In the autumn of 1991 I started my first semester as a full-time college professor. I was so young (no kidding) that the first time I walked into a classroom I had to convince my students that I was indeed the course instructor. In addition to teaching, something else happened that fall that turned out to have been life changing: I became a coach.
I am not sure how, but some of the students heard that I was a runner and asked to meet me in my office. They were interested in starting a collegiate cross-country team. I remember the first conversations with those athletes: Dave Burton, Paul Lynn, and Karen (Jermyn) Thurber. (Maybe Aaron Durso was part of that group, too.) We formed a team and competed that first fall. By the second year we had grown to around a dozen runners and had become a distinctive little community. I coached for seven seasons. There were so many great people. I think Paul Lynn still holds the school record for men. Karen Thurber may hold the school record for women. If not, it might be second-gen Nikki (Brouillet) Moriarty. Of all the athletes I coached, those three were the best natural runners and most accomplished. But this was a team that celebrated everyone’s accomplishments, not just the fastest runners. Nobody ever was cheered more loudly than Adrian Schoonmaker, the best worst athlete I ever coached. As Adrian finished the 5-mile course, the entire team would line up to urge him in, even if the timers had already packed up. His tenacity and character were so admirable that he likely has been in more sermon illustrations than the entire rest of the team combined. And on, and on.
When I think about it, seven years is only a small part of my professional life. Why then, do those seven autumns seem so important?
A primary reason: We gathered around us a group of interesting, talented, spiritually-minded, sometimes edgy runners. The names are too many to list, but most of them have gone on to accomplish amazing things. Many are still runners; some have been coaches themselves. I get Cross-Country flashbacks from time to time and I pray for them individually.
A team picture from Fall 1995
Partly those seven autumns loom so large in my memory because coaching is such an intensive experience. Unlike a college course where at most you might spend around 150 minutes a week with students, as a coach you see them almost every day. You see them at their best, and you see them at their worst. Running can be a physically ugly sport. No beautiful ice dancing for us, but blood, sweat, and tears. And I mean that literally (plus other kinds of bodily fluids, too– trust me, you don’t want details). To all of this add long, long, long rides in a 15 passenger van. There is nothing that can bring out an honest conversation like driving back from Ohio to PA after a hard race. When you are exhausted, the filters can disappear. In case you are wondering: yes, it is possible still to be embarrassed about something that you said 20 years ago. In the early years, my wife and our two infant sons would occasionally travel with us so that they could actually see me on weekends during the season. I don’t think any of my runners who experienced her shouted encouragement will ever forget it. (To all my former athletes: she is my ultramarathon crew chief. Just imagine the tough love. But it really was (and is) love.)
This year I have been participating in the Council of Colleges and Universities (CCCU) Leadership Development Institute. As part of my work, I have been studying a lot of leadership theory. Among the best books is one that I have been reading this week: Harold Heie and Mark Sargent, Soul Care: Christian Faith and Academic Administration. Many of the essays highlight the importance of shared governance and of humility for Christian leaders. And, of course, one cannot emphasize this too strongly or rehearse it too often. Fundamentally this emphasis is based on the twin theological principles of original sin and of understanding the church as body. Because we are fallible and our best efforts are tainted with sin, we need to be accountable to others. I made so many mistakes as a coach: mistakes in planning, giving the wrong kind of encouragement or giving it at the wrong time, and many others. Thank God that my athletes were patient with me. I learned to listen to them, to modify my plans accordingly, to listen to their complaints without defensiveness, to embrace my fallibility as a leader without always having to be “right.” Second, relying on I Corinthians 12/14, we must understand that every part of the body, though different in function, is equally important. Some may be “heads” and some may be “feet,” but in the body of Christ, no part is more important or essential. This is why I am somewhat hesitant to use the terminology “servant leadership.” For a Christian, isn’t serving what leadership is? Things simply won’t get done unless someone organizes, plans, leads. But you always do all these things for the benefit of the people you are serving, and ultimately for the benefit of the Kingdom of God. For a Christian, using “servant” as a modifier to “leadership” seems redundant.
It might be a good idea if every academic leader in training should spend some time as a coach. At least for me, those seven golden autumns of Cross-Country at Valley Forge were the crucible in which my understanding of leadership was forged. And what a joyous crucible it was: the changing leaves, the crisp air, the wonderful people, and the running. What a glorious gift from God.
Still working with the plantar this week. It’s not getting worse, and maybe even is getting a little better. I need to be careful, but after this week I might be able to get back to some real training. At least I have been including a weekly speed workout. It is nice to know that I can still run sub-90 second quarters, even though I haven’t really been doing any kind of speed work for years. Let’s see if I can get them down to 75 seconds…
Monday (does yard work count as cross-training?) off
Tuesday (speed) 4