The Final Whistle
By Scott Cummings, Director of Sports Information
For the last 31 years as a head coach - and for more than 40 years in the coaching profession - Coach Carl Poelker has combined his talents as a coach, a teacher and a parent to leave a long and lasting impression not only at McKendree, but in the world of college football.
In November, he announced his retirement as head football coach after a 17-year career with the Bearcats. During his time at the helm, Carl and his coaching staff set the McKendree program on a course of success both on and off the football field. Since the Bearcats first took the field back in 1996 after a 45-year absence from the gridiron, he led McKendree to 117 victories, nine national playoff appearances and seven conference titles.
“It’s time,” Carl said. “I still love coaching. If I could go out from 4 to 6 p.m. every day and work with the players… I’d probably still continue. But there’s a lot more to this job than that, and that’s why it’s time to step away.”
In 1997, he led an upstart McKendree program to an 8-2 overall record and the Bearcats’ first berth in the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) playoffs. For his efforts, Carl was named the Schutt Sports-NAIA Coach of the Year.
“More than having extremely successful football teams, Carl has developed young men who are making outstanding contributions to our society as doctors, lawyers, educators, law enforcement experts, in the business arena and as coaches in their own right,” said Dr. James Dennis, president. “This is a true statement to his success at McKendree.” In all, Carl has coached 14 All-Americans and 70 All-Conference players. But it is the next set of numbers he holds in even higher regard. During that same time, McKendree has produced 25 national scholar-athletes in the football program,along with 78 Academic All-Conference performers. Another statistic that speaks volumes at McKendree—99 percent of his players have graduated during his 17-year tenure.
“Those are the real victories in this program,” said Carl. “They are the ones that make me realize we’ve done things the right way. These student-athletes have proven over and over they are here to get a good education first, be good citizens and to get the chance to play football.”
Carl credits President Dennis and men’s basketball coach Harry Statham - who was the athletic director at the time of his hiring in 1995 - with being a big influence on his decision to come to McKendree.“It’s been a great run,” he said. “The administration, the staff, but most importantly the student-athletes, have made this so special.”
Carl was honored in a post-game celebration on Nov. 10, along with the 16 McKendree seniors playing in their final game for the Bearcats. His wife Peg was also recognized as she presented the ceremonial game ball prior to kickoff, and was surrounded by most of the Poelker family, which includes five children and 19 grandchildren.
GAME DAY RITUAL
Before each game, “I would say to myself, ‘Dear God, please don’t make winning more important than these young men out here today.’ The wins and losses are never more important than helping to shape the lives of these men. This is just a game, and if it becomes all about the wins and the losses, then we haven’t done our jobs as coaches, as teachers, as parents. I care about these guys, and we have to give them the right tools to succeed in life.”
FAVORITE GAME OR SEASON
While McKendree football fans can debate their favorite game or favorite season, Carl refuses to single out any particular games. Every game that is played holds special meaning to him, and specific moments that are not necessarily visible to the average fan. “Each one of the games, each one of the classes means something different to me,” he said. “I can go back and pick up defining moments from each year that shaped how I will remember a team. From that first team, I will always remember that pioneer spirit and how we went through everything for the first time together. That second team battled against the odds and made the playoffs. There are frozen moments, events and occasions that helped make every season special. That’s the great thing about this game, and about the young men that we have had here at McKendree.”