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Ben Davis strength coach retires after 40 years: 'You get to make a difference.'

Kevin Vanderbush already has his plans set following his retirement breakfast on Thursday morning at Ben Davis High School.

“In about an hour,” he said, “I’ll be kayaking out on Eagle Creek.”

Vanderbush, 65, was not especially emotional about his final day at Ben Davis. It's not his style. It was 40 years ago then-football coach Dick Dullaghan convinced the Ben Davis administration the school needed a full-time strength coach.

A what?

In 1984, many college programs did not have a strength coach.

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Kevin Vanderbush is retiring after 40 years as the strength and conditioning coach at Ben Davis.
Kevin Vanderbush is retiring after 40 years as the strength and conditioning coach at Ben Davis.

There was no model, really, for Vanderbush to follow. Boyd Epley at Nebraska was considered the guru of strength training at the time. In the days before email, Vanderbush sent letters to Epley and other colleges asking for copies of their programs in each sport. He pored over each one and quickly reached a conclusion: The programs, no matter the sport, were similar.

“That’s when I developed the idea of a unified approach,” Vanderbush said.

Partly out of a lack of physical space and time during class, Vanderbush developed a relatively simple program that was roughly the same for all sports.

“Using the variables we had at the time — we wanted it during class, we wanted it unified, and we only had 35 minutes of work time during class — it became a much more efficient way to do it than what a lot of people were doing at the time,” he said. “We came up with a program basically based on the situation that we had at the time.”

Success followed. Ben Davis won its first football state championship in 1987, a run of four in five seasons that came on the heels of Ben Davis posting 11 winning seasons in 47 years prior to Vanderbush’s arrival. Schools took notice of what he was doing with Ben Davis’ strength program across all sports. In Vanderbush’s 40 years, more than 400 schools have visited. There are no secrets here. Vanderbush is happy to share.

“The more success we had, people started asking, ‘What are you guys doing over there?’” he said. “I’ve been able to speak at a number of national conferences and schools have brought me in to talk to their athletic programs. If I have something somebody wants, I’m going to give it to them. I always thought with strength and conditioning, I could help people and help grow the profession.”

Eventually, the weight room moved from a converted gymnastics room to the current 6,200-square foot room that was built when the school was renovated in 2000. By that time, other Indiana high schools were following Ben Davis’ blueprint of having their own athletic weight room, a weight class during the school day and hiring a dedicated strength coach.

Ian Dieters (left), Ben Davis High School, chats with head coach Kevin Vanderbush, during Dieters' singles 1 match with Danny Rayl, Park Tudor High School, in the Indiana High School Athletic Association Tennis Regional 1 semifinals on Wednesday, Oct. 8, 2014.
Ian Dieters (left), Ben Davis High School, chats with head coach Kevin Vanderbush, during Dieters' singles 1 match with Danny Rayl, Park Tudor High School, in the Indiana High School Athletic Association Tennis Regional 1 semifinals on Wednesday, Oct. 8, 2014.

“I feel like what we were able to early kind of set the tone for schools later on,” he said.

Vanderbush certainly had his opportunities to leave Ben Davis and move on to a college program. Part of his reason to stay was family related. He and Becky, his wife of 42 years, raised four children — sons Ky, Brock and Blake and daughter Kortney — two miles from the school. The life of a college coach could be nomadic. “I didn’t want to live out of a box where every time a coach is fired, I’m moving somewhere else,” he said. But there was more to it, too.

“I always felt like me moving to college would be an ego move,” Vanderbush said. “To me, high school has all kinds of advantages. One is, you get to make a difference in kids in a really important time in their life. We get a lump of clay and get to mold it. College guys only get to put the glaze on.

"To me, this job is better than a sport coach job because you get to make the kids better. Nobody is complaining about playing time. You’re just there to help a kid out. It’s a great way to teach sports psychology. When you are working with a kid in the weight room, they are ripe for listening to the mental part of it — mental toughness and how they handle adversity.”

Vanderbush is one of four founders of the National High School Strength Coaches Association, which he has always considered a “side job” in addition to working with the athletes at Ben Davis. He enjoys mentoring other strength and conditioning coaches and will certainly be available to his replacement, Ben Davis graduate Demarco Henry.

“I’ll probably be calling him twice a day,” Henry said with a laugh.

Vanderbush encouraged Henry to get a feel for what’s working over a period of time and then make tweaks how he sees fit.

“The thing I’ll miss in this profession is that I can mentor, counsel and advise,” Vanderbush said. “You can make a difference. I say that every day on my way to work that I have a chance to make a difference in somebody’s life. You can look back at your day and point to different times where you helped a kid who needed you or mentored a coach who needed you.”

Fittingly, Vanderbush’s 496th football game in 40 years at Ben Davis was the program’s 10th state championship. The Giants defeated Crown Point 38-10 to win the Class 6A state title in November. Vanderbush might be back at some point on Friday night but not likely this fall.

“My wife said it would be nice to have me home on a Friday night,” he said. “She is an unbelievable coach’s wife. She took care of everything. So, I’ll definitely be around the family and grandkids more.”

Vanderbush is a voracious reader of books. When asked if he would be wistful or emotional leaving Ben Davis for the final time after 40 years as the strength coach, he referenced a book called, “The Gap and The Gain” by Dan Sullivan. The book discusses the measuring yourself against an ideal (the gap) vs. what you have accomplished from a starting point (the gain). The fun part now is what lies ahead in the gain.

“I’m a big believer in looking at the positive vs. looking at what you don’t have,” Vanderbush said. “To me, what I’m going to have now are things I haven’t been able to experience. I’ve been able to experience this for 40 years. Getting an opportunity to do something different doesn’t make me think, ‘I wish I could have more time with this.’ This is what I’m ready for. I’m ready for the next chapter.”

Call Star reporter Kyle Neddenriep at (317) 444-6649.

This article originally appeared on Indianapolis Star: Ben Davis strength coach pioneer Kevin Vanderbush retires after 40 years