A Durango legend has earned his place among the best high school coaches in Colorado history.
Ron Keller, who coached at Durango High School from 1978 to 2002, will be inducted into the Colorado High School Coaches Association Hall of Fame on Saturday during a ceremony in Aurora. He is one of five coaches in the 51st induction class.
“I’ve watched the baseball and football hall of fame speeches every year, and they all talk about how it is a humbling experience and a great honor. I used to think about that,” Keller said. “Now, all of a sudden, I understand what’s going on. I feel humbled and also feel honored about being selected. It is great closure to the end of a coaching career.”
Keller won eight team state championships as the DHS cross country coach for both boys and girls. He also had seven teams take second place at the state cross country meet.
Keller coached several Demons’ athletes to individual championships in track and field, including Elva (Martinez) Dryer, a two-time Olympic middle distance runner.
“He set the standard back in the ’80s and ’90s with all the state championships,” DHS assistant track and field coach and longtime teacher Steve Thyfault said. “He set the standard of what we try to achieve here now.”
Keller set a state record for how many consecutive years he was able to qualify a full team to the state cross country meet, a record that reached 33 under his watch but preceded his time at DHS. His girls teams reached the state meet in 21 of his 23 years at DHS.
Keller was named the cross country coach of the year in 1994 and 1998 by the Colorado High School Coaches Association, which elects one coach annually across all classifications.
The Demons named their annual track and field meet the Ron Keller Invitational to honor their longtime coach.
Coaching cross country wasn’t something Keller had planned on when he began his career, however. He played football at Littleton High School while also competing in track and field, and he earned a scholarship to run track at Northeastern Junior College in Sterling.
“When I first started, I had never coached cross country. I was going to apply for the head football job in 1977, but the athletic director said no because I didn’t have any experience as a head coach,” Keller said. “I took a hiatus from football, and the girls cross country program started in 1978 for its first year. I took that job, and my knowledge grew quickly the next few years.”
Keller took a year off between 1983 and 1984 while he went to Western State to earn a master’s degree. It was during that year he spent a lot of time gaining knowledge from Mountaineers’ head coach Duane Vandenbush, which produced a relationship with longtime Adams State cross country coach Joe Vigil, who coached the Grizzlies for nearly 30 years. Both programs are perennial Division II cross country powerhouses.
“He was probably the best distance coach in the country back then. We had a lot of beers in hotel rooms while I picked his brain,” Keller said of Vigil. “It was good for me to get more experience, and I felt confident and comfortable coaching cross country when I got back to Durango.”
When he returned, Keller said winning a state championship became the only goal.
“It started as a dream. A few years later it was a goal, and a few years later I became obsessed with trying to win a championship,” he said. “I was begging, borrowing and stealing ideas from other coaches to incorporate into my program. In 1984, the boys were third, the next year we were second, and in 1986 the boys won the title. The next year, the girls won their first state title.
“That first eight or nine years I wanted to get in the top tier in the state, and I believe we did that.”
Keller became known for his competitiveness, and he wanted his athletes to face only the best. Within a few years of taking over the cross country teams, he had them traveling all over the state and to big meets in New Mexico and Utah to face the best possible competition so his team would be ready come state championship time.
“He is super competitive as far as how much he wants to win, whether it was coaching an individual or a team,” Thyfault said. “It was always a strategic endeavor whenever he put together a track meet or cross country run. He plotted and always had what we called ‘Kellerisms.’ Those are how he would set up a race or hide his best runner for a meet or two and then, when the competition was around, he would bring them back and have them run. The things he did were very competitive.”
Thyfault also credited Keller for his deep knowledge of the sports he coached, saying there wasn’t an event in track and field Keller couldn’t coach along with the best.
“There is such an enthusiasm and spirit that he creates in the athletes and other coaches. He has influenced a lot of athletes in town over the years and still does,” said Fort Lewis College cross country head coach Mark Dutro, who earned his coaching start as an assistant on Keller’s staff, then later coached the Demons from the top for years, as well.
“Making the hall of fame is long overdue for him.”
Keller is the second running coach from La Plata County to be selected to the CHSAA Hall of Fame. He joins legendary Bayfield High School coach Vernon Kimball, a 2009 inductee who will attend Keller’s ceremony Saturday. Of the 255 coaches enshrined, Keller is just the fourth from the Four Corners area to be selected. He joins Kimball, 2013 inductee Greg King of Norwood, who spent most of his time coaching Del Norte and Simla, and 2002 inductee Ken Soper of Dove Creek.
Keller is the first to be enshrined from DHS.
“There aren’t too many of us from the Four Corners. We are kind of the forgotten corner of the state,” said Kimball, who also was inducted on the strength of his cross country and track and field résumé. “Receiving the award was the highlight of my career, and I’m tickled to death to see a coach the caliber of Ron Keller recognized.”
Keller hasn’t been able to stay entirely away from high school running since his retirement. He still is a special consultant to the Demons’ hurdlers, considering himself a guest lecturer for the team.
“There is still a desire to coach kids; that doesn’t go away,” Keller said. “It goes away when you can’t do it physically or mentally, but it is still inside of me. I don’t need the recognition of being a coach. I just love the kids and have fun.”