A lifetime of dedication to kids leads coach to special honor

By Mike Holzheimer

In the world of coaching, Joe Kilburg has seen it all.

In fact, Kilburg has seemingly done it all by way of coaching a multitude of sports teaching the games to thousands of youngsters.  A wonderful career spanning some 43 years has led Kilburg to the baseball diamond, the football field, the basketball court, the golf course, the hockey arena, and even the bowling alley.

“Yes, I guess I have been somewhat well-rounded in my career,” said Kilburg, who resides with his wife Judy in Bay Village.  “I’ve been lucky to be a part of such a wonderful profession as coaching.”

Such a rewarding career has led Kilburg down a glorious path to receive the ultimate of honors for those in the coaching profession.  A veteran baseball coach for many a season at Cleveland Central Catholic, Kilburg was inducted into the prestigious Northeast Ohio Baseball Coaches Association (NEOBCA) Hall of Fame on June 24 from Akron’s Canal Park as part of the Annual County All-Star Baseball Games.  Ken Krepop (Westlake), Jim Rucki (Rocky River/Liberty-Benton), Brian Silwinski (Benedictine) and Bill Frey (Brunswick) joined Kilburg as representatives of the hall’s Class of 2015.

“It was really nice,” said Kilburg, of the day’s ceremony.  “I was proud to be honored with my fellow coaches.”

Kilburg is also proud of his opportunity to teach and coach so many kids.  It all started at the CYO level where Kilburg basically implemented both basketball and baseball programs at Cleveland’s old St. Michael School, while the years that followed found the veteran coach spending time at Cleveland Central Catholic as the baseball coach.

“Jerry Chase (Olmsted Falls) gave me my first break in coaching at Central,” said Kilburg.  “I also had the chance to meet Ken Ciolek (Lakewood).  Both guys are good friends and have been very influential regarding my coaching career.”

Kilburg would cross paths again with Chase and Ciolek as assistant baseball coaches at Baldwin-Wallace under veteran head coach Bob Fisher.  Kilburg spent 11 seasons as an assistant at the collegiate level, while also coaching 17-19 year-olds in the Parma-MSI Travel League.

“The travel league was fun in that we played in tournaments across the country,” Kilburg said.  “Our goal was to have fun, and teach the kids the most in fundamental baseball so as to get them ready for college ball.  Winning and losing wasn’t the focus, it was about preparing young men for their futures.”

At CCC, Kilburg was also the girls’ basketball coach for 13 seasons where his teams won 67 percent of its games.  In addition to that, he coached bowling for 22 years, golf for two seasons, while also coaching the hockey team at Bay High School for nine years.

“I’ve had the chance to meet some really great people, and be successful at all levels,” said Kilburg.  “I believed then, and I believe today that the way you teach the game and how you treat the kids is important.”

Kilburg, who officially retired from scholastic and collegiate coaching in 2013, earned “Coach of the Year” honors in basketball three times and once in hockey.  He was also recognized by way of a unique honor in 1994.  He was recommended by colleagues to receive the “Ohio Baseball Family of the Year” Award, sponsored by the French’s Mustard Company.

And speaking of family, baseball runs very deep with his two sons Joe and Jim.  Joe, a 10th round draft choice of the Cleveland Indians, played his college ball at Stanford with professional baseball stops coming with the Cincinnati Reds and the Boston Red Sox.  Untimely injuries, however, forced an end to his 10-year career. 

Jim, who spent time as a summer coach at the Phil Bova Baseball Camp, is a musician working as a counselor at Ohio State University.

The Bova Baseball Camp has truly been a special and annual tradition with Kilburg.  The camp has been operating for 42 years with Kilburg working 40 of those years during the summer.  He took one year off to watch son Joe at Stanford.

“I have so enjoyed my time with Phil and working his camp,” said Kilburg.  “In the beginning, it was an overnight camp.  That was the first time I really experienced spending a significant amount of time with other coaches.  It was so unique in that after the kids were put to bed, the coaches would stay up hours, sometimes as late as 3 or 4 in the morning just talking baseball, and how you would teach a certain fundamental or cover a certain play on the field.

“After all these years coaching baseball, I still feel as though I’m still learning,” continued the Hall of Fame coach.  “An aspect of the Bova Camp is that I get energized listening to the younger coaches, and how they would approach a situation on the diamond.   It’s a constant learning experience.”

Bova’s camp features coaches that bring well over 200 years of baseball knowledge to the staff.

“Phil really liked my coaching style and how I teach the kids,” said Kilburg.  “He’s kind of given me an ‘open door’ policy as far as how I do my thing at camp.  Each year, I give a specific talk on pitching and hitting.  One summer I told the camp about how you can practice your baseball skills around the house with simple household items.  You can do these things without being a part of a team.  You can always find a way to work on your game.  I still have kids come over to my house today and work on hitting by attacking a ball that sits on a tube nestled inside a milk container.

“The game continues to evolve,” continued Kilburg.  “The Bova Camp continues to keep up with those changes.  I enjoy coaching my team every year.  The evaluations that all of the coaches fill out for every camper is very important.  I go beyond the normal ratings of GOOD, AVERAGE, I offer as many personal notes as I can to the camper.  I want to emphasize what we talked about at camp.  I enjoy it every summer.”

The kids certainly enjoy taking in all of the knowledge that Kilburg has to offer when it comes to baseball.  He reminds all players of that painful reality that most teens don’t want to hear.

“You may think you know everything, but you don’t,” he says.  “I am constantly learning new things and new approaches by way of listening to other coaches and watching players.”

There’s an old adage that states “the road to improvement is always under construction.”

Joe Kilburg continues to travel down such a road that has rewarded both he, and his former players with much success.  Such a journey with similar results now awaits future players waiting to be taught by the Hall of Fame coach.