When you’ve been a head coach for four decades, your coaching colleagues are going to ask.
“Coaches asked me every year, ‘How much longer you gonna go?'” said Gordie Kerkman, who just completed his 39th season as coach at West Aurora.
Now they know.
Kerkman has decided to retire after compiling an incredible 805-313 record over four decades of high-level prep basketball.
Kerkman says he honestly never knew the answer to that question when asked over the years. However, as this past year wore on, one which ended up being a 22-win season with regional and sectional championships, he said he began to give retirement some thought.
“From time to time I did think about it during this past year,” says Kerkman. “I really do think this is the right time. There were a lot of different things that led me to this decision, but I wouldn’t say there was one single factor.”
Kerkman did add he’s “getting a little older” and, physically, he wasn’t able to do quite as much as he would like from a coaching perspective.
“I really don’t like to coach while sitting down,” says Kerkman, who has had some lower back issues he’s dealt with in recent years. “I found myself sitting down more and more in practice this past year, and that’s just not something I want to do or have done in the past.
“You have to quit sometime.”
Kerkman’s legacy at West Aurora was built over four decades of basketball brilliance at one of the more prestigious high school basketball programs in the state. He helped guide the Blackhawks to 24 regional titles, 13 sectional championships and made 11 state quarterfinal appearances. His 2000 team won a state championship, one of five state trophies West Aurora secured under Kerkman.
Even with all of the program’s success, which included winning sectional championships in three of the past four years, what Kerkman says he will miss the most is practice.
“I think most coaches will tell you that,” Kerkman said in regard to the absence of being in practice and in the gym working with players. “I’m going to miss that time in practice, the teaching in practice.”
The classy Kerkman was a rare institution in high school basketball, a coach who gained the respect of basketball coaches, media and fans from across the state. He won big, but he was also genuinely liked and revered.
Simeon and West Aurora have battled for years at the Pontiac Holiday Tournament, which is where Simeon coach Robert Smith gained an appreciation for Kerkman.
“To me he’s just a class act,” says Smith. “Through the years I have loved sitting around and talking basketball with him in the gym, at the hotel in Pontiac, watching him do his work. You learned a lot from him. His teams were so structured, so well prepared. Plus, his teams were always competitive – with or without talent. Just a great coach and great person.”
Glenbard East coach Scott Miller has faced Kerkman-coached teams nearly 40 times over the past 16 years. When Miller first arrived at Glenbard East, Kerkman’s teams had their way with the Rams before the two ultimately became contenders in the DuPage Valley Conference. Miller was always impressed with how Kerkman handled himself in all situations.
“He was classy when he was beating us pretty good and stayed classy when our program was fortunate enough to compete with his teams for championships,” says Miller. “That says a lot about him as a person and coach.”
But like Smith and so many other coaches, Miller enjoyed the talks with Kerkman away from game night.
“He was the guy who you enjoyed having conversations with about basketball philosophy outside the season, who you could learn from,” says Miller. “He’s an all-time great who you looked forward to talking with. His teams were so disciplined at both ends of the floor.”
Even Kerkman’s biggest rival, East Aurora, had respect and a true appreciation of his presence in a local feud that is the second oldest rivalry in the state.
East Aurora coach Wendell Jeffries played against Kerkman’s teams in the 1980s. He’s been coaching at East Aurora for 28 years, including the last 14 as head coach.
“He’s the ultimate professional, and he’s going to be missed in the coaching profession,” says Jeffries. “He always promoted the sport of high school basketball and always showed respect to opposing coaches. That’s just how he is as a person.”
Kerkman admits he’s been blessed with the coaching career he’s had at West Aurora.
“I’m very fortunate and lucky to have had the kids I’ve coached and all the great coaches I’ve worked with over the years,” says Kerkman. “They have contributed as much, if not more, as I have to make this program what it is. Plus, the community following of the program is pretty unique. I think that helped generate some of the success of the program as well.”
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