Throughout 35 years of coach, one will meet many faces, learn and teach many lessons, experience many high points and impact hundreds. Neligh-Oakdale’s Rick Eickholt has done just that in his time in Northeast Nebraska.
Eickholt was honored at the Nebraska Coaches Association awards banquet on July 23 for 35 years of coaching high school athletes throughout the state.
A 1977 graduate of Woodbine High School in Woodbine, Iowa, Eickholt showed an interest in coaching and teaching at an early age. As a track standout himself, it was easy for him to find a connection with his own coach, Hall of Famer Phil Hummel, who himself coached track for 41 years and was the first non-football or basketball coach to be named the Omaha World Herald coach of the year award.
“He was very influential in what I’ve been able to do. He took me under his arm when I told him that I was going into education and wanted to coach,” explained Eickholt. “One of the quotes I always try to remember and he gave me was, ‘Surround yourself with good people.’ I think I’ve tried to live by that motto with the coaches I’ve worked with and the athletes I’ve had around me.”
Eickholt went on to run track in junior college and at Wayne State. After graduation, he took over at Spalding Academy, where he stayed for four years. After a short time there, he decided it was time to move on and chose to make Neligh his home for the next 31 years, a decision he is grateful to have made.
“I like the community, I like the people I work with. I feel very comfortable here and very at home,” he said. “I’ve said it in a few of the pep rallies over the years, I don’t bleed red anymore, I bleed maroon.”
Eickholt’s dedication to Neligh-Oakdale’s students is evident in his work in athletics. During his time, he has coached numerous track and field medalists, including two all-class gold medal winners. However, his work in building the cross country team from scratch may be what truly represents his dedication to the students.
“When we started the program, that was my selling point is that there are people that either don’t want to or can’t play football or volleyball and this is an option to give them an opportunity to be successful,” he said.
With over three decades of coaching experience under his belt, Eickholt has plenty of stories to tell and has made many memories. Some of his favorites include his own daughter sprinting from the finish line into his arms after qualifying for state as a freshman, the 2010 boys cross country team’s success and this year’s boys track conference runner-up.
He also recalls the joy he felt when Heath Murray cleared 6-08 at the state track meet. That is a common occurrence for Eickholt and a reason why he connects with his athletes so well. When they find success, he feels as much excitement as anyone.
“I feel what the kids do,” he said. “Even being out of it for 40 years, I feel their successes, their joys, their pains. Whatever they go through, I’ve been there and I feel it right along with them. The great thing is just watching the enjoyment they get out of their successes.”
In his time as both a runner and a coach, Eickholt has seen numerous changes throughout track and field and cross country. When he first started running, it was rare to run on the all-weather tracks that nearly every school has today. The scoring system for meets emphasized the relays and competitors were allowed to run in five events instead of just four. One of the biggest changes, however, is the declining numbers as a result of lower enrollment.
None of those changes has stopped Eickholt from loving every day he has as a teacher and coach for Neligh-Oakdale.
“I truly enjoy what I do, although I get tired a lot easier now,” he joked. “I truly enjoy it. The kids keep me young.”
While he doesn’t have any immediate plans to hang up his clip board, Eickholt does know he still has a few things he wants to get done as a coach. Those goals include earning the Platinum Award through the coaches association and coaching the children of some of his former athletes. Whether he is able to attain those goals or not is still up in the air, although not far off. However, one thing is certain, if you ask his former athletes, they’ll likely tell you he’s reached his personal goal many times over.
“My own personal goal is to touch all the athletes I work with in one way, shape or form to make them a better person. I want them to somehow walk away from being in one of the programs I’ve been apart saying, ‘Hey I’m better because of him.’”