Kearly Family Shapes Husky Football for Generations
Tom Kearly is a Michigan Tech Football guy … no question about it. Kearly didn’t play football for the Huskies—he actually spent the first two decades of his coaching career somewhere else. But when he stepped down as the Huskies head coach last fall, he left as one of the biggest names in the program’s history, rivaled perhaps by only one other person—another Coach Kearly, his father Ted.
Ted Kearly, inducted into Michigan Tech’s Sports Hall of Fame in 1997, was head coach of the Huskies for just four seasons, 1969-72. During that span he became the most successful football coach in our history with a .806 winning percentage, three conference championships, and a perfect 6-0-0 season in 1972.
But perhaps Ted Kearly’s most significant accomplishment was making his adolescent son a Husky for life.
“I was a ‘Tech Kid’ growing up,” Kearly says. “I’ve always had a lot of feelings for Michigan Tech. I was a ball boy. My heroes were guys like Larry Ras, John Meyers, and Jerry LaJeunesse (all Tech Hall of Famers). I was a senior in high school when Michigan Tech won the 1975 National Hockey Title. Even when we lived in Mt. Pleasant we always kept track of how Tech was doing.”
After playing college ball at Winona State (Minnesota), Kearly began his coaching career as a graduate assistant there. He came home to spend a year here as a defensive secondary coach before moving on to NCAA Division I Central Michigan University. He started as a graduate assistant and became a full-time assistant coach for the Chippewas in 1983. He was promoted to the team’s offensive coordinator in 1991 and held that position until he had a chance to return to the Keweenaw in 2000.
Tech offered him the job as associate head coach and offensive coordinator—an offer he felt was too good to pass up.
“When we had the chance, thanks to (then head coach) Bernie Anderson, to come here to live in 2000, it was a family decision. I knew this was a great area for Patty and me to raise our family.”
Kearly served as Anderson’s chief assistant for six seasons, and when Anderson left for rival Northern Michigan University, Athletic Director Suzanne Sanregret ‘93 ‘06 didn’t have to look very far to find a replacement.
“Coach Kearly had a proven track record of success at the NCAA Division I and II levels,” Sanregret says. “He understood what the history and culture of Tech athletics was all about, not only as an assistant, but from his father who was a tremendous head coach for the Huskies.”
Looking back over Kearly’s tenure, Sanregret feels her choice was the right one. “Tom has elevated our program to one of the best in the GLIAC (Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference) and NCAA Division II, not only on the field, but also off the field and in the classroom. He has built a culture that values athletic and academic excellence.”
She says Kearly’s players have gone on to be contributing members of society and make
impacts in their communities because of the values instilled in them
by Kearly while they were here.
Kearly says a lot of credit goes to those who aspire to be Michigan Tech Huskies.
“A great thing—maybe the best thing—about coaching at Tech is the quality of young
person you get to work with,” he says. “I would always tell the staff that wherever
they coached in their careers, they might coach a better athlete, but
they would never coach a better kid.”
Kearly says the quality, character, and integrity of the individual players reflected back on the team as a whole. “In 11 years as head coach I had very few discipline issues that I had to address. A big part of our success was having smart kids who wanted to get better, and do the right thing.”
Brett Gervais ’16, of Lake Linden, played for Kearly and the Huskies for four years and was All-American following his senior season. Gervais says, to him, Kearly was more than a coach.
“He used his role as a coach to teach his players how to work hard, be respectful, and always do the right thing,” Gervais says. “Coach always made sure we were involved in volunteering activities around the Houghton area. His coaching achievements say a lot about how great of a football coach he was. But the positive impact he had on his players in regards to life after football is what made playing for Coach Kearly a privilege.”
Not only did Kearly impact those who played for him, but those who worked beside him. Steve Olson worked with Kearly for six seasons, the last three as defensive coordinator. In November 2016, Sanregret picked him to succeed his former boss. He calls working with Kearly “a pleasure” and says if he would have stayed “for three, 10, or 50 years as the head coach, that would have been fine with me.”
"A great thing—maybe the best thing—about coaching at Tech is the quality of young person you get to work with."
Olson says the things Kearly repeated to his players demonstrate the character he was trying to instill.
“He’d say, ‘Keep your head down, your mouth shut, and keep moving forward,’” Olson says. “Translated—‘Work hard, don’t complain, and work to make things better.’”
The new skipper says Kearly always put a strong emphasis on family. “He’d say to the
players, ‘When you go home, travel safe and tell your mom that you love her.’”
Gervais agrees with Olson that family ties were important to Kearly. “He always made sure when we went home on holidays we thanked our high school coaches and told our parents that we loved them.”
Olson says he’s honored to take over a program with a long and storied history. “Like Coach Kearly said many times, ‘Michigan Tech has always been and will always be an outstanding academic institution. We’ve worked hard to create a great football program—and one that our players, fans, and alumni can be proud of.’ My staff and I will work hard to continue that tradition.”
While Kearly’s departure did take many by surprise, he says it wasn’t an impulsive decision.
“Patty and I had talked about me retiring for a couple of years,” Kearly says. “I think a big part was for 38 years I haven’t enjoyed the fall. I think it’s the best season of the year and I haven’t been able to enjoy it. I want to see August through November.”
He says 17 years at Tech, 11 as head coach takes its toll. “You are in charge of 115 young men and you live through and work through all their individual victories, defeats, ups, downs, and concerns, as well as the those of the team and the program. President Mroz (referring to his own 2018 plans to return to faculty) made a statement that I thought was true of my own situation: ‘It’s time.’”
Even though he’s stepped away from coaching, Kearly says the program will always be important to him and to that end, he is looking toward the future.
“We are in the process of finalizing the plans for a new stadium. It’s the one facility that is really needed. We’ve had influential alumni make generous pledges to help build it and are in the final stages of getting that project underway.”
Thanks to generous supporters, new turf, lighting, and a VIP fan pavilion were added to the stadium and field. Additional upgrades that need alumni and friend gifts include new seating for 2,500 fans, a press box, concession area, restrooms, and parking.
“We want to enhance the game-day experience to make the Husky Football Stadium and Sherman Field the most competitive NCAA Division II facility in the nation,” says Bill Roberts, associate vice president of advancement and alumni engagement. “We encourage alumni and friends to show their Husky pride to support football, a Michigan Tech tradition, and to ensure Huskies have exceptional facilities for the future.”
Sanregret says the new stadium would be a fitting way to honor father and son. “Both Ted and Tom have left a legacy of excellence. And our stadium renovations, funded by those who they have impacted, would be a great way to honor what they mean to Tech and the football program.”
Tom Kearly’s relationship with Husky football began in childhood watching his father. Rest assured Kearly’s relationship with the program isn’t over. He will always be a Michigan Tech Football guy. Only now he’ll watch games without a clipboard or headset.
Michigan Technological University is a public research university founded in 1885 in Houghton, Michigan, and is home to more than 7,000 students from 55 countries around the world. Consistently ranked among the best universities in the country for return on investment, the University offers more than 125 undergraduate and graduate degree programs in science and technology, engineering, computing, forestry, business and economics, health professions, humanities, mathematics, social sciences, and the arts. The rural campus is situated just miles from Lake Superior in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, offering year-round opportunities for outdoor adventure.