CHARLOTTESVILLE — Fresh out of college more than 50 years ago, Jerry Cain knew what he wanted to do, and it had nothing to do with coaching.
A 1963 Ball State University graduate, Cain secured his first teaching job at New Palestine in the fall, and then life presented him with an opportunity — one that would change his course.
Hesitant at first, the idea seemed far fetched — coaching? — but young and eager for a challenge, Cain reluctantly agreed. Looking back, it was the best decision he ever made.
“Honestly, I never ever gave one thought that I would coach for one second,” Cain said. “It never entered my mind, but it’s been a journey and a pleasure.”
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Starting as the boys cross-country coach at New Palestine, Cain moved on to Warren Township’s Creston Middle School in 1972 and Warren Central High School for two more years before retiring.
After 15 years away, he picked up the clipboard and whistle again, this time at Eastern Hancock, his final landing spot and the most memorable, he reminisces today.
Yet, after five seasons coaching girls track for the Royals, Cain has decided to step down. This time for good.
“I just can’t do this anymore. This past year was so hard on me. I won’t lie, I’m still tired,” said Cain, who has more than 35 years of coaching experience. “I’m 75, and I love doing it. I don’t really want to quit, but I know I can’t do it anymore. I want to do justice for the kids. I’m not the coach I was 30 or 40 years ago. It bothers you.”
Cain’s recent resignation is actually his third from coaching.
At New Palestine he guided the boys cross-country program for nine years back when the growing community and school had about 230 students enrolled.
While employed with Southern Hancock County Community Schools, Cain built the team nearly from scratch and turned it into a contender.
In the four years prior to taking the helm, the Dragons won only one meet. The same pattern held in his first season, then it increased to four before the team lost just one event by the fourth year.
The Dragons won their conference in his fourth and fifth seasons and remained in the mix the final four of his tenure.
“I said I would never coach again after I left New Palestine,” Cain said. “Then I restarted again at Creston and Warren, and then again at Eastern. But this is it. There will be no restarts.”
Cain, a 1959 Mt. Comfort High School graduate, said the same thing in 1972 when he was pestered to become the ninth-grade boys track coach at Creston Middle School.
Coming out of retirement the first time, he spent 22 years at the school as a math teacher but found a home on the track, where he witnessed many premier athletes along the way, including Greg Graham.
Graham, who ran track for Cain in middle school, later was picked 17th overall in the 1993 NBA Draft and starred at Indiana University for Bobby Knight’s Hoosiers from 1989-93.
In 1994, Cain moved up and coached the girls track team at Warren Central before the Warriors developed into a state power. In his final year, the Warriors captured their first of an eventual 17 sectional titles in 1995-96.
Since then, Warren Central has won four state titles with the most recent earlier this month.
“You’d like to think you helped. They hadn’t won (a sectional), and we got it,” Cain laughed. “They got better real soon afterward.”
Life slowed down for Cain, or so to speak, after he retired from both coaching and teaching in 1996.
An avid basketball fan, he binged, taking in nearly seven high school or college games a week in the winter months. A hobby he’s had since his youth, Cain prides himself on traveling both near and far to see the state’s and nation’s best boys and girls hoops stars.
“He’s a huge, crazy basketball fan, so we always talked basketball,” Eastern Hancock athletics director and boys basketball coach Aaron Spaulding said. “He even took me to some games when I was younger.”
One of Cain’s favorite gymnasiums was the now defunct Wigwam in Anderson, where he took Spaulding to see the Anderson Indians and Marion’s “Purple Reign” in the 1980s.
“He loves athletics, and he goes everywhere to see people play,” Spaulding said.
Cain can’t sit still either. A Rush County Township Trustee, he spent his 15-year “retirement” farming, painting buildings and seal-coating parking lots and driveways, which he continues to do.
Coaching re-entered the picture only when his past caught up with him.
Contacted by a former New Palestine student, Steve Jones, Cain was informed about an open position at Eastern Hancock. Spaulding, a former student of Cain’s at Creston, immediately reached out to his former math teacher as well.
“I think at that time in his life he felt like he still had some good energy, so I felt good that he would be interested,” Spaulding said.
There was one stipulation, said Cain.”I told Aaron I didn’t want to start from nothing. I was 70 at the time, maybe when you’re 50, but you know what, we were a whole lot better than I thought.”
In his first season with the Royals, the girls track team was 48-5 with all their losses coming against Class 4A programs. By the end of his fifth year, the Royals were 179-28. The team was 19-1 against 3A schools and 15-21 against 4A competition.
“The biggest surprise when I got there was how competitive the kids were,” Cain said. “Those kids competed just as well as the kids from Warren. The competitiveness is what made them successful.”
The community made his job easier than anything else.
“It’s a different world than Warren, but I liked Eastern Hancock a lot better,” Cain said. “You just get to know the kids so much better. You get to know some of the parents. At Warren, you hardly knew the kids and none of the parents. There are just too many people.”
The support from the families and his athletes’ drive to win led to sustained success for the Royals, which won the Mid-Hoosier Conference four years straight, including this past spring.
The title was bittersweet, however, said Cain. After the 2015-16 school year, the Royals will no longer be affiliated with the MHC and are currently seeking to join a new conference. In the meantime, the school will operate as an independent.
“We’re exploring different options. Right now, I don’t feel real confident in us being in a conference next year. That might change, but we want to make sure what we do will be a good situation long run,” Spaulding said.
While the lack of a conference didn’t push Cain’s decision, he won’t deny it played a role as he weighed returning in 2016-17 with his wife of 53 years, Janice.
“Without class in track, when you go to sectional against Lawrence North, Mt. Vernon and Pendleton, you’re never going to win the thing,” Cain said. “Our big meet is the conference. That’s what we strive for, and I don’t want to coach track without one. Not that it was the primary reason I’m leaving, but I’d much rather coach in one.”
Instead, Cain will keep doing what he is more than able — staying active.
“I’m not going away. I’ve made it a point my whole life to go see the kids on my team, even in other sports. As years have progressed, it’s become their kids and even grandkids,” he said. “I have plenty of things to do, but maybe it’s time to get the rocking chair? I don’t think so. If I haven’t done it by 75, then it’s not going to happen. As long as I can go, I’ll go.”