A remarkable man: Coach Kehoe leaves lasting legacy
There weren’t many sports Fred Kehoe didn’t like.
You name it, and the 1946 Plymouth High School graduate had likely not only tried it, but been successful at it. From football to basketball to baseball to track and field, to golf and beyond — Kehoe tried his hand at them all, either as an athlete or as a coach or both.
In fact, when friends and family gathered to celebrate Kehoe’s life last Wednesday after his passing on Feb. 22, there were only two sports they could think of that he didn’t show a natural aptitude for, and they had to dig deep to come up with those.
“He just knew how to do just about everything well,” said Kehoe’s eldest daughter, Jama Kehoe Bigger. “We joked at the funeral that the two things he didn’t do very well in sports were ice skating and horseback riding. He got on a horse and fell off, and the horse kicked him, so that was the end of that. With ice skating he said he had runners’ ankles and not ice skaters’ ankles. My brother told that story.”
A three-sport athlete during his high school years at PHS, Kehoe collected varsity letters in football, basketball and track and field. He went on to play at halfback for Ball State’s football team from 1946-49, and he finished his collegiate career with school records both in single-season touchdowns and career TDs — 14 and 27, respectively. Those 14 touchdowns during his undefeated senior season in ’49 — the school’s first ever unbeaten season — stood as a record for 30 years, and his career scoring record stood for a full 32 years. The versatile Kehoe also lettered two years in both baseball and track.
After college, Kehoe was drafted into the Army, where he continued to play football from 1950-52. He started at halfback at Fort Knox, where he became part of another undefeated team and led the team in scoring.
“Sports to him, he just loved competition,” explained Jama. “He thought it was a way to improve yourself as a person, to have camaraderie and work as a team and then he also did individual sports.”
Athletics were a big part of Kehoe’s life first as a student and then as a soldier, and they eventually became his profession.
He had worked briefly as an assistant football coach at Plymouth before being drafted in 1950, and after his Army career, he returned to PHS to work as an assistant football coach from 1952 to 1955, coaching an undefeated junior high team in ’53 along the way. In 1956, Kehoe moved up the ladder to become the head coach for Plymouth football, where his teams finished with a sterling 14-2-1 record.
One of the standout athletes Kehoe coached during his time at Plymouth went on to become a PHS coaching legend in his own right — longtime baseball and football coach, athletic director and the namesake of the PHS baseball field, Bill Nixon. Kehoe coached Nixon not only during the latter’s time at Plymouth but also as a freshman pitcher with Ball State’s baseball team as the two made the move together in the same year in 1958.
As a matter of fact, Nixon named Kehoe as one of a few influences on his decision to become a coach himself. He recalls a professional and patient man.
“As far as his demeanor is concerned, let’s just put it this way — I wish I could’ve been more that way,” said Nixon.
“He wasn’t like me, thank goodness, because if he had been he would’ve kicked me off the team. Basically very low key. I don’t think I remember — it’d be all the years, seventh, eighth grade all the way through — do I ever remember him get extremely angry. I’m sure he was many times at many of us, but he was always probably just the good person that he always was all of his life. He was a good coach. He taught us the right things and expected the right things out of us, and I was actually very fortunate to have had him all those years.”
“That was really dad,” said Jama. “He was a teacher. He hated losing, but he knew that was part of it, part of playing the game, part of competition. You had to lose with grace; you had to learn from it. He was not a yeller or a shouter. I guess he coached and taught with a certain amount of grace, and that was just part of his personality.”
Following his time coaching at PHS, Kehoe moved on to coach for his collegiate alma mater. Already a standout as a student-athlete at Ball State, he became a coaching and administrative icon at the Muncie college as well.
Kehoe joined the football staff in 1958 and coached for 12 seasons, first as the freshman team coach and later as the varsity backfield coach. His 1965 team went undefeated and played in the Grantland Rice Bowl, which ended in a tie with Tennessee State. He spent time as an assistant baseball coach for four years and an assistant basketball coach for a year and taught what were termed “life sports” — namely badminton, golf, bowling and billiards. With his background as a former student-athlete and a wealth of coaching experience at multiple levels in so many sports, Kehoe was a natural fit to become athletic director at BSU, and he served in that capacity from 1970 to 82. He also spent 20 years as an associate professor of physical education between 1968 and 1988, and before retirement he was rewarded for his service when he was named a charter member of the Ball State Athletics Hall of Fame during the 1976-77 school year.
Athletics had become Kehoe’s profession but they also remained his passion, and he passed that passion along to his four children.
His oldest son Steve was a high school wrestler, volleyball player and golfer, and he played collegiate volleyball at Ball State. His other son Doug was also a star high school athlete with 12 varsity letters in football, basketball, baseball and track and field and followed in Steve’s footsteps to become a volleyball player at BSU. Kehoe’s youngest, Julie, played tennis and basketball at the high school level and was also a member of a state championship volleyball team. Like Steve and Doug before her, she went on to play volleyball at Ball State.
Through it all, the man Steve would later pay tribute to in a song called “Coach Superman” remained their best coach and biggest fan.
“That was just our lives. We went to sports games; we encouraged each other,” Jama recollected. “There was never a sense of rivalry. My siblings always supported each other, and that came from my dad’s influence.”
Sports were both a profession and a passion for Kehoe, but they were also medicine.
When Jama was left completely paralyzed by a diving accident at an early age, her father encouraged her recovery through sports and movement. At one time totally wheelchair-bound, Jama regained her ability first to use her arms and later to walk with a crutch, and it was largely through the encouragement and patience and faith of the man who became a Christian at age 38. She wrote down her experience in a memoir titled “Then Came a Miracle”.
“I was injured in a diving accident and broke my neck when I was 13 and became a quadriplegic. It was through faith and my dad’s knowledge that I needed to move around, and any movement was good movement,” Jama recalled. “I was in a wheelchair and couldn’t even hold a fork and yet he put a tennis racket in my hand and made me try to hit tennis balls at the wall at the Ball State athletic building. Through his faith and his sense that exercise was valuable, I improved. I was able to stand up and walk with a crutch. So his real story is faith.”
It wasn’t so much that faith changed Kehoe but rather that, once he found Christianity, it informed how he connected with those around him, said Jama. And it was those connections that are Kehoe’s greatest legacy, more than the records he set and the many accolades he picked up along the way.
Athlete, coach, father, man of faith — Kehoe was remarkable in all regards. Those whose lives he touched will never forget him.
“I read the obituary. My wife gave it to me last night, and I read it,” said Nixon. “I didn’t even know some of the things about how great an athlete he actually was. He was up there (at the United States Golf Academy). He played football for the U.S. Army. I didn’t know any of those things. I knew he was a great football player at Ball State, but I really didn’t know how much.
“More than anything he was just a very nice guy.”
“My dad loved, I think, the fellowship of competition. Just being on a team taught him so much, and he passed that on to his players, to anyone that he taught,” Jama said. “There were so many stories at his funeral of people coming through the line about what dad meant to them as a coach and a teacher. Former players came through — players that I remember when I was eight or nine years old came through to give their respect — and athletic administrators and teachers from Ball State. He just had a wonderful life, and sports was a huge part of it but not overshadowing all of his faith.”
“To have players that came back — those players, it was in the 1960s that dad coached them, and they came. Quite a few of them became friends of our family,” she continued.
“He was always ‘Coach’ to them. He was just ‘Coach’.”