Get smart: Coaches develop winning formulas through experience, listening

Rumson-Fair Haven NJ coach Tim McLoone consulting with two of his athletes. Submitted by Suzanne Gottuso/ESPNHS

What do coaches Rob Hipwood of Los Alamos High in New Mexico, Corbin Talley of Davis High in Utah and David Christian of Broughton High in North Carolina have in common?

In addition to producing state championship teams that have also made their marks nationally, the three coaches were all Foot Locker cross country finalists in their high school days, as well as outstanding college runners. While it is

logical that top runners would fill the nation’s coaching ranks, it’s also the case that many of today’s leading high school coaches did not come from much of a running background. In fact, some never ran a step in their lives.

This seeming contradiction leads to the question of whether good coaching is based primarily on running knowledge and instincts, or whether a coach’s personality and ability to relate to the student-athletes can carry the day even if he or she lacks certain expertise at the outset.

Paul Limmer, the former Mepham High coach from Long Island who nurtured all-time greats like Mark Belger, Christine Curtin and top teams for 30 years, performed his own athletics on a baseball diamond. He knew next to nothing about running when he started coaching track and cross country in the 1969-70 season. He said, “I had to pick up bits and pieces from books, other coaches, trial and error, ‘ruining’ a lot of kids till I could develop a system that worked.”

It’s hard to imagine any coach, especially a dynamic force like Limmer “ruining” a youngster. Kids have a way of surviving even dumb workouts. But Limmer’s point is well-taken, and it underlies what a caring coach can do when he figures things out.

Coaching Neophyte Finds Potential Runners

Initially, Limmer — a long-time executive with the National Scholastic Sports Foundation that puts on events like this month’s New Balance Indoor Nationals — went with his strength, which is to say, his personality.

“I was an excellent recruiter,” he said. “I could recruit kids out of my class, in the cafeteria. I could make the sport sound very attractive to them.”

Limmer was the type of person that few people, young or old, can ever say no to. He could identify students who might thrive on hard work and the camaraderie of cross country.

“You pick those kids out sitting by themselves who could use a team to feel part of something,” Limmer said. “Very often those were the kids who grew to love running and become the backbone of my program.”

It was not long before Limmer’s program was humming. He developed the middle-distance star Belger, a 1:50 half-miler who led the nation in 1974, and after girls track was soon to be officially established via Title IX, Limmer had Curtin, the 1982 Foot Locker national champion.

New coaches without the confidence to rely on their own ideas tend to pick up on the latest trends. That’s what Limmer did when he started, citing the “mileage craze” of that early 70s period when 100-mile-a-week LSD seemed like the be-all and end-all.

“We did it like everyone else,” he said, referring to his boys’ team. “But you had to have a lot of kids because you’d lose up to 40 percent to injury. Those standing at the end of 10 100-mile weeks were really good.”

When Tim McLoone started coaching at Rumson Fair Haven in New Jersey (along with a partner, Henry Mercer) seven years ago, he brought the same high-wired personality and entrepreneurial spirit as Limmer to give the program a lift.

Last fall, all the years of nurturing and attention to detail resulted in a crowning moment: the school’s first girls’ Meet of Champions cross-country title for what was aptly described as a Cinderella team.

McLoone, who had quite a reputation as a restauranteur, musician and humanitarian — his Holiday Express Christmas concerts are known to draw the likes of Jon Bon Jovi and Bruce Springsteen — brought his Limmer-style salesmanship to the RFH program but also something Limmer did not have at the outset: a substantial running background. McLoone ran for Harvard. He raced against that Yale guy, Frank Shorter, in Ivy League competition.

College Mistakes Provide HS Lessons

Oddly enough, instead of some sweeping motivational concepts picked up from his prestigious running background, McLoone said that the most important thing he learned at Harvard that he could apply to his high school athletes was a college deficiency: poor tapering.

“Our coach,” said McLoone, “was big on training but not big on pre-meet psych-ups.”

McLoone said that an experience during the 1968 cross-country season has stayed with him. The NCAA meet was making its first appearance at Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx. It poured so “hellaciously,” according to McLoone, that the site was not usable and the meet was postponed a week. McLoone’s Harvard team had already tapered for an entire week, and now they tapered for a second week.

“We felt out of it,” he said. Harvard placed ninth with only one runner in the top 50. After that, McLoone always felt, “if you over-taper, you are really rolling the dice.”

At RFH, said McLoone, the girls worked just as hard the week of the state meet as they had the entire season. He said the key to the team’s preparation was a Wednesday session of repeat 400 “dropdowns” on 60 seconds rest. They started at 90 seconds and worked down below 80. It was, in effect, the anti-taper.

During the workout, McLoone got a good indication about Saturday when girls standing next to him after their eighth repeat were fresh enough to hold a conversation. They would win the Meet of Champs by 16 points over two-time defender Hillsborough.

Elite Runners Pass on Proven Methods

Hipwood, Talley and Christian have brought considerable range and know-how to their programs, and each emphasized the role their own coaches played in providing a launching pad.

Hipwood probably had the best teacher of all, the master: Joe Vigil. After making the 1981 Foot Locker finals, placing 26th, Hipwood went on to run for Vigil at Adams State in Alamosa, Colorado. While winning the 1985 NAIA cross country title, and earning six All-American citations, he absorbed Vigil’s “amazing ability to connect with people.”

At Adams, Hipwood would meet his future wife, also an all-American, and together Rob and Kathy Hipwood have propelled Los Alamos to New Mexico state champion or contender year after year while also excelling at Nike Cross Nationals (NXN). The Hilltoppers’ boys were second (by two points) at NXN in 2007; the girls took sixth in 2004.

Hardly a day goes by when the Hipwoods don’t use an idea he picked up from Vigil, such as how to maintain a patient approach to excellence, especially for athletes hoping to run in college; and ways to inspire confidence in youngsters ready to move to a higher level.

Christian, 31, ran for another coaching legend, Tony Rowe, at Daviess County High in Kentucky. He was a two-time Foot Locker finalist, in 1996 and ’98, and went on to achieve ACC track and cross-country honors at North Carolina State under coach Rollie Geiger.

In his eighth year coaching boys at Broughton (and 3rd year with the girls), Christian relies on a particular approach to the state cross-country meet that was a hallmark of Rowe’s program. At Daviess, they called it “The Raging Red Line.”

At Broughton, Christian calls it, “Rowe Miles.”

On a Monday three weeks before state, the Broughton varsity does a hard two-mile followed by a hard mile; two weeks before, it’s 2 x 1 mile; and the week before it’s one mile all-out, a time trial in pursuit of PRs. The workouts are on grass or track. Since the athletes are in cross-country shape, not mile shape, Broughton’s boys pack looks for low-4:30s times while the girls aim for sub-5:30.

Christian said the three-week preparation is excellent for state, offering the athletes tangible evidence of their readiness. “They can say, ‘I PR'd in the mile, I must be really fit.’” he said.

“Super-Intensity” Produces National Stars

That same mindset of going hard — “pushing past pain” — is what Talley brought to Davis from his high school experience at Bingham High in Utah under coach Jeff Arbogast, a much sought-after clinician whose 1999 girls team was ranked No. 1 in the Harrier Super-25.

“When we went hard, we were super-intense,” said Talley, 34, in his ninth year at Davis.

That intensity enabled Talley to place 12th in the 1994 Foot Locker nationals.

In college, at Weber State, he competed in the NCAA championships as a steeplechaser. Currently, Talley’s Davis athletes are national headliners. The boys’ cross-country team made the 2011 NXN podium with a third-place finish, and just last Sunday, the Darts’ star, Brad Nye, won a sensational indoor nationals mile in New York over Edward Cheserek.

One of Arbogast’s staple workouts, repeat 800s, has become a Davis staple.

“The last one or two intervals,” said Talley, referring to intensity, “everyone’s going for it.”

But not all high school running successes can be traced to a trickle-down effect from illustrious coaches. Many good ideas are picked up from the youngsters themselves.

“I think the best way to learn is to be around kids,” Talley said. "I'm learning from my athletes all the time.”