The Final Lap: Ken Klatka leaves legacy after 47 years at Springfield College
Kevin Koyle was a six-time All-American track and field athlete at Springfield College. From 2010 to 2012, the long and triple jumper leapt his way into the national track scene.
But like all athletes that call Alden Street home, he was a student too. Before his senior year, Coyle did a 480 hour internship over the summer so that it wouldn’t interfere with his track and field schedule. He returned to school in the fall facing a $10,000 debt for the credits he received. Naturally, he didn’t have a spare $10,000 sitting around, and if he couldn’t come up with the money, it could result in a release from the track and field team.
With four All-American selections already under his belt, losing the chance to compete in his senior season would be devastating to Coyle. The fear of a release hung over his head, and Coyle went to a man he knew he could trust. His mentor, his role model and his coach, Ken Klatka.
“I didn’t know what to do,” Coyle said. “So I went to Coach K. He’s been there forever, he’s got contacts in the administrative department. He reached out to them, and he had everything resolved within two or three days. It’s something like that, I couldn’t really go to anybody else. I can’t thank him enough, he’s always had my back.”
Klatka has been at the helm of Springfield College track and field for 47 seasons. A list of All-Americans, national champions and regional accolades decorate his coaching resume, but it’s not his extensive amount of success which defines him as a coach. Rather, it’s the family atmosphere he established in his teams. The “I’ve got your back” mantra which all of his athletes understood and believed — his genuine personality, his open-door policy, and his coaching philosophy.
At the start of the 2016–17 winter track and field season, as a new face will be taking control of the team. Klatka is set to retire following the 2016 spring season, and for the first time since 1977, a new face will be running one of Springfield College’s most historic sports programs.
This coaching ideology which Klatka has developed has been in the making since 1965 — his first year at Springfield College. A standout athlete from Memorial High in Manchester, New Hampshire, Klatka found his way to Springfield College via his family and his former physical education teachers.
“I’ve been wanting to come [to Springfield College] since I was 10. I had an elementary school PE teacher from Springfield. In high school I had another PE teacher from Springfield. I had a cousin that went here, and we talked about it all the time, and I said ‘this is what I want to do, I want to teach and I want to coach’, that’s the job I want.”
He did just that. After spending four years as a star cross country runner for the Pride, Klatka worked under Vern Cox, the track and field head coach at the time and Klatka’s former coach, as a graduate assistant for one season.
“He was really calm, and he calmed us down,” Klatka said. “A lot of kids think that I’m low-key, but they don’t realize how much my stomach is churning when I’m really excited. But I don’t show it, because I want to keep calm, so my athletes will keep calm.”
Cox, who’s second to Klatka in all-time wins at Springfield (156 to 451), served as one of Klatka’s biggest mentors. He taught Klatka to be cordial towards meet officials, to keep a level head with his athletes, and most importantly and simply, be a good person.
Klatka added that cutting his teeth around some of Springfield’s most legendary coaches helped him develop his own coaching style.
“I tried to take a little bit from Doug Parker (wrestling), from Archie Allen (baseball), from Ed Bilik. And so sort of seeing what they do and how they coach and what they said and how they talk, has sort of developed me, along with Vern and Irv Schmidt, I mean these guys were giants.”
Klatka’s coaching style is reflected in those who have trained under him. Bryan Brown, a former standout distance runner at Springfield College and current cross country head coach at his alma mater, attributes much of his current philosophy to that of his former coach’s.
“Well he certainly taught me the importance of taking track — which is viewed as an individual sport — and how to make it a team sport. If you’re just going out there as an individual and just thinking about yourself, you know, you can get lost in that,” said Brown.
Added Brown, “Maybe you just kind of separate yourself from the rest of the team, or, you don’t have that intrinsic motivation. But when you have that family atmosphere, you not only work hard for yourself, you work hard for everyone else on the team.”
It’s that very family feeling which Brown touched on that Klatka has become best known for.
“I think the thing that really stuck out to me [on my recruitment trip] was it was really a family atmosphere,” former All-American sprinter Keith McDermott (’84) said. “I just knew I didn’t want to go anywhere else.”
McDermott added that he never looked at Klatka as a coach, rather as “a person that was just part of the family.”
“It’s kind of awkward really,” McDermott said. “You know, he’s coached all these years, but he never felt like a coach. He just created a family feeling. I mean, we used to get on the bus to go to meets, and he would have his kids on the bus.”
Having his children around his teams became a staple of Klatka’s practices and meets. When his children were younger, they would be at practice. Now that his children are grown up, it’s Klatka’s grandchildren who are lucky enough to experience time with the Springfield College track and field team.
“I think by seeing the young kids there, they watch their language. They like to play with these little kids. Those are the kind of kids we have on our teams,” Klatka said. “It’s not just fun loving, but it definitely creates a different kind of atmosphere.”
Most college students face an adjustment period their first few years of college. Leaving the safety of home and embarking on a four-year journey may not come easily for everyone. As a coach, Klatka did his best to make sure it went as seamless as possible.
“He made sure that there was not much to adjust to,” McDermott said. “You know, you hear people going to college and having adjustment issues or whatever, Kenny knew the buttons to press to make sure that we didn’t encounter any kind of challenges. It was like going from family to family.”
As Coyle explained, the “family atmosphere” which took hold of Springfield College track and field followed him into his own coaching career.
“He was somebody that I tried to emulate when I started coaching. After I graduated, I went on to coach at Bridgewater State,” Coyle said. “I was coaching track as an assistant coach. [Family atmosphere] was one of the things that I came back and I talked to [Klatka] about. How he made the team so close, and how he made everybody get along. I wanted to know what his secret was.”
There may not be any hard “secret” as to how Klatka works his magic and turns his teams from a group of athletes working out into a family, but his open and caring attitude can go miles.
“He’s really just that one kind of person that you know, even if you’re not that familiar with him, you’re going to have his full attention, and his full respect,” sophomore thrower Whit DeVaux said. “He’s one of those guys you can literally come and talk to about anything. He’s a father figure.”
Among many things, Klatka’s ability to connect with his athletes on both a track and field and a human level have carried him through his 47 years.
“He genuinely cares about his athletes,” Brown said. “And that just goes so long, and that takes him so far. The athletes sense that, they know it, they want to work hard, they want to be at practice, they want to be a part of the team, because they feel his genuiness. He’s genuine, that’s the word.”
While Klatka has always cared for his athletes, he’s managed to mellow out over the span of his coaching tenure at Springfield.
“I was very competitive. I ran to win, I didn’t care who I competed against,” Klatka explained. “Whether it was Dartmouth, UMass, Holy Cross or BC, it didn’t matter. I ran to win, or do the best I possibly could. So when I first started here, that’s what I expected from all my athletes, I was a no-nonsense kind of guy. You either pay the price, or do intramurals.”
He explained that he’s learned to become more understanding. As opposed to chastising an athlete for having a bad performance, he does his best to understand why they underperformed. He’s become more lenient as a coach, but he still gets the results he desires.
In the 1980s, Klatka’s “no-nonsense” philosophy was in full swing. As McDermott explained, he was as strict as they come.
“We would have team meetings right before a meet, and he would say ‘the bus is leaving at 8 o’clock. Not 7:59, not 8:01’,” McDermott explained. “He actually left one of our top sprinters one year, Bobby James. I was on the bus, and I said ‘coach, Bobby is here,” because he left his stuff on the bus and got back off. And coach just said ‘go ahead, close the doors, let’s go,’.”
But as time advanced and more years were tacked on to his coaching tenure, Klatka began to lighten up, but the results stayed the same. From the 1980s to the 2000s, from Keith McDermott to Kevin Coyle, the former cross country star turned coach found ways to get the best out of his athletes, and turn them into All-American caliber track stars.
The day-long bus rides, early mornings and late nights were part of Klatka’s normal schedule. But for him, it was worth it.
“I always tell people, I hope they get a job someday where they can’t wait to get up in the morning and go to work,” Klatka said. “Because that is how it’s been here at Springfield.”
While many things will remain the same about the track and field program next season — a strong core of wiling, tenacious student athletes, the friendly confines of the maroon-and-tan striped fieldhouse track, and the legacies of the many athletes who have participated for the team over the past 101 years — one thing will be different. There will be no Ken Klatka waiting by the finish line with a stop-watch, or standing by the long-jump pit with his arm around a frustrated athlete, or with his family at practice.
But there will always be the atmosphere which Klatka worked tirelessly create, from his first day on the job to his last. There will always be the words of encouragement in the back of a sprinters head as the place themselves on the starting blocks. There will always be a consistently competitive track and field program, the foundation of which can almost entirely be credited to Klatka himself.