Rick Keltner has been processing a wide range of emotions since resigning as Hays High School boys' basketball coach about two weeks ago.
But more than anything else, Keltner is grateful for his 34-year run at the school.
“I’ve been blessed. I’ve been here 34 years and have got to coach some great kids and had some great moments,” Keltner said Tuesday night in an interview with The Hays Daily News. “The kids at Hays High School have been just so awesome. Just wonderful, wonderful kids. I could cry just thinking about it. I have nothing but great memories of this place and I’m proud of our teams.”
Keltner acknowledged he had been planning on returning as Hays High coach for a 35th season but said he agreed to resign March 8 during a meeting with Hays High administrators.
“It’s happened pretty quick,” Keltner said. “I actually thought I would probably come back next year, but met with our administrators and they wanted to go another direction and I respected their wishes and thanked them for the opportunity to be here for 34 years.”
Other than to confirm that Keltner submitted his resignation, Hays High athletic director Lance Krannawitter said he could not comment specifically on the personnel matter.
“We appreciate the 34 years that Rick has put forth to the students of Hays Public Schools. He did a great job for us,” said Krannawitter, adding that Keltner was a revered coach in the state.
Keltner, by far the winningest coach in Hays High history, was among the longest tenured basketball coaches in the state, compiling a 452-291 record with the Indians.
“Coaches have come and gone since I've been here. I'm lucky to have been here this long," Keltner said. "I’ve got to know 10 really good football coaches since I’ve been here in that 34 years and probably about eight girls' basketball coaches, so I know longevity is a gift and not that prevalent in the coaching profession now, especially when you get older in Hays, Kansas. I’m thankful for the opportunity that I’ve been given.”
Keltner said he will retire from teaching at Hays High effective at the end of this school year.
“I thought I might teach next year but they couldn't assure me it would be in the same field I have taught for 34 years,” he said. “I went ahead and decided to retire from teaching after conversations with our administrators. I couldn't really wait until May to see what kind of teaching assignments they would have open for me and still get the insurance benefit that we have.
"My birthday (was Wednesday). I’m 64. I’ve always felt like God has a plan for all of us. I trust that he does in this situation. I’m just looking forward to what’s next.”
The Indians played in six state tournaments under Keltner and made four semifinal appearances (1990, 1996, 2000 and 2014), finishing third in 1996. He won 61 percent of his games at Hays High, with the eight previous Hays High coaches compiling a 49.5 winning percentage.
Keltner coached 10 of the top 13 scorers in Hays High program history. Brady Werth, who just wrapped up a standout career at Fort Hays State, is the Indians' all-time leading scorer with 1,138 points.
Keltner was The Hays Daily News Area Coach of the Year in 1990, 1996, 2000, 2007 and 2014.
“I’m proud of our brand," he said. "I think we’ve had a good brand. I think we’ve had good kids that play hard and care about each other. I think we’ve never lost sight of the fact that you’re supposed to be a good student and somebody you want to be around.”
A year after winning the Western Athletic Conference championship, the Indians struggled last season, finishing 9-12 in just their second losing season since the 1999-2000 season.
“I’m disappointed we had a losing season this year,” Keltner said. “The last time we had a losing season, 2012, we went to state the next year and went undefeated in the regular season the next year (in 2014). I truly see that kind of potential with these guys if they work hard. I’ll wish them the best, I always will.
“I am disappointed that we didn’t finish the way I would like to have my career finish. But by the same token, I’m just another coach and we all do the best we can and try to be good coaches and good people.”
In his four-plus decades as a coach, Keltner has seen the game evolve and he has tried to adapt with it.
“I love the way the game is going in a lot of ways,” Keltner said. “The 3-point line, a couple years ago we shot more 3-pointers than anyone in the state. I think (the 3-point shot) has changed the game. You’ve got to try to play to your strengths.
“Some years we more inside, and some years we were guard oriented. Some years we’ve been balanced. I like the way the game can be played in different ways. One of the challenges in coaching is finding ways you can have a competitive ball club and keep things in perspective."
Keltner said one of his most memorable games of his career was a 1990 state semifinal matchup against powerhouse McPherson.
“I talked to some college coaches the night before we played McPherson,” Keltner said. “They said, ‘Rick, McPherson’s too good.’ Brad Underwood, who’s now at Illinois told me, ‘Rick, I just think they’re too quick for you.’
“I said, ‘I think they try to deny too much — some of them can, but some of them can’t. I think if we run this back-cut stuff and run sets, we can hang with them.'
“We lost in overtime, 72-70. We had a hell of a game. Lon Kruger, he was at K-State, came into our locker room after the game and said it was the best high school game he had ever seen. That was one of my favorite games.”
One of the top players Keltner's program produced was Sean Finn, who enjoyed a standout college career at Dayton before playing 15 years professionally in Europe.
Werth finished with career at Fort Hays State with a first-team All-MIAA selection and reached the 1,000-point milestone for the Tigers.
“It’s one of the joys of coaching and one of the pleasures, getting to see kids go on and do well,” Keltner said. “It’s bigger than the game to some of us guys. You want to see them be successful.”
Keltner said he will miss the subtleties of the game.
“I like everything about it,” he said. “I like the practices, love the kids. I love the smell of the gym. Game night, the band, the smell of popcorn, it’s just always in every gym — you get that same smell and I love that.
“And the parents — parents always love their kids and I respect that. You hope you didn’t hurt their feelings if you didn’t play their son enough or coach them exactly the way they wanted them coached. But bottom line, I’ve never taken it personal. I know that we all have the same goals. We wanted our kids to be good kids, good players. Winning and losing become second — it’s all about things you can learn about each other and yourself.”
He thanked his assistant coaches throughout his career.
“I’ve had an All-Star cast of coaches,” Keltner said. “I owe so much to them. They’ve supported me in every possibly way.”
Including his first eight seasons at Tipton High School, Keltner's overall record is 534-352. He has also helped coach track and field since arriving at Hays and was the Indians' cross country coach for several years. Between coaching basketball, track and field, cross country and 8-man football, Keltner estimates that he's coached around 160 combined seasons.
He is looking forward to spending time more time with his family, which includes wife, Paula, daughter Sarah Wilms and her husband, Jeff, his son Stuart Keltner and wife, Brooke, and three grandchildren, Halle, Shae and Miles.
“I’m just excited for the opportunity to see them more often and also friends here in Hays. I’ve been blessed," Keltner said. "People in Hays have been so super to work with and I’m thankful for that opportunity."
He admits that moving on from basketball is a little intimidating.
“I’ve had dreams before where I dreamed I retired, and I wake up in a panic,” Keltner said. “My daughter tells people all the time that I’m one of the few people she knows who loves this job. That’s a fact right there. I’ve never dreaded going to work. I’ve always enjoyed it.
“I’’m going to miss the people I teach with — what a honor to be with those excellent teachers there,” Keltner added. “But it’s kind of like, wait a minute, I’ve got some freedom. It’s kind of exhilarating to think about the possibilities and things you can do out there. I truly think that things happen for a reason and I’m excited to see what God’s plan is for me. If it’s just being a Grandpa, a husband and a friend, I’ll be thankful for that.”
Keltner reiterated that he coveted his time as Hays High basketball coach and didn’t take it for granted.
“In my world, Hays High’s gym is my Allen Fieldhouse,” Keltner said. “The big time is where you are, and for me, the big time has always been Hays High School the last 34 years. There’s no place else I’d have rather coached.”