Kroner: It's been a good, long run for Acklin
ST. JOSEPH — Jim Acklin wasn't always a superintendent who also coaches at St. Joseph-Ogden.
In Acklin's early years in the district, he was a biology and chemistry teacher who wasn't coaching his primary sport.
An avid runner, he got into cross-country as the Urbana High School coach from 1986 to '89.
"I saw an ad in the paper for an assistant coach and interviewed with (athletic director) Oscar Adams," Acklin said.
By the time he was hired, the job posting was listed as a head coach.
"We didn't have the success we've had here at SJ-O, but we had some competitive teams," Acklin said, "and I developed some good relationships with people I still maintain contact with."
A winning culture
When Rick Mohr resigned as the Spartans' cross-country coach, it was natural that Acklin would be interested since he worked in the building and was already on the track and field staff. However, the cross-country opening occurred shortly before the start of the 1988 season, and Acklin didn't want to step away from the Urbana program on such short notice.
Jerry Hewerdine took over the SJ-O cross-country team, and it was two years before Acklin joined that staff.
His first year coaching SJ-O cross-country, the girls won a state championship. In Acklin's second and third years, the boys won back-to-back state titles.
"Jerry set the table for that whole deal," Acklin said. "He probably doesn't get the credit he deserves. There's no ego with Jerry."
Acklin, recognizing in advance the potential of the Spartans' 1990 girls' team (led by all-staters Marla McKinney and Ashley Wright), remembered a conversation with Hewerdine and wondered if he wanted to remain as the coach.
"He said, 'Maybe you can take them to the next level,' " Acklin recalled.
Hewerdine, who has been part of Spartans' track and field coaching staff for a quarter century, got his own state title in 2000 when SJ-O captured the IHSA girls' track and field crown.
Full speed ahead
Acklin's first tenure as the SJ-O cross-country coach lasted 13 years, until "I transitioned into full-time administration."
He started as the Ogden Grade School principal in 2000, then became the superintendent at Shiloh in 2003 and returned to SJ-O in that position in 2007. He recently announced that he will retire at the end of the school year.
He enjoyed his newfound duties, but Acklin found parts of the coaching lifestyle that were hard to leave behind.
"Although I missed the sport, it's more about the depth of relationships you no longer have with the kids," he said. "They don't know you like when you are coaching them."
In 2006, Acklin got another taste of coaching. Shiloh had one runner (Emily Joines) who took up cross-country, and he served as her coach.
Acklin didn't expect it to be a prelude into further coaching.
Stability during change
After Jon Jamison was relieved of teaching and coaching duties at SJ-O in February, Acklin thought the track and field program was in good hands with the hiring of former Spartan hurdler Mitch Blair.
"He has that ability to push kids, and at the same time, he has a good rapport with kids," Acklin said. "That's a hard balance to achieve. He gets it."
The hope was that Blair would also coach cross-country, but he found an out-of-state offer in the health care field too lucrative to bypass, and he resigned to move to Idaho.
"When he said, 'No,' we advertised and had some applicants who were qualified to coach cross-country," Acklin said, "but we felt the transition would be smoother for Coach (Kristin) Allen if she had someone who knew the kids and knew the community.
"The way these kids lost their coach (Jamsion was arrested in February on a criminal sexual assault charge), the athletes and parents are more comfortable with a known quantity, so to speak. She (Allen) has the skill set to be a great head coach, and the girls have developed an immediate rapport with her, but I think she feels better having someone in there who has the experience.
"She has gained a lot of trust, but with me there, it was an automatic trust. Some of them have known me almost their entire lives."
First things first
Acklin volunteered himself to serve as co-head coach with Allen, who is in her first year as a physical education teacher in the district. She handles the girls' team, and Acklin focuses on the boys.
Allen said her strengths and Acklin's strengths create a nice mixture for the Spartans.
"He's a very technical coach as far as breaking it down to a science," Allen said. "He has the technical side, and I can bring the mental motivation. We are both very disciplined."
She is appreciative of being Acklin's understudy.
"I get to pick his running and coaching brain for an entire year," she said. "I'm lucky."
Before Acklin made the step, he first made sure he had the blessing of others on two fronts.
"I understand my job is to run this school district, and in no way, shape or form can I let cross-country supersede that," Acklin said. "If the (school) board hadn't been good with it, none of it would have happened."
As the parent of three children, including 12-year-old twins, he sought the support of his family as well.
"When it looked like this might be the road we were going down, I wanted my family to be good with it," Acklin said. "My son (John) is playing seventh-grade baseball, and I felt he needed to have some input as far as how he felt about me missing his ballgames."
His son's initial response was a surprise.
"When I asked what he thought, he said, 'I think you might be kind of rusty,' " Jim Acklin said. "I said, 'That's not my concern. How are you with me not being at all of your games?' "
John Acklin's next answer was one not all parents would hear ... or want to hear.
"He said, 'Sometimes I'm not sure you're there until the game is over,' " Jim Acklin said. "That made me feel better. He is playing because he loves it."
Sarah Acklin, also a seventh-grader, recently started into basketball practice. As if the family on the run (which also includes senior Louis Acklin) didn't have enough going on, Dad has been on the mend.
He had surgery Aug. 21 for the removal of a bone spur and a tendon transfer on his right ankle. He has been sporting a colorful cast and crutches, but is counting the days until he gets a walking cast.
"I'd nursed a sore ankle for three years," Jim Acklin said.
Though he is unable to join the Spartans for practice runs like he did early in the season — and won't be cleared to do so for another four months — Acklin found one benefit in being more restricted.
"When you're not running with them, it's easier to focus on the whole group as opposed to the group you're running with," he said.
If the plan goes according to schedule, Acklin will be a semi-retired cross-country coach at this time next year.
"Most likely, it's just this year," said Acklin, who would be interested in serving as an interim superintendent for a couple years to "make sure I can transition into full retirement."
"When I'm done being a superintendent, I'd like to get back into it (coaching). I told Kristin my dream job would be to be an assistant for her. I would look for her next year to be the head coach over the entire program, with someone else involved (as an assistant)."
Acklin hadn't forgotten about the coaching part of working with teenage runners, but he is relearning the commitment that is needed.
"This is testing me," he said. "It's time and energy. In some ways, it has rejuvenated me, being around these student-athletes."
It is also lengthening his work days.
"Because of the fact I have to be at practice, I leave things on my desk that I have to get back to after practice," Acklin said. "I've tried really hard not to let it cut into family time, but sometimes I'm not home until 8 or 9 o'clock, and I'm in here on Sundays."
Though Acklin had been away from the SJ-O cross-country program for a decade, Allen believes it's a win-win situation for the runners.
"We've been a good team," said Allen, a former high school runner at Decatur Eisenhower. "The kids don't feel like they have two new coaches. They see a different side of him (from his administrative role)."
Call him Coach
Between the boys' and girls' cross-country teams at SJ-O, seven runners have at least one parent that Acklin either taught or coached (or both) in the past.
"On the one hand, the evidence is in front of you every day you've been there for a long time," Acklin said. "It also helps you feel more connected to the school and the community."
He will measure how it's going and the success not by how the school finishes in its meets. The best gauge is how he is viewed by the more than two dozen boys running cross-country for the Spartans.
"At first, because we don't have that depth of relationship, they were seeing me more as the superintendent," Acklin said. "Now, especially the freshmen, know me more as the coach.
"We've started to find our rhythm in that regard. Most address me as Coach and not as Mr. Acklin ... to be called Coach, wow, that's the ultimate."
Fred Kroner is The News-Gazette's prep sports coordinator. He writes a weekly high school-related column throughout the school year. He can be reached by phone at 217-351-5232, by fax at 217-373-7401 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on twitter at fredkroner.