A true Hall of Famer

Tom Batters
Craig Gerdes, one of Eureka’s most beloved coaches who coached at the middle school for 33 years after a record-setting basketball career at Eureka College, looks back on his heralded playing and coaching career.

It is about 10:30 on a Wednesday morning and the temperature is already approaching 90 degrees.

A set of golf clubs sits on Craig Gerdes’ driveway, and, in about an hour, the 63-year-old former Eureka Middle School coach and Eureka College player/coach will be on the golf course with the same group of friends he plays golf with just about every day. Some of those men are in their 80s and even 90s, so, if they can battle the intense heat, he can too.

Golf keeps Gerdes busy, but, come this fall, a bittersweet reality is sure to set in.

“This will be the first year since I was eight years old that I won’t be playing or coaching a sport,” Gerdes said during an interview at his Eureka home in late June. “It will be a little sad, but I’ll find something to do.”

In his trademark dry, reassuring voice, he quipped, “My wife (Karen) will probably throw me out of the house if I don’t stay active.”

On the farm…

Gerdes was born and raised on a farm in Washburn, and he smiles as he recounts memories of his father, Carl, setting up a basketball hoop on the side of the barn so he and his brother, Steve, could shoot baskets (after all their chores were done). In winter, they cleared the hay bails and moved the hoop inside the barn.

“Dad was a good baseball player (at Benson High School). He taught us a lot about the game. When he wasn’t working he would always hit us balls, or play catch,” Gerdes said. “Then, we set up that basketball hoop, and shoot baskets for hours.”

His mother, Ellen, would bring out refreshments, but she had her own work to do on the farm.

“Mom was always the one who had to drive the tractor so we could pull the bails in to the hay mow,” he said. “My parents worked hard, but they were very supportive of us. They took us to practices and came to just about every game.”

Gerdes was a standout baseball and basketball player at Lowpoint-Washburn High School. He pitched a no-hitter his senior year (he still has the ball) and led the team in batting average. He led the basketball team to a win over Toluca in the semifinals of the Tri-County Tournament. Toluca went on to the Sweet 16 (back in the one-class system).

Off to college…

Eureka College basketball coach Leo Traister took notice and recruited Gerdes to come play for the Red Devils.

“He was a fun guy to play for,” Gerdes said of Traister, who is 93 years old. He lives in Eureka and attends many games. “He was a no-monkey-business kind of guy, though. He made his players play hard all the time. He was the one who first inspired me to become a coach.”

Gerdes was a four-year member of the Eureka College basketball team before graduating cum laude in 1971. He scored 1,150 career points and his 859 career rebounds are third-best in the history of the program. He was inducted into the Eureka College Athletics Hall of Fame in 1991.

“That was a special moment because Eureka College is very dear to me,” he said. “That’s where I discovered that I wanted to become a coach, and that’s where I learned so much about coaching and teaching young people.”

Brand new school…

After graduating from Eureka College, Gerdes went to work at the Eureka Middle School, which was just built that previous summer.

He was the basketball and track coach (the only sports the school had at the time) for two years. He also served as the cross country coach at Eureka College for two years before the middle school added a baseball program, which Gerdes coached for 33 years.

One of his players was, of course, Ben Zobrist, who now plays for the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. He also coached Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Andy Studebaker.

Gerdes and his wife plan at least one vacation each year so they can see Zobrist and Studebaker play in person. They also take trips out west to see their daughter, Andrea (Schrager), a former athlete and cheerleader at the middle school and high school who runs a hotel in Los Angeles. They will travel to Minneapolis later this year to see the Devil Rays play a three-game series against the Minnesota Twins.

“They (Zobrist and Studebaker) are the ones who made it to the pros, and I’m very proud of them,” he said. “But, there are so many more former players that I have been proud to coach over the years. I still keep in touch with many of them, and they have become close friends.”

Gerdes won 440 games and led the baseball team to 14 Regional titles, five Sectional titles and three IESA Final Four appearances. He led the basketball team to the state championship in 1986.

“We lost one game all season. It was at Tremont. They just had a better team that night,” he recalled as if the game was played yesterday. “It was good for us, though. It proved that we could be beaten. We didn’t lose again. We beat Pekin-Broadmoor by about eight points, I think, in the championship game in Lewistown.”

Gerdes had opportunities to move on to the high school, but he chose to stay at the middle school, where he was also an English teacher for more than 30 years.

“Kids at that age are so fun to work with,” he said. “They are so eager to learn and they play so hard. It was very rewarding to see so many of them become great players and people.”

A new challenge…

Gerdes retired from coaching at the middle school in 2006. He served as interim athletic director at Eureka College for one year, and was named head baseball coach for the Red Devils in 2010.

He took over a team that won just 13 games the previous year and led the Red Devils to a school-record 19 wins and their first-ever SLIAC Tournament appearance. He was also named the SLIAC Coach of the Year.

“I just inherited some really good players,” he said, modestly. “I don’t think it was anything I did. I just told them it was their team. We worked hard in practice and we were prepared for games. It paid off, and we had a very good season.”

Gerdes brought a laid back, commanding presence to the Red Devil program.

“My style was pretty simple,” he said. “I didn’t believe in yelling a lot, or arguing with umpires. My main thing was to prepare the team as best I could in practice. Then, the games would take care of themselves. The kids bought into that, and they were great to work with.”

Voice of the Hornets…

 Anyone who has been to a Eureka High School basketball or football game, or a Eureka College football game will undoubtedly recognize the smooth, clear, resonant voice of Gerdes, who has done the public address announcing for those events for many years.

He may have the natural gift of a majestic voice, but Gerdes said there is more to it than that.

He takes the job very seriously.

“I get there early and go to the other coaches to make sure I get every name right,” he said. “I never ever want to get a name wrong. My wife, Karen, is my spotter in the booth (for the football games), so that helps me a lot, too. I always want to be prepared and make sure I know what’s going on.”

Gerdes said he grew up listening to baseball and basketball games on the radio, and he initially wanted to become a professional sports announcer.

“Eureka College didn’t offer that as a major, but it’s a dream I always had,” he said. “Then, I fell in love with teaching and coaching, so I went on that path instead. I’m pretty lucky that I get to do the high school and college games. It’s a lot of fun, and I get the best seat in the house.”