Fitch coach retires after state track & field meet
By Joe Scalzo
It says something about Fitch High boys track coach Rich Kempe — something good, presumably — that when you ask his fellow coaches to say a few words about him, they tend to make jokes.
Like this from former Boardman track coach Dave Pavlansky: “Rich Kempe — skinny guy. Runs a lot. When he turns sideways, you think he’s a sapling.”
And this from Fitch girls coach T.J. Koniowsky: “The man coached longer than I’ve been alive.”
Or this from Koniowsky earlier this month, when Kempe was about to be interviewed after helping the Falcons to a conference title: “Old man, this might be the last interview you ever do. You could die tomorrow.”
(Kempe’s response? “I’m not going to die ... yet.”)
Former Maplewood coach Ted Rupe — who led the Rockets to the Class A state cross country title in 1972, the same year Kempe helped the Falcons win the AAA title — has spent the last 40 years competing against Kempe as a runner and a coach.
He, too, went for the light-hearted angle, albeit more eloquently.
“Rich is a coach that gives his all at all that he does, from overseeing a great program to managing meets to engaging his athletes with his wit and wisdom,” Rupe wrote earlier this week. “He is a coach’s coach. Through the 40 plus years that I have known him he taught me a very important lesson about coaching and life — to not take life so seriously that you don’t enjoy the journey. Because Rich always did enjoy the journey.”
Kempe is retiring this week. The state track meet will cap a 35-year coaching career, with all but one of those years as an assistant or head coach in Austintown, either at the high school or at Frank Ohl Middle School. He became the head girls cross country coach in 1992 and added boys track and boys cross country in 1998.
Over that span, he won nine straight girls Steel Valley Conference cross country titles, with nine regional appearances and a seventh-place finish at the state meet in 1996. He’s also won five conference track titles and seven county titles but said his favorite part of coaching is what happens off the field.
“The most rewarding part is the kids develop and mature and go on to be successful people,” he said. “Doctors, lawyers, college graduates, fathers, mothers. And they contact me when they’re back in town and I get to hear about all their successes.”
(Case in point: Kempe was in Washington D.C. over Memorial Day weekend, where he went on an 8-mile run with one of his former athletes.)
Kempe didn’t start running until his sophomore year at Fitch. He played football in ninth grade — I think my position was “drawback,” he quipped — then, after beating the best athlete in his gym class in the mile, decided to try running. By his senior year, he was running just behind state champion Bob Lunn. (Thanks to an injury, he finished 21st overall as a senior, but believes he would have finished in the top three had he been healthy.)
Kempe went on to an All-American career at Mount Union and never stopped running, eventually getting inducted into the Youngstown Road Runners Hall of Fame. He and his wife have two sons, Justin (who ran track and cross country at Ohio University) and Andrew (who played rugby at the University of Washington) and a daughter, Kaitlin (a runner who was named the U.S. Marine Corps Female Athlete of the Year for 2010).
“They’ve all been successful and they all got a great education at Fitch High School,” he said.
Kempe is a low-key coach, with a dry sense of humor and a willingness to do things behind the scenes, whether it’s running a road race, a clinic or picking up the check for his fellow coaches. (He calls Fitch’s staff “the best in Ohio.”)
“Rich is just an all around good guy and good for the running movement in general,” Koniowsky said.
“Rich’s teams were always well-prepared and competed hard,” Pavlansky added. “He’s been a good friend as well as a great competitor. I have valued that very much about Rich.”
Kempe will leave on top, having won conference, county and district titles this season while coming a half-point away from a runner-up finish at the regional meet. Five Fitch athletes will compete in Columbus this weekend — and just one of them is a senior.
“It’s tough to leave with so many great kids coming back but you have to do it sometime,” he said. “It’s time to go and give somebody else a chance. I’ve had my time.
“What’s really happy for me to see is, when I started in the 1970s, Fitch was best known for track and field and that’s where we are now.”