Larry McKenzie walks into one of his favorite restaurants for lunch and a patron comes over to say hello. The woman hugs McKenzie and thanks him for all that he has done for young people in Minneapolis.
McKenzie is overwhelmed by the outpouring of love he's received since announcing his retirement from coaching high school basketball last week. He has been flooded with calls, texts and social media salutes from former players, coaches, parents and fans in Minnesota and across the nation.
"I didn't know the impact," he says.
His impact is immeasurable because McKenzie's legacy extends well beyond his Hall of Fame coaching record: 481-166 with six state championships.
He embraced coaching as a vocation, a calling. He refers to players as his kids. He became a father figure to them, a rock in the lives of young people searching for someone to lean on, someone they could trust unequivocally with their problems.
"I don't think I was the greatest X's-and-O's coach," he says. "But what I did know is how to treat my kids with unconditional love."
The job has changed. Parents are more vocal and intrusive in the coach-player relationship. McKenzie believes social media has created more individual agendas on the court. Coaching is much more difficult now, he says. At age 65, he decided he'd had enough.
"The game has changed and that's OK," he says. "It's just not for me."
He is concerned about the coaching profession. McKenzie served as the boys' coach at Holy Angels at the same time as girls' coach Nathan McGuire, whose career later was sabotaged by a disgruntled parent who made false accusations of bullying, harassment and inappropriate touching. McGuire recently won a settlement after an eight-year ordeal when the woman finally admitted to fabricating her claims.
McKenzie sees helicopter parenting as a mushrooming problem. He routinely received calls or text messages after games from parents asking about their son's playing time or role.
McKenzie also is concerned about the potential impact of name, image and likeness (NIL) legislation recently approved by the Minnesota State High School League. Athletes are allowed to earn compensation for sponsorships and endorsements.
McKenzie worries that NIL will favor private and affluent schools, cause athletes to transfer — much like what is happening at the college level — and create disruptions within teams. He envisions coaches being pressured to make decisions on playing time based on financial reasons tied to NIL.
"I just see that coming," he says, "and that wasn't something I wanted to deal with in the locker room."
He has a new mission. He wants to coach coaches. He sees a need for hands-on training, not in strategy but in relationship-building and understanding the true essence of coaching. He plans to start an 18-week program that includes a fall retreat for coaches, practice and game evaluations and life skills training.
"I really want to become a strong advocate for coaches," he says.
He will be busy in retirement. He plans to write books and has one year left to earn his master's degree in sports leadership. And he will continue to give motivational speeches nationally.
The past few years have taken an emotional toll on him with the pandemic, George Floyd's murder, the fatal shooting of Minneapolis North sophomore athlete Deshaun Hill Jr. in February and racist comments sent to one of his players on social media after a state tournament game in March.
McKenzie is a man of great internal strength, but the gravity of those events required more of the coach's love and support as a pillar for his players and school.
The racist incidents that took place at high school sporting events this season stir painful memories for McKenzie, who grew up in the South at the end of the civil rights movement.
At age 9, he and his sister were walking with their father in Miami when they came upon a Woolworth's. They asked their dad if they could eat at the lunch counter. Blacks were prohibited from eating there.
"I just wondered how he felt," McKenzie says. "Money in his pocket but not being able to take your kids in there. Not because you couldn't afford it, but because of the color of your skin."
His dad died 14 years ago. McKenzie regrets never having a conversation with his dad about that day.
McKenzie visited Nashville several years ago and ate a meal at a historic downtown Woolworth's. He called his mom while he was there.
"I said, 'Mom, I finally got to eat at the Woolworth counter,' " he says. "I carried that for 55 years."
Fast forward to March. North wins a state semifinal game and one of McKenzie's players checks social media afterward and finds a racist message. The coach consoles the young man in what should have been a joyous moment.
"I have four granddaughters and I just wonder: Are we moving backwards or are we going forward?" he says.
McKenzie is determined to keep fighting for change and to uncover good in the world, to be an advocate for those who need it. He might not hold the position of coach anymore, but he will never stop coaching. It's who he is.