By most any measure, Ken Hinrichs was a great football coach. But that's only what made him famous. Let one of his former players tell you about the man behind the former Manual High School coach, who died Sunday at age 90.
“My father died when I was 6, and I was raised by my mother, in the projects,” Jim Thompson says. “My mother and I had never talked about college. Couldn't afford it, so we never even thought about it. Coach Hinrichs was the first person who came to me and said, ‘Jimmy, you have an opportunity to go to college on a scholarship.’
“He encouraged me to do the best I could in school and to be a good person.”
Thompson, a 6-foot-2, 220-pound tackle, would earn a football scholarship to Missouri, transfer to Southern Illinois and play a year in the old AFL before a lengthy business career. Retired and disabled now, Thompson remained in regular contact with Hinrichs for more than 50 years after his high school glory days were done.
“I would always tell him, every time we talked, ‘Coach, I love you,’” Thompson says by phone from his home in suburban Chicago.
Thompson remembers how Hinrichs taught him how to properly shake a man's hand: Look the person directly in the eye and grasp his hand with a firm grip. “I passed that on to both my sons,” Thompson says.
Hinrichs also taught Thompson and every other kid who played for him how to work hard, during thrice-daily practices at Russell Field. It wasn't just about being prepared to win football games, Thompson says.
Thompson is black, Hinrichs white. The mid-1950s were not a time when older white men generally treated black teens with personal respect, or when those black teens viewed the older white man without suspicion.
“Back then,” Thompson says, “there was a lot of prejudice, a lot of racial tension. But Coach was sincere. I always felt I could trust him. I knew he had my best interests at heart. He was always in my corner. He was tough, and he pushed us, but a lot of us really learned about hard work from him.”
They also learned how to win.
During his 17 seasons as Manual’s head coach, Hinrichs compiled a 121-40-7 record, won one Big 12 Conference championship and later four Mid-State 8 Conference titles. In that pre-playoff era, the Rams were considered one of the premier programs in Illinois, particularly during their 30-game run from 1958-60.
Included in the 30-game win streak were 13 shutouts. The Rams over those three seasons outscored their opponents 866-161, including 354-52 in 1960.
“Oh, my God, he was a great coach,” former Peoria High coach Corky Robertson says. Robertson coached eight games against Hinrichs, three during the vaunted streak, and feels fortunate to have come out with a split.
Page 2 of 2 - “I beat him in 1964” to pull even in their personal series. Robertson says, “and went into administration.”
Some of Hinrichs’ methods have fallen out of favor today. Three-a-day practices and withholding water were said to be common.
“We were eating dust,” chuckles Gene Petty, another former star, “He’d always tell us, ‘The mind is weak, but the body is strong.’ But he had our backs on everything. He was a class guy.”
Other methods would translate to any generation.
Hal Fuson played for Hinrichs’ first two teams at Manual, then returned four years later and joined the Rams staff as an assistant coach. They worked together until Hinrichs stepped down in 1969 and became Peoria County regional superintendent of schools.
In 1962, Fuson recalls, the Rams were a bit shorthanded. Hinrichs wouldn't allow live hitting in practice all season, ordering his players instead to pound blocking dummies. The strange ploy worked in two ways: “We didn't have guys get injured in practice,” Fuson says, “and by game time, our kids wanted to hit somebody so bad, they’d explode off the bus, ready to tear down the goal posts.”
Manual went unbeaten that season, too.
According to his former players, though, Hinrichs’ greatness as a person surpassed anything he accomplished on the football field.
“Coach Hinrichs and his wife (Dulcie, who survives), never had children,” Thompson says. “But I will never forget this. Coach Hinrichs told me, ‘Jimmy, if I had a son, I’d want him to be like you.’”
Thompson pauses to compose his emotions.
“I have a very heavy heart right now.”