LEBANON — Carl Poelker's "fairytale" as the McKendree University football coach is in its final paragraphs.
The Bearcats will play host to St. Joseph's at 1:30 p.m. Saturday in a Great Lakes Valley Conference game at Leemon Field.
Three hours later, the book will close on Poelker's 31-year career, the last 17 at McKendree. Poelker, 68, isn't sure what's next.
"I've never retired before. I really don't know," Poelker said.
Poelker has a few ideas, most of them including his wife, Peggy, with whom he will celebrate 50 years of marriage May 1.
"I've got a lot of catching up to do," he said. "Peg has never really traveled. She would like to. I have had the opportunity to travel and go to a lot of neat places. She's never really had that opportunity. She's had the responsibility of basically raising a family and doing that kind of stuff."
First, Poelker will perform a relationship check with Peg.
"Sometimes, I wonder if she likes me," joked Poelker, who credits Peg for raising five children: sons Tim, Todd, Trent and Ty and daughter Traci. "It's all been on Peg's shoulders. It really has.
"With a big family and a coaching salary, you find a way to put clothes on a kid and put another cup of water in the soup. She's been amazing with that part of it. I don't think our kids have ever wanted for anything. They have not been spoiled. One thing they learned was a good work ethic."
The Poelkers' kids have created a football team of their own.
"We've got 19 grandkids," Poelker said. "Having the opportunity to see them ... A lot of them are competing, and they're spread out all over heck. Somehow or other, I've got to tie all of that in together. I haven't figured it out yet. I just don't see myself being totally divorced from athletics."
Other activities have been a passing fancy for Poelker, a way to kill time until football season begins.
"I fish, but then I get bored," he said. "I play golf, and I get bored. Then all of a sudden it's football season and I'm ready to quit fishing and I'm ready to quit playing golf. It's football season.
"(Not having football) is going to be the biggest transition."
Decatur to Lebanon
Poelker was content living in Decatur, where he was 88-39-1 in 14 seasons as coach at Division III Millikin University.
McKendree announced in 1995 that it would restart its football program, with its first season being 1996.
Poelker said an unsettling decision made by administrators at Millikin coincided with the revival of McKendree football.
"When I was at Millikin, everything was really in good shape until they hired a new president and they fired the athletic director," Poelker said. "The athletic director happened to be my (assistant) coach (Merle Chapman). It gets to be like a Machiavellian Plot. You're on one side of the line or the other side of the line, and there was no doubt what side of the line I was on."
Millikin offered Poelker a long-term contract, with a substantial raise, before Chapman was fired. The deal still was on the table.
"But I said, 'You guys have just put me in a position where I can't coach. ... I don't believe in what you're doing, and I have to go,'" Poelker said.
It didn't take long for the door to McKendree to open. Moments after learning of Chapman's dismissal, Poelker went to his office.
"I walked in and on my desk was a letter that McKendree was starting football," he said. "I called and got ahold of one of the vice presidents and I said, 'I cannot interview. I don't have a resume. I just want to let you know I'm interested.'
"Then the president (Dr. James Dennis), after he had done a little bit of homework ... called me and we had a meeting (after) my last football game at Millikin.
"It was one of those things where we just clicked. He was an old-school guy, the values. He offered me the job right then and there. They made me promise I would not sign a contract until they met with me again."
Poelker never dreamed of returning to Millikin. Soon after Thanksgiving in 1995, he picked up the telephone.
"I called Dr. Dennis and I said, 'Let's go, Bearcats!'" Poelker said.
Poelker is 117-60 at McKendree (.661), and he led the Bearcats to nine NAIA playoff appearances in a 14-year stretch.
But when Poelker arrived in Lebanon, there was little with which to work.
"We had two things: We had a football helmet and we had a schedule," Poelker said. "They had set the schedule up. Once you set a schedule up, you know good and well you better field a football team.
"But there were no fields, there were no recruits."
Poelker formed his first staff and got the ball rolling.
"They finally got us some offices up at Wildy (Hall)," Poelker said. "We had to put the system in. A lot of credit goes to Jeff Fisher and Tim Funk and Matt Gomric and Dean Renn and Pete Hensel. Those guys just rolled their sleeves up and, by God, we were going to get it done."
Poelker initially was only allowed to hire one full-time assistant.
"They told Coach Poelker he could hire one full-time coach, and he told them, 'How about you let me hire two of them, and we'll split the salary?'" said Fisher, now the head coach at Lindenwood-Belleville. "Coach Funk and I were the other two guys dumb enough to go to work for half a salary.
"It worked out. It was the best decision I ever made."
Poelker said the staff was so occupied that contracts had not yet been signed. Poelker said he was not in a hurry.
"We were working for about a month and (Dennis) said, 'We need to get contracts,'" Poelker said. "I said, 'Contracts are good, but that handshake (deal) you made meant a lot more to me than contracts.'"
Poelker recalled when the late Dick Hood became a volunteer assistant at McKendree.
"Dick, I always thought, had a great offensive mind and was really, really good with the quarterbacks," Poelker said. "I asked him, 'Would you come and take a look at our quarterbacks and evaluate them?' That was in spring ball. So Dick Hood came and I was driving him back home in the van and he said, 'That was fun.' I said, 'Would you like to keep doing it?' He said, 'I'd love to.'"
Hood, the former head coach at Belleville West who was paralyzed when a player ran into him during a 1995 practice, helped out for several years. Poelker said it was made possible by Dennis.
"I had never checked with our administration (about Hood being on the staff), and the next thing I know, there's an asphalt ramp that was put in so Dick Hood could get to the practice field," Poelker said. "It was called Hood Boulevard.
"A lot of people would say, 'Well, he's handicapped. We've got to do this, we've got to do that.' (Dennis) knew this was something that was really good for the football team."
No stroke of bad luck
Poelker said his overall health, through the years, has been good. The exception was in July 2010.
In the middle of the night, he suffered a stroke. Peggy reacted quickly, calling for an ambulance that took her husband to St. Joseph's Hospital in Breese, where the Poelkers live.
"It was 3 o'clock in the morning," Carl Poelker recalled. "Peg had a tough decision. If she didn't call that hospital, I'm done. If she did call that hospital, she's going to have to put up with me (being disabled)."
Poelker escaped largely unscathed. He coached in the 2010 season and the Bearcats were 9-3.
"I can't say enough about the Breese hospital and what they did," Poelker said. "They got on it quick. They did just an unbelievable job. It's the same thing (former NFL coach) Mike Ditka went through. If they can get you that clot-buster quick, then there's not much damage."
Still on board
While Poelker's final game is Saturday, he will remain at McKendree until July. By then, coach will be hired.
Poelker isn't sure what his role will be for the next eight months. He's certain, though, that Dennis and McKendree Athletic Director Chuck Brueggeman will make the right call.
"They will assign me other responsibilities," Poelker said. "Some of that is probably going to be reconnecting with the recruiting contacts I've had throughout the year.
Poelker will miss working for Dennis and being at McKendree.
"The president, it's been an unbelievable journey with him," Poelker said. "It's been an unbelievable journey with this whole school."
Contact reporter David Wilhelm at email@example.com or 239-2665.