's gonna kill me," she said earlier in the week – the event included a plaque from the school; a personalized duffel bag and jacket from the club; and a shirt from his players. The Paw Pack student group made up 450 Randy Blackman masks.
"He'd never allow anything like this," Ann Blackman said. "He prefers for the focus to be on the kids."
On Wednesday, they had to share the spotlight with the coach, who later acknowledged, "I would have canceled that thing in a heartbeat."
But in a fitting tribute, the Tigers played with a staunch resolve, and their coach noticed.
"What made me feel good," Blackman said, "is the way my team played. That's what makes me feel good."