He used to be obsessed with winning, at least early on in his career as a cross country and track and field coach. But he has been at the same Alabama high school since George H.W. Bush was in the White House, and now that he is on the backside of a successful career, he coaches differently than he did back then.
As a coach of runners, his job is more about inspiration than technique.
“I have to play more psychologist than I do coach,” he says.
He has had his fair share of runners win state championships and break records. An overflowing trophy case proves that. But he knows that is not all being a coach is about. He points to structure and consistency as key traits in his profession. He has worn the same uniform for twenty-seven years. He says that will never change. Every Monday in cross country his runners take on the hills that peak throughout the city. Every Tuesday they run the track. Every Wednesday is a run through the “wilderness.” Every Thursday is catchup day, and every Friday is pre-race day, followed by the race on Saturday. Every first Monday after July Fourth is time trials on the same course it has been on since 1993.
“Everything is structured,” he says. “Nothing has changed.”
During the summer of 2016, the coach was following his runners around in a golf cart, since he no longer runs with them. He circled around and found his wife standing with a man. She asked her husband if he remembered the man. It turned out to be someone who ran for him in the early 1990s. The man had heard that his former coach was still coaching and decided to come see him. He knew exactly where to find him.
“It’s funny because he was like, ‘You’ve been here so long,’” he says.
The reunion triggers in the coach’s memory when he was first hired, by the school’s head football coach, in 1990. The coach promised his boss that he would retire from the school, that he would not jump ship.
“I think it shocks a lot of people,” he says. “That is consistency.”
That was his goal all along, to build up a program and retire from that program. He has kept his promise, and it has helped to forge strong relationships that have lasted much longer than just four years of high school. His house, the same one he moved to in 1987, remains open for student-athletes both still in high school and long since graduated, to come by to just chat or share real concerns. His house phone number, which is still printed in those ancient phone books, remains the same as it was in 1987. The stadium at which his teams practiced was open from the late 1940s until 2015, when due to its old age was demolished to make way for a new stadium a few miles away. Kids would often drive by that stadium, reach their arms out their car windows and call out to the coach. They knew he would be there.
“I think that has something to be said for kids today in society because people change jobs, people change houses, people change careers, people change where they go to school, but there is something to be said about consistency,” he says.
He says he is sure people gripe about consistency equating to boredom, but he believes that deep down, most people like consistency, like knowing that mom will be home at 5:30 to cook dinner.
“And I think when it comes down to that, there needs to be more of this,” he says.
The coach missed four days in 2015 after his mom died. That week, people remarked at how weird it was for him not to be in his office and at practice.
“If I’m not here, something big has happened,” he says. “I think that structure means a lot. I think that consistency means a lot.”
He is also consistent in the manner in which he advises his runners. They come to him and tell him they want to run fast. Coach, in return, asks them how fast they want to go. They reveal their goal, and he then preaches. He asks them to listen to him, to trust him, to do what he says. He tells them they will have to work hard.
“There is no day off in success,” he says.
He has examples of this. One former runner who graduated in 1997 recently mentioned the coach in a Facebook comment. The point was about how an incredibly successful college football coach demands that his players work toward their goals, even on tough days. The coach had pushed that runner, and he remembered it.
Another runner came to him his freshman year and said he wanted to be great. Coach advised him to run everywhere he went. The runner suffered and made small changes along the way, and Coach kept pushing him. By the end of his senior year, he had broken the indoor state record by seventeen seconds in the two-mile run and by eighteen seconds in the outdoor two-mile run. The runner earned a full-ride scholarship to a four-year university. Once that success came, the runner began reading about certain workouts and formulas to get better. Coach had to rein him back in.
“Don’t change what got you here,” he told him. “This is what got you here. Don’t change it.”
Another former runner once told Coach that he could read ten books with ten different philosophies on how to run fast. That runner told his former coach that there is no secret formula, that he had learned that when the gun goes off, only one person will win the race. Coach remembers that, and advises his student-athletes that if they want to run fast, they must train fast. They get out of it what they put into it, he tells them.
Most recently, a young runner approached him with the statement he seems to hear all the time: “I want to go fast.” Coach again asked the runner for his goal, how fast he wanted to go. He then counseled the runner on what it would take to get him there.
More often than not, the runner buys in to Coach’s reasons. It is a large explanation for why the high school has a successful cross country and track and field program. But the reason behind that buying in starts with Coach’s approachability, something he has worked toward through structure and consistency since promising his first boss that he would retire from the high school. Something his grandmother used to say seems to apply perfectly to his philosophy.
“You catch more flies with sugar than you do with salt.”