Careers of Paul Mercer, Mike Themas spanned decades

Tim Alexander / Times Correspondent
Paul and Joyce Mercer

A pair of longtime Chillicothe-IVC coaches and educators were inducted into the Illinois Valley Central High School Athletic Hall of Fame at intermission of the annual “Pack the Gym” game on Dec. 15. 

Coaches Paul Mercer and Mike Themas led and mentored student-athletes at IVC for a combined 85 years in a variety of sports, most notably basketball and track, respectively. The coaches, who both still reside in Chillicothe, were accompanied by their wives as IVC athletic director Dan Camp presented them with plaques during the ceremony.

Mercer’s coaching career spanned 45 years at IVC District 321, with the last 37 spent coaching boys and girls basketball. He also spent 26 years as an assistant track coach, 16 years as the underclass boys basketball coach, nine years as freshman volleyball coach, five years as underclass football coach, and three years as cross country coach. 

Mercer spent 21 years as varsity girls basketball coach, with his varsity teams recording a 345-218 record. His teams claimed conference championships in both the Mid-Illini and NCIC conferences, and were regional champions ten times during the 21-year span. Mercer’s 2005 girls’ team won sectional and super-sectional titles before advancing to the state’s Elite 8, a feat never duplicated at the school.

Themas’ 40-year IVC track and field coaching career is the longest on record at the school. During that span, individual track and field records were achieved in every fresh-soph category and all but two varsity categories. His varsity dual and triangular record was 282 wins, 92 losses and two ties.

Track and field teams coached by Themas at IVC set three Peoria Journal Star-area records and won eight conference championships. His team won three sectional titles and qualified 133 athletes for competition in state IHSA finals. Of those 133 athletes, 28 were state medalists, five were state champions and one was a state record holder. Themas’ career also included 30 years as freshman-sophomore football coach and ten years as cross country coach. 

“It definitely is an honor,” said Themas of his induction into the Chilli-IVC Sports HOF. “Especially to be inducted at the same time as Paul. My daughter actually played basketball for him and he was an assistant track coach for me for many years. It was really nice.”

Themas, who retired from IVC in 2009, said his coaching philosophy was simply to expose as many potential student-athletes as possible to opportunities to succeed in track and field. “I tried to get as many as possible when they were freshmen, but these days there is more specialization in sports; there are not that many athletes who letter in two or three sports. So it is more of a challenge,” he said.

Highlights of Themas’ coaching career included consistency in sending athletes to state track finals competition, and “just having a lot of good athletes to work with,” he said. “Some can coach forever and not experience that kind of success. In track and field you have to have a lot of (talented) kids, and not just a few. You have to have depth to be good as a team, and we enjoyed that. It was fun.”

Mercer said his coaching philosophy and goals for his student-athletes was to help them acquire the skills necessary to play sports, but also to instill a love of competition that would aid them later in life. “Basketball was my favorite of all, but losing or winning was never a part of it,” he said. “It was nice when we won, but it’s about giving everything you can. If the team beats you, then they beat you. Winning or losing was immaterial; it was about having fun and learning as a team and improving every time you step on the court-- at both practice and games.

“This helps later in life because you are going to win some and you are going to lose some, and you have t be able to deal with the losses and know what you are going to do. Do you get back up and go at it again? It’s a game, but it’s also life.”

Mercer encouraged a team concept on every team he coached, stressing the importance of working together from top to bottom to attain a set goal. “It’s not just the starters that make it work, it’s the sixth-through-eleventh players off the bench that make the difference. Because if you don’t work, you never get any better and the team and the starters never get any better.”

Highlights of his coaching career included the 1981 IVC HOF team that advanced to the state boys basketball tournament as a member of the Mid-Illini Conference. That year, Mercer recalled, was a special year in that all levels of boys coaches combined to make one coaching staff. As a fresh-soph coach, he was part of a coaching team that led the state-bound team to success. 

When his girls teams found success, Mercer recalls the teams as having a special desire to work harder in each practice to improve their skills and efficiency, while believing in themselves and their coach. 

“We worked hard and knew we could get to state, and we did. During the time we won eight regionals in a row, we had disappointments but they couldn’t have given me any more. I’m disappointed we never reached the next step in our goal, but we reached a lot of my goals-- to play together and improve skills,” said Mercer, adding that his coaching mentor was his own high school basketball coach, Howard Holman. 

“He came during my junior year and I was a starter, but he told me I was going to have to shoot the ball or he would find someone else who wanted to play,” Mercer recalled of Holman. “I loved the game, and when I started college, I came back and wanted to help and assist his teams on a non-paid basis. I asked him what it took to be a coach in Illinois, and he said you have to be a teacher. That is actually why I became an educator, because of my love of coaching basketball.”