Ralph Keeler's kidMar 19, 2015 05:26PM ● By Steven Hoffman
On the windswept afternoon of Oct. 6, Delaware punter Rauley Zaragoza, a senior from Azusa, Calif., stood deep in his own end zone in the second quarter, waiting for the snap that would lead to a punt that everyone on the Delaware sidelines expected would cross the midfield mark.
Zaragoza, however, flubbed the snap, soon gathered it in, and rather than take a knee in the end zone, turned against the on-rush of Maine players and kicked the ball into the student section. The referee clasped his hands together above his head, signalling a two-point safety for Maine, in a game that eventually resulted in a 26-3 upset of the highly ranked Blue Hens.
As he jogged back to the sidelines, Zaragoza looked for a crevice in the field turf in which to escape. As he got back to the sidelines, head coach K.C. Keeler placed his left hand on the side of his punter's helmet and, through the earhole, the entirety of Keeler's purpose at the University of Delaware crystallized in an instant.
"Don't worry about this," Keeler told Zaragoza. "Hold your head high. We'll get this back." He tapped his punter on the helmet, and went back to coaching.
With the possible exception of the Governor of Delaware and the Mayor of Wilmington, there is no other job in the state that is more scrutinized, second-guessed and picked apart than the position of head football coach at the University of Delaware.
For thousands of residents who live between Fenwick Island and Claymont -- many of them alumni and season-ticket holders -- the fate of the Fightin' Blue Hens football team is a measuring stick for how the rest of their week, or even how their entire autumn, will go. The team's games are broadcast all over the state. Newark is a bottleneck of tailgates and traffic on home football Saturdays. Taprooms that rim the campus are filled with ex-jocks who, over Dogfish, complain that Keeler's clubs are too flashy in their offensive scheme and too soft on defense. The banners of past successes -- six national championships, four head coaches in 73 years, former players who made it to the NFL -- fly like family heirlooms on the side of their 60-year-old relic of a stadium.
When Kurt Charles "K.C." Keeler, then 42, was officially announced as the new head coach of Delaware football on March 5, 2002, he knew he was not only replacing an icon of college football, but stepping into an old attic of press clippings, sepia-toned photographs and the soggy drift of memory. His winning record at Division III Rowan -- seven NCAA Division III national semifinal appearances -- may have earned him street cred as a head football coach, but few cared when he stepped to the podium to introduce himself that afternoon.
To many in attendance, Keeler was "a Delaware man," a flesh-and-bones Blue Hen who bled the blue and gold as a linebacker at UD in the late 1970s, including a national championship in 1979. It wasn't just where he'd come from, they said, it was what he knew: That the program he was about to inherit began with William Murray in the 1940s; that it was hand-carved by the chalkbord genius of David Nelson in the 1950s; and that it was passed onto Harold R. "Tubby" Raymond, who for 36 years amassed 300 wins on the back of an offensive scheme for which he would become an icon of college football lore.
Keeler's office in the Bob Carpenter Sports Complex is a framed museum of the tradition he has inherited, melded with trinkets of his ten years as head coach. On the wall opposite his desk, there is a large photograph of he and Raymond, taken moments before Keeler's first game as coach. "I have a different perspective (than someone who is not a graduate of the school he coaches), because I talk to my kids in terms of being an alum," Keeler said. "I tell them, 'I wore these colors, and you better make sure you wear them the right way. I sat in these stands.' I want to make sure that there's a high standard of being here."
Soon after he stepped into the job, he told Raymond, "Listen, you built this place. All I'm doing is taking the keys and locking the place up at night." And yet, to even the most casual observer of Delaware football over the last decade, Keeler has buried the keys and made the place his own. He got rid of Raymond's Wing-T, revolutionizing an offense from 'ten yards and a cloud of dust' to one that relied more on the pass. In contrast to Raymond -- who called most of Delaware's plays -- Keeler has let his coordinators do the X's and O's, and in turn, fashioned himself as part big-picture CEO, part touch-feely life coach to his players.
One year after he began, his 2003 team compiled a 15-1 record and won the NCAA I-AA national championship, a 40-0 defeat of Colgate. He led his 2007 and 2010 teams to national championship games. Going into the 2012 season, his teams had coimpiled a 56-17 record (.767). Three of his quarterbacks -- Pat Devlin, Andy Hall and Joe Flacco -- later went on to play in the National Football League. He is at the center of an amped-up program, one that blasts heavy rock music during home game kick-offs and features the "morning zoo" radio call of a public address announcer, and the coolness of his deportment is magnified even more by the designer sunglasses he wears. Keeler has taken the giant box that holds the tradition of Delaware football and sprinkled its dust over a new machine and a new way of doing things. He has been rightly rewarded: on June 19, 2008, Keeler was granted a ten-year contract extension that will keep him at Delaware through the 2017 season.
And yet, everything that has made Keeler who he is comes back to the moments after Rauley Zaragoza's error.
Ralph C. Keeler, the son of Raymond and Helen Keeler, was born in 1930 in Macungie, Pa., a smudge of a town on the outskirts of nearby Allentown. After graduating from Emmaus High Schol in 1950, he took part in the Korean Conflict, and returned home to Pennsylvania to marry the former Jean C. Skinner. For the next 32 years, he worked as a project coordinator for Air Products and Chemical, and when he was not at work, his love of sports became the backdrop for the relationship he cultivated with his sons Keith, Kevin, and the youngest, K.C., who was born on July 26, 1959.
At any given time in the Keeler household during the 1960s and '70s, there was a ball being thrown. There were always sporting events on the family's black-and-white television. Very often, Jean would have to see not only her boys rush through dinner on their way to a practice or a game, but her husband as well. For 20 years, Keeler served as a volunteer youth coach for basketball, baseball and football, and his Keith, Kevin and K.C. played on all of his teams. The Keeler boys grew up thinking that every father was a coach.
At a time when Keith and Kevin were the real athletes in the house, K.C. was the proverbial little brother, not only in age but in stature. By the time he reached ninth grade, he stood only 5-foot-2 and weighed 130 pounds. Ralph would tell Keith and Kevin, "Take K.C. downstairs and get him to lift some weights. Take him across the street and get him to shoot some baskets."
Over the next few years, Keith became K.C.'s mentor. Although nearly six years his senior, the oldest Keeler spent hour after hour with his little brother, throwing him spiral passes, pitching to him, and going one-on-one at the neighborhood courts of Emmaus.
Meanwhile, his father's teams became for K.C. both fields of competition and athletic classrooms. While coaches on the other side of the diamond, field or court ranted and raved, Ralph turned games into life lessons for his players. When a point guard, for instance, double-dribbled in a crucial point in the game, the elder Keeler turned a negative into a teaching moment, so rather than chew the kid out in front of his teammates and parents, he took him aside and encouraged him. As his youngest son watched and learned, Ralph's teams flourished under his tutelage.
"Even though we won a lot, I learned my most valuable lessons from my father when we lost," Keeler said. "Whenever we lost, my father had his players line up and shake the hands of the winning team. I still do that. I know it's painful, but I want the opponent to know that we were all in this together, and to congratulate him. We all want to win, but what happens when you don't win? From my father, I learned that that's how men handle situations. You need to take it head on.
"My father was a phenomenal teacher and educator. He was on your side, but if you don't win, he taught me to take this like men do. Let's go shake their hand."
From 1978 to 1980 -- following a stellar career at Emmaus High School as a linebacker and tight end -- Keeler earned three letters for the Blue Hens as a 6-foot, 210-pound linebacker. "He played weak-side linebacker -- we called it 'The Hawk,' and from that position, we had several stunts to blitz the passer, and he was very good at it," Raymond said of Keeler. "He was in on everything, a real bear-down guy."
Keeler played for teams that posted a three-year record of 32-7, and the 1979 club won the Division II national championship with a 38-21 win over Youngstown State. He posted six interceptions in his career, and one of them occurred during his senior year, when he intercepted a pass against Temple and ran it 59 yards for a touchdown.
After being raised by the nurturing lessons of his father, the three years Keeler spent with Raymond were defined by the actions of the famously cantankerous personality of the legendary coach. Keeler recalled that greeting his coach in the hallway of the team offices, particularly after a loss, was often met with an icy stare or worse, nothing. In direct contrast to his father's warmth, the pressure cooker vaccum world that Raymond had created was often like playing in an igloo, one solidified during Keeler's senior year, when Raymond called him out in front of the entire team at a film session for missing a tackle, punctuated by the tossing of a soda can that whizzed over Keeler's head.
It reached a fever pitch, Raymond recalled, during Keeler's senior year. "K.C. came to me when he was a senior and asked me, 'Do you think I could play in the NFL?'" Raymond recalled. "I told him, 'No.' I told him that I thought he was too small to be a linebacker and too slow to be a defensive back. I think he was mad at me for about five years."
It was Keeler's effort and his drive that brought him to the brink of the NFL. As (then Philadelphia Eagles coach) Dick Vermeil told Raymond, "Keeler's not an NFL player, but he makes such a contribution to pre-season practice that we kept him. His intensity is at such a level that it was contagious."
To anyone reeling off the many plaudits he has earned not only as a player but as a coach, it would be safe to say that Keeler's life has known only success, but when the subject of failure was raised in his office, he did not hesitate to tick off a short list, counting with his fingers. In 1980, after graduation, Keeler signed a free agent contract with the Philadelphia Eagles. He earned tryouts again with Coach Vermeil's teams in 1982 and 1983, as well as the World Football League's Philadelphia Stars in 1983 and the Jacksonville Bulls in 1984. On each occasion, he was cut.
"I thank Coach Vermeil for allowing me to become a coach," Keeler said. "I put every fiber of my being into making these teams, and there was nothing else in the world I wanted than to be a professional football player. A lesser person would've gone to a bridge and jumped, but to me, those failures simply became the next challenge of my life."
News Journal reporter Kevin Tresolini has known Keeler since they were both undergraduates at UD, when Keeler played football and Tresolini was writing sports for The Review, the campus newspaper. Over the course of his many years covering UD football, Tresolini has seen the personality of the program evolve from the tight-lipped, closed-door philosophy of Raymond to the transparent, total-quality management philosophy employed by Keeler.
"In terms of his role, K.C. is in charge of chemistry," Tresolini said. "He gives his coordinators a lot of responsibility and freedom, while he's sort of the general manager, the CEO. He's the one who talks to the players about leadership. You can't underestimate the importance of that at a college level.
"I like when he refers to 'Being a Hen,'" Tresolini added. "He imparts the tradition of the program to his players, and he impresses upon them that when you play for UD, you're playing for anyone who ever played here. There is an incredible vibe that goes back to the 1940s with this program, and K.C. really embraces that."
At one o'clock in the morning on Dec. 21 of last year, Keeler received a phone call. It was Keith. "Dad's dead," his brother told him. Keeler fell to his knees. At the funeral -- which Keeler called "My father's celebration of life," Kevin and Keith spoke first.
"I spoke last," Keeler said. "I said that I had made peace with my father because when he was my age -- 53 -- he had three heart attacks in one day. We were told on that day that he was not expected to live. Instead, I told people that I got 28 more years with him. I talked about the time I spent with him. He knew how much I loved him. He knew what I felt about him as a father, as a mentor, as a youth coach. For 28 years, I was conscious of the fact that I shouldn't have had him at all."
Keith Keeler had been diagnosed with cancer two years before, and Keeler said he and his older brother led separate lives for the better part of their adulthoods, so as they became older and immersed in their own families, their gatherings were rare. When the diagnosis came that the cancer Keith had was inoperable, when he knew he did not have much longer to live, he called his younger brother. "He told me, 'Listen, we're going to do this one time,'" Keeler said. "He said, 'You've got a team to coach soon.'"
Keeler drove up to Emmaus to see Keith. "It was one of the hardest days of my life, but it was also one of the greatest," he said. "I got to to go through all of our memories of childhood and how important he was to me and how important I was to him."
Keeler saw his brother twice that day, once in the afternoon and again in the early evening. They talked about God. They talked about what was waiting for Keith in the next life. They told each other that they loved each other. Then the kid brother left his older brother -- his mentor -- for what was to be the last time.
"The tough thing was walking out of that room knowing that it was over, that I would never see him again," Keeler said. Keith Keeler died on Aug. 25 at his home, leaving behind his wife Debra, his daughter Krista, his son Nicholas and four grandchildren. He was 58.
Keeler is not separated from any other coach in the world, in that he hates losing. The 26-3 loss against Maine moved the Hens' record to 4-2 and further down in the national rankings, and because of it, he said it was diffiuclt for him to sleep that night. His wife Janice tells him that he'll eventually leave coaching because of the losing. Although he is compassionate, he is, by his own definition, driven to the point of taking every loss like it's the end of the world, and he expects everyone in the program to be the same way.
"Losing is debilitating," he said, "but I can't let it be debilitating, because if I let it get to me, it's going to rub off on the coaches and players. That's when I have to ask myself, 'How good am I?'
"When we lose, I need to be the strength," Keeler said. "My dad taught me that when things aren't going well, my players need to come to me. Someday, when I get evaluated up there," he said, pointing to the sky, "they're going to look not at how I handled my triumphs, but how I handled adversities. That's our greatest measuring stick. Who are we at our toughest times? And the way I demonstrate that all came from my father."
It has become almost a comedic moment when, at the end of the game, opposing football coaches meet at midfield and shake each other's hand. Too often, the exercise is deferential one, a brief hand brushing on the way to the locker room. At the conclusion of the Maine game, Keeler walked across the field and not only shook the hand of Maine head coach Jack Cosgrove, he found Cosgrove's assistants and shook their hands, and then looked around the field for the Maine players and shook their hands, offering congratulations, one by one...applying the lessons he learned from his father.