Russ Keene, who coached the Collinsville Kahoks to the Class AA state baseball championship in 1980 and second place in 1983, died unexpectedly Wednesday at his home.
Keene, who taught health at Collinsville High School for 33 years, was 69. The graduate of Sparta High and Southern Illinois University Carbondale also coached basketball and football at Collinsville, but it was in baseball that he excelled.
Keene’s calm demeanor and steady hand helped the Kahoks finish 33-4 in their magical season 35 years ago. It was the first year the Illinois High School Association divided baseball into two classes.
In the state tournament at Lanphier Park in Springfield, Collinsville defeated Oak Forest 3-2, Edwardsville 12-7 and Bartonville Limestone 7-3.
Pitcher Mark Campbell was the Most Valuable Player of the tournament. Campbell, a right-hander who baffled hitters with a big curveball that he threw from various arm slots, won all three games in the tournament.
“I was fortunate enough to live in the area and occasionally run into Coach,” said Campbell, who resides in Edwardsville. “We didn’t spend a lot of time talking about the season we had, but it was always about our families. It was always nice to be able to run into Coach. I learned a lot from him.”
Campbell said Keene’s easy-going style worked as a coach. He described Keene as anything but a taskmaster or micro-manager.
“He had a lot of trust in us,” Campbell said. “He certainly gave us the guidance we needed, but he put faith in us and let us go out there and play to the best of our ability. He took a calm approach to the job and what he needed to do with the team. His approach was perfect for our squad. We were pretty good the year before ... and I think he knew he had a pretty good collection of players.”
Barry Wilson, who lives in Maryville, was a first baseman and pitcher on the 1980 team. He described Keene as being a “steady guy.”
“When he spoke, he didn’t say a whole lot, but you listened. He was just a great coach, a great guy,” said Wilson, whose funeral home in Maryville was the location for the services for Keene on Friday and Saturday.
“Russ’ passing was a very big surprise to everyone. Everybody was in shock over it. It hit close to home,” Wilson said. “That whole team and Russ and the (assistant) coaches, Lew Etherton and Joe Spurgeon, to this day, we could get in the same room and everybody was still a part of everybody after what we did. ... We kind of placed baseball on the map a little bit.”
Campbell, whose fastball was 73 mph, worked a complete game against Oak Forest in the quarterfinals, then relieved for 3 1/3 innings in a 3-hour, 15-minute marathon against Edwardsville in the semifinals.
The championship game started just 65 minutes later, and Keene intended to start Wilson, the regular first baseman and the team’s No. 2 starter.
But Campbell told Keene he was ready, and Wilson expressed his desire to play his regular position at first base and let Campbell take the ball.
“Russ came up to me and he said, ‘Barry, I want you to pitch this last game,’” Wilson said. “Me and Mark were best friends, and he said, ‘Barry, I can pitch if (Keene) wants me to.’ I said, ‘Well, I would rather stay at first base because I don’t want to ruin the continuity of what we’ve got going. If you pitch a couple, I can relieve if I have to.’
“So Russ comes to me ... and I said, ‘Mark said he could throw. Let’s let him throw. I’m going to play where I play, first base.’ And that’s what we did. We beat them pretty hard and pretty fast, and Mark did an outstanding job.”
Campbell blanked Limestone for five innings as Collinsville capitalized on Limestone’s shoddy defense to build a 7-0 lead. Campbell could have only pitched another 2/3 of an inning in the title game, since pitchers were limited to nine innings a day. The Kahoks held on despite some seventh-inning drama.
Campbell finished 15-0 and joined former major-leaguer Scott Sanderson as the only pitcher to win three games in the state tournament. Sanderson won his over four days in 1974 for Glenbrook North; Campbell needed two days.
“I had to convince him (I could pitch) that last game,” Campbell said. “He was really worried more about my arm, that I might hurt myself. I had already signed to play basketball with Northeast Missouri State. I told him, ‘This very well could be my last game that I ever pitch in a competitive baseball game.’
“I was certainly prepared to do it, but it took a lot of convincing. He didn’t want to put me in a bad situation. If it would have been about, ‘Gosh, we need to win this,’ he would have just thrown me out there. But he was thinking about me, and that says a lot about him. That’s the respect I carry for him.”
Bob Bone, a 1973 graduate of Collinsville who was later the Kahoks’ boys basketball coach and athletics director, remembers the excitement of the state championship season of 1980.
“It was a highlight for the entire community,” Bone said. “There for a six- or seven-year period, I really think our baseball program was the best one in the state. We had a first place, we had a runner-up and we were in the sectional final for I don’t know how many years in a row and had a lot of success. A lot of that goes back to Russ. He did a great job with the program.”
But Bone said there was so much more to Keene than coaching proficiency.
“He worked with us in the basketball program and also coached football, but as good a coach as he was, he was an even better person,” said Bone, who lived in the same neighborhood as Keene. “He was a great guy to be around and had such a great family. He worked hard and never complained. He loved being around the kids and loved teaching.”
Keene is survived by his wife Jane, son Brad, daughter Kris and five grandchildren. Brad was Collinsville’s batboy during its championship season.