South Xtra: New Vulcans coach awaits challenge
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Mike Kellar knew that John Luckhardt was considering retirement, but didn't think it would happen this quickly.
"We actually joked about it a few days before he made his announcement," said Kellar, who has replaced Luckhardt as head coach of the California University football team. "I joked that he probably had more games ahead of him than behind him. When I got the call a couple nights later, his retirement came totally out of left field."
Luckhardt, who had an 88-33 record in 10 seasons at California, including three trips to the NCAA Division II semifinals, stepped down because of health concerns. He missed the final game last season after he was hospitalized with a kidney infection.
"Coach Luckhardt meant the world to me," Kellar said. "I think I'm safe in saying the whole staff felt that way."
Luckhardt's 40-year coaching career also included a 17-year stint at Washington & Jefferson College, where he compiled a 137-37-2 record.
"John has agreed to help the university with fundraising," said Kellar, when asked if Luckhardt is totally out of the picture. "I also told him that I will be calling on his great knowledge of Western Pennsylvania football at times. Nobody knows Western Pennsylvania football better than him."
Kellar is in his second coaching stint at California. He previously served as the Vulcans' offensive coordinator from 2004-08. He left the following year to become head coach at Concord University in West Virginia. Before his arrival, Concord had managed only one win in the previous two years and hadn't had a winning season since 1998.
Kellar led Concord to a 14-8 record in two seasons, including an 8-3 mark in his second season, which marked the first eight-win season for the program since it joined NCAA Division II in 1993.
"I was very happy at Concord and would have stayed if it wasn't for a series of phone calls from coach Luckhardt prior to last season," Kellar said. "He asked me to come back as offensive coordinator. He also pointed out that he would be retiring in 2-3 years and I would have a shot at becoming his replacement. There were no promises. The only guarantee I got was that I would be interviewed for the job. What mattered most was that coach Luckhardt genuinely wanted me back."
Kellar returned last season as California's offensive coordinator and was very happy in that role. That changed when Luckhardt announced his retirement.
Kellar's previous head coaching stint at Concord helped prepare him for taking over at Cal.
"I would have been completely unprepared if it wasn't for my prior head coaching experience," Kellar said. "I immediately had to deal with personnel issues, recruiting, staffing and a football budget. I was lucky to have a veteran group of coaches who helped me get it all in order. The transition hasn't been tough at all."
With the same coaching staff in place, except for Luckhardt, Kellar hasn't made many changes.
"I'm doing some tweaking to put my stamp on the program, but 95 percent of what we were doing hasn't changed," Kellar said. "We were very successful under this setup, so there's no reason to fix something that isn't broke."
With Kellar taking over as head coach, the obvious question would be whether he would continue to call the offensive plays.
"That was one thing the administration didn't want me to change," Kellar said. "We've been successful with me calling the plays on offense, so that will not change."
But Kellar feels it's more of a group decision.
"I have a very good offensive staff that work well together as a collective unit," Kellar said. "We come up with a game plan as a group and I'm always asking for their opinion before and during the game. We will use the same approach this year."
A native of West Virginia, Kellar was the starting quarterback at Glenville State for head coach Rich Rodriguez before transferring to Fairmont State. He earned his undergraduate degree in liberal arts in 1996 from Fairmont State before receiving his master's degree in safety management from West Virginia.
Kellar started his coaching career at his alma mater, Fairmont State. During his eight years as the offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach, the Falcons won two WVIAC championships. He also served as offensive coordinator at Northern Michigan for two years before joining the California staff.
First Published August 9, 2012 7:50 am