Now that he's spent his entire career coaching, teaching, and guiding the lives of thousands of students, coach Randy Blackman is finally ready to give up a little bit of time to himself. Having carved out a life with his wife Ann, a highly respected professor of Business and Computer Science at Parkland, he’ll retire from Urbana High School this week, and that means some true R&R, something that is well deserved.
To add to the Blackmans' legacy in C-U, this weekend, they will launch the Randy Blackman Scholarship Fund, designed to offer financial assistance to students from Urbana to go to Parkland College. You can donate to that here, but there’s a happy hour at Bunny’s tonight at 6 p.m., and then on Sunday, there are soccer games at Urbana High School (on the field named in his honor), an open house, and an official retirement party, as well.
I had Mr. Blackman for Physical Education, Health, Sex Education, and Driver’s Education. He left a lasting impact on me, and plenty of others.
Something I'll never get over, and that we recently talked about on the phone, was how he has never lost a pickleball game to any one, ever. Not one on one, or even two on one. Back in senior year of high school, one of my best friends and I really thought we were made of steel when it came to pickleball. We smoked everyone in our class section, undefeated. Coach Blackman asked us if we wanted some real competition. My friend and I were both athletes, and young, and cocky, so we took it with a chuckle. Best of 5 games. He even made it interesting. Winner buys Blizzards from Dairy Queen. It was on.
We won the first two games pretty handily. It being two on one, it was pretty simple to just work the court, and find the angles.
You can imagine what happened next. It was silly. I am not even sure that we scored more than a few points over the next three games. Set. Match. Coach had hustled us. If you know his grin, it's simultaneously sincere, and just a bit diabolical as well. Here's the way he looked at us somewhere around the moment we realized what was happening:
Didn't matter though: he still paid for the Blizzards, and I remember we stayed a good long hour, just talking about our lives, like adults.
And that is the biggest takeaway I have from those years taking class from Coach — and it’s been twenty years — was how well he encouraged his students, regardless of who they were. He’s quiet, unless you make him get loud. It didn’t happen often, because he expected you to respect his process, and honestly, most everyone did. Students run ramshackle on a lot of teachers, but not on Coach Blackman. He got the best out of you, whether you liked it or not. He respected your individuality, and asked you to do the same of him. It's why there's a field named after him. Not because of his W-L record.
With the announcement of his retirement, I caught up with him, and not surprisingly, he really just wants to focus on how his career can help inspire others. And take a load off. We spoke on the phone and went back and forth on email for a bit. He’s just as punchy as he ever was.
Smile Politely: Coach, give our readers a small overview of your life. Where'd you grow up, where'd you go to school, what's the story on what brought you to us here?
Randy Blackman: I grew up in Chicago about a mile and a half from Wrigley Field. My older brother and I occasionally took the bus or walked to watch the Cubs. I went primarily to Ole A. Thorp elementary school through 8th grade. I attended Luther North High School through my junior year and East Leyden High School my senior year. East Leyden had an outstanding wrestling program my parents felt would benefit me and my brothers. I attended Eastern Illinois University and was a member of the wrestling team. I graduated from EIU in 1983 with a B.S. in Physical Education and minors in Health Education and Driver Education. In 1983, I was hired at Champaign Central High School as the head wrestling coach and substitute for the district. In 1985, I was hired to teach health education at Urbana Junior High School, behind the wheel driver’s education, and as the assistant wrestling coach at UHS. I was hired to coach the UHS boys soccer team in 1986 by Athletic Director Oscar Adams. In 1992, I moved to UHS to teach Health education and Physical education. I coached wrestling at UHS from 1985-1994; softball in 1995; girls soccer from 1996-2005 and 2011-2015, and boys soccer from 1986-2017.
SP: You are retiring after 33 years in District 116. You've taught thousands of students about physical education. Can you recall your fondest memory from the classroom? From the field?
RB: The one thing that comes to mind was when Ann Yarber’s freshman class was playing my freshman class in softball. Both of us are competitive. The game was close. Both teams were trying to win and having fun. Ms. Yarber was pitching. The batter hit a pop up between third and home plate. Ms. Yarber ran fast, stuck out her arms and caught the ball. However, she didn’t catch it with her hands or arms. It got stuck in other body parts. While everyone was laughing, she reached in to get it and said, “that’s an out!” Her team won.
Craig Huff was a joy to work with. There are so many stories. There was a sectional game in Mount Zion on the Saturday of prom. On the bus Huff brought out a tool box with shears, a wire brush and other tools. He told the girls not to worry because he would get them ready for prom. The game started late because the previous game went into overtime. Our game went into overtime and shoot outs, so we ended much later in the afternoon than expected. (We won!) Huff volunteered to do hair and nails. The girls were in a frenzy to leave with parents. It was fun.
SP: I remember the year you took over for Girls Softball. If memory serves, the team broke the national record for most consecutive losses in a row, from 1987 - 1994. What can you remember about 1995 and getting that first win? Did you and [Athletic Director] Mr. Graham try to specifically schedule teams that you felt like you could defeat to get the monkey off your back?
RB: The losing streak had been featured on ESPN. It was a big deal. The team worked hard on fundamentals and it paid off. The girls were so excited when we won. We shared the bus with the boys baseball team that also won that day. All the players, Mr. Minnes, and I had a great time on the way home. It relieved a lot of pressure. The schedule for the season was set when I took the position. The team I thought we were capable of beating was rained out. I took it upon myself to reschedule the game. We were fortunate that it all worked out.
SP: Talk about your history with the soccer programs a bit. The field is named after you, which is rare for a sitting coach, anywhere.
RB: I was a collegiate wrestler. I was the wrestling coach when the soccer position opened. I had taken one college class on soccer. Athletic Director, Oscar Adams, asked me to apply. I was hired because no one else wanted the job. I had a lot to learn. In the interview I told them that I've always been successful in anything I've tried athletically and I would work very hard to learn the game. It's still hard to realize that they named the field after me. It floors me.
SP: You came within a hair of a state championship in 2012. Anything you wish you'd have done differently?
RB: The only thing I wish was different was that we could have played an easier opponent in the semifinals. Arlington Heights Saint Viator was one of the best soccer programs in the state. Beating them took a lot out of our team. Since we had to play the second game of the day there wasn't a lot of recovery time. There's nothing that could be done about that. I'm very proud of how the team played. I have no regrets.
SP: Anything you can point to about what it means to Urbana athletics and your legacy as a coach?
RB: It's been an incredible honor to have the privilege to coach hundreds of athletes over three decades. I always enjoy hearing how players grow and develop into adulthood. I've done my job if my influence has had a positive impact. It's my hope that these fine young people keep the ball rolling by investing in others. There is a scholarship being created in my name. I am excited that the soccer community is coming together to help future athletes. What an honor.
SP: What does public education mean to you, and how do you think it's changed over the past 35 years?
RB: Getting a quality education is vital for most people to be successful. Public education has been able to provide opportunities for a long time in this country. I hope it is able to continue. Over time schools are pushing most kids towards college. Industrial education and trades are not, instead of providing opportunities in [those fields]. Educators now must teach right and wrong.
SP: Tell us about the new scholarship. Parkland College has helped a lot of area students go from confused to successful in higher education. Whose idea was it and how will it work? Is this a one year scholarship or something you hope to have last in perpetuity?
RB: The idea of the scholarship evolved from discussions with several individuals that are involved in planning the retirement celebration. Parkland College was chosen because it is a fine institution that provides affordable education. My wife teaches at Parkland and all three of our children attended there. I hope and pray the scholarship will last in perpetuity. However, that decision can't be made until most donations have been received.
SP: What comes next for you in your retirement? Any big plans at all, or just... living simply and living well?
RB: This summer I will spend a lot of time with family and on the golf course. In the fall I will teach part time behind the wheel driver's education. God willing I plan to live simply and well!
Feel free to join the festivities this weekend with Coach Blackman and his family. Congratulations to him on such an illustrious and important career.