PEKIN — When his long, winding career path brought Rick Kestner back home, the Pekin athletics director had come full circle.
That was not only with his career, but with the school’s famous holiday basketball tournament.
This year’s 53rd Annual Pekin Insurance Holiday Tournament will be the final one under the direction of Kestner, who is retiring after 13 years as AD.
“It’s a lot of responsibility,” Kestner said. “I played in it and, obviously, want to keep it going and be sustainable. We want a great experience for teams and fans who come to Pekin.”
The 62-year-old Kestner has been a high school teacher, coach and assistant principal, and spent 10 years as a college basketball coach at SIU-Edwardsville, Northwest Missouri State and Southeast Missouri State after being a graduate assistant at Eastern Illinois. He is planning to move to Florida.
Kestner, who played two seasons under famed Pekin coach Dawdy Hawkins, credits much of what he’s learned about running the tournament to Kent Ayers, his Pekin AD predecessor. Ayers was a teacher and coach at Pekin when Kestner was a student and has been involved with the tournament since 1968, including running it for 17 years.
“I had a pretty good mentor,” Kestner said. “Kent was my mentor and really helped and still does. I can’t take any credit for how this tournament is run because Kent made the blue print. My idea is to not screw it up.”
“He’s done a great job, running and expanding the tournament,” Ayers said. “There are always things to tweak, little things here and there. The average person doesn’t realize how much this takes, all year 'round, not just December. There are things constantly coming up, and you are working with teams and officials and sponsors. He’s got a special pride in it, there’s no question about that. That’s helped him lead and expand the tournament and helped him do what’s necessary to get the job done.”
Kestner and Ayers both know the necessity of having a lot of ready and willing volunteers.
“We’ve got a lot of people who have worked this tournament for a long time and done a really good job,” Kestner said. “We’ve got a template that really works.”
Pekin Insurance Director of Financial Products Jay Holloman is the tournament chairman and has worked side-by-side with Kestner the last nine years. Ayers says that Pekin Insurance was already involved, but Kestner took the relationship "to another level."
“There’s a lot of things he’s done that people don’t get to see and realize everything he does,” Holloman said. “I do, because I see it. I know how hard he works and how important he is. You can’t ask for someone better who knows what the teams need and what the title sponsor wants. He is going to be missed.”
Said Kestner: “Just in the financial climate today, without having a major corporate sponsor, it would be tough to run this tournament, to pay all the bills."
Kestner played in the tournament and often visited it as a college recruiter.
“I really never gave it much thought then,” he said. “It’s a lot of work. We’ve got a lot of support from the high school and the community. It’s an expectation, a tradition. I wanted to keep a good template in place, tweak this and that, nothing earth-shattering.”
The ever growing tournament, which has a four-game guarantee for each school, added something new this year with games live-streamed.
“We’ve just tried to improve on some things,” Kestner said. “We live-stream games now. We try to appeal to those out of town teams. It’s one of those things that if you don’t keep up with the Jones’ type of things, your tournament’s not as appealing.”
The tournament has also recently featured a prominent place on the Internet and social media with prompt information and results.
“We’ve got some really good Pekin Insurance people who are really good at social media,” Kestner said. “They’re putting stuff out on Facebook and Twitter. I’m not into social media, but I know the importance of it and understand it’s a way to get your word out there and it’s really relevant.”
One thing that won’t be changing anytime soon, however, is really old school. That’s the famed lighted sign of Illinois. Each school is represented with a lighted bulb that goes out when that team loses.
“That’s something we talk about all the time,” said Holloman, who played in the tournament when at Washington. “When you sit in the stands, you hear people talk about it, people look for it. The board may need to have some work done on it at some time. But when I come back to this tournament in 25 years, that will still be there.”
Said Kestner: “Prior to starting to the tournament, Pekin went to Pontiac. I think Coach Hawkins stole some of Pontiac’s ideas, and that was one.
"It might be hokey, but I’m not the one who’s going to change it.”
David Allen can be reached at 686-3214 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @SpudPJS.