CHARLESTON — After Tom Akers received an undergraduate degree from the University of Northern Iowa in 1979, he knew he wanted to give college coaching a try. So he coached for a year at the University of Dubuque where he was also a housing coordinator.
Akers learned two things at Dubuque – he wanted to continue coaching, and he grew sick of telling college students to turn down their music at 1 in the morning.
So Akers sent out a bunch of applications all over not only the Midwest but also around the country to see what coaching interest he could drum up. One of his applications drew the interest of then Eastern Illinois track and field coach Neil Moore, who remembered Akers' accomplishments on the track at UNI just a couple of years ago.
Akers was a two-time captain at UNI and set the school and conference records in the 110- and 400-meter hurdles. His Mid-Continent Conference record in the 110 hurdles stood for 17 years. Akers was an eight-time national qualifier and was an All-American in the 400 hurdles in 1979.
EIU was a member of the Mid-Con, and after seeing what Akers could do on the track, Moore thought he would be a good addition to the coaching staff as a graduate assistant.
"He recognized my name and saw I had a year of college coaching," Akers said. "He invited me down and it to me, it was similar to UNI. I came here, did my graduate work, and that was sort of what brought me here."
While Akers did leave a couple of times, once shortly after getting his master's and also for a four-year stint in Arizona, he's been a staple of EIU's track program for the past 30-plus years. It was something he couldn't envision, spending so many years in Charleston, when he was hired as a grad assistant back in 1980.
"I don't know what I was thinking. I was just happy to be here, and I just loved it here. Did I think I was going to spend the rest of my life here? I didn't think that far ahead," Akers said with a chuckle.
On Tuesday, Akers, who has served as EIU's director of track and field, announced he will retire after the 2018 outdoor season, a decision the 61-year old has been thinking about the past couple of years. He came to the decision over the Christmas break that this would be his last season leading the EIU programs.
"I didn't want to make the decision during the indoor season. I figured this was the best time to announce it before the outdoor season started. Get it out of the way soon enough, so if there are any questions marks for the athletes, we can get it taken care of," Akers said. "That way we could go after this final season with all of the hard work and enthusiasm we need."
Akers has been a staple of the EIU track and field program. After spending some time in Texas, he came back in 1983 as an assistant coach. During that time, he was responsible for recruiting and coaching EIU's first NCAA Division I National Champion – Shelbyville native Jim Maton, who was a four-time NCAA All-American in 1987-88. Maton won the 800-meter run and he holds the most school records in the middle distance events.
"I was shaking like a leaf when Jim won the 800-meter at nationals," Akers said.
Maton also provided one of the best memories for Akers during his coaching career. At the Mid-Con conference meet, Maton ran in the 1,500-meter run and then had to come back 25 minutes later and run in the 800-meter run. His opponents could see how gassed Maton was, and one of the runners got off to a big lead early and Maton was in third place.
"He gets around the 500-meter mark and the second kid goes by Jim, and I am standing down by the backstretch and I see him drop his shoulders and his body language said, 'I'm tired, I can't race these guys,'" Akers said. "I am standing right there and I just say, 'Jimmy you have to believe.' I could see him look at me, then look at the guy that just went by him and he started to dig in. He would tuck his chin, put his head down and go after it.
"He made that change within a couple of seconds. He goes around the turn and passes that guy. Then later, he catches the leader who was way out there and blows past him. He ran it in 1:49.01, and that record stood for I don't know how many years in the Mid-Con, now the Summit League. If you believe you can, you can do it. To see how he clicks in and clicks out of that moment, that will always be in my mind."
Akers also recruited Dan Steele during his time as an assistant coach. Steele was a two-time D-I All-American and a national champion in the 400 hurdles.
Mattoon assistant track and cross country coach Dale Righter ran for Akers at EIU in the late 1980's and said Akers is a "runner's coach."
"He had been a successful athlete himself, and he knew what it was like to work hard, he knew what it was like to suffer, to train and push through fatigue. He could identify with that," Righter said. "He talked me and countless other runners through difficult training periods."
In 1990, Akers' wife Joelyn had their first son, and he figured it was time to look for a bigger job to support his family, which ended up being his two sons, Clayton and Blake. So he took a job at the University of Arizona from 1990 to 1994. He didn't coach at Arizona, but he did coach at the high school level and helped start a program at Catalina Foothills High School.
Then Moore was forced to step down as the track and field coach at EIU because of his health, and Akers got the call asking him to come back as the EIU's men's track and field coach.
"It was a no-brainer to come back, and in the middle of winter in 1995, we left toasty Arizona for Charleston," Akers said.
Since Akers came back in 1995, the Panthers have been a force in the Ohio Valley Conference. In 23 years, EIU has won a combined 45 indoor and outdoor men's and women's track championships since EIU joined the OVC. He also guided the Panthers to back-to-back Mid-Continent Conference indoor and outdoor men's track championships in the program's final two years in the league.
Akers has been named the OVC Coach of the Year 45 times and has won 32 OVC championships. In 2009, he took over the direction of both the men's and women's programs and has won 13 women's titles in that times.
Righter said Akers always expected his athletes to give them all they had, and that made each athlete better.
"He raised the bar on expectations, but he also gave you a sense that you could achieve it," Righter said. "I ran faster at Eastern than I ever thought I could run in my lifetime, and coach Akers gets a lion's share of the credit for that."
He was inducted into the Illinois Track and Field Hall of Fame in 2015, and his office is littered with championship trophies throughout his seasons as the coach.
But to Akers, those trophies are nice, but they are also good at collecting dust. For Akers, he got into coaching because of the athletes.
"The relationships I've developed with the athletes that have come through the program, that's been the most rewarding thing about it," Akers said. "You want to try and make a difference in the world, and somehow and as a coach and teacher and I got the opportunity to do that. It's far more rewarding than any championship trophy or any accolades to come your way. The most memorable things are those relationships."
He's currently in Texas for the D-I Indoor Nationals with Haleigh Knapp as she competes in the long jump. He's coached a total of 19 All-Americans.
"Those are the things that become the most memorable type moments, seeing so many athletes achieve things they didn't think they would do," Akers said. "It doesn't even have to be at the national championship level. There was a kid who was a member of the team for five years. The first year he traveled with us, we took him to the indoor conference championships and he scored one point. That kid was as happy as if he won a national championship. You couldn't take the smile off his face."
As far as who the next coach will be for the EIU track and field programs, Akers didn't name any names because there's too many to choose from.
"There have been so many individuals that have come through our program that are coaching now in the college and high school ranks that I have nothing but respect," Akers said. "When I see what they are doing, it makes me proud and I am impressed at the same time. To pick one or two or three, I don't even want to do that. With the facilities and the success the program has had, our indoor track is one of the best in the Midwest, it will attract a good pool of candidates."
Even though Akers is retiring, he will continue to live and Charleston and plans to stay around EIU track and EIU athletics. He does plan to get a good amount of golfing in – and after he's done golfing, he plans to golf some more.
"I truly believe this is a great institution," Akers said. "It's been a blessing to be here. I've been very fortunate to find a home here at Eastern Illinois."