Gary Wilson has been coaching for 37 years, 21 of which have been at the University of Minnesota. While he’s stepping down as the head coach for women’s track and field, a recent contract extension insures he’ll be coaching the distance runners, as well as the cross country team for the next 6 years. His complete list of accolades is too numerous to mention, so here’s just a sample; Big Ten Champions, numerous Coach of the Year honors, President’s Award for Outstanding Service, UW-LaCrosse Hall of Fame, Drake Relays Coaches Hall of Fame, and on-and-on.
A native of Lyndonville, NY, Gary competed in cross country and track at Cortland State, NY. He and his wife, Suzy, have three grown children: Ben, Laura and Adam. (Photo courtesy of University of Minnesota)
First off, congratulations on your team’s 11th place finish at the National Championship cross country meet. I’m sure you were hoping to improve upon last year’s 9th place showing. However, losing someone as talented as Lauren Williams (due to graduation) is tough to replace. How do you feel about the season?
I thought we had a great season. We ran very well all year, especially with such a young team. It was too bad that Jamie Cheever got sick the day before the NCAA [national] meet. Just with an average race we would have scored about 50 less points which would have put us at least 6th if not 5th in the nation.
This is a great group of women on all levels. Their dedication, enthusiasm and loyalty to the U is really something. I love these kids.
Anyone who knows distance running also knows how difficult it is to repeat as an All-American and for Ladia [Albertson-Junkans] and Brownie [Emily Brown] to do that is really something. As you know Lads lost her dad to cancer a few days before Regionals and ten days before the NCAA [national] meet and ran the two best races of her season. I can not say enough about the focus and mental toughness of that kid. She is a real inspiration to everyone on the team.
Next year you’ll lose 2-time All-American, Emily Brown. However, the rest of your team from Nationals (one junior, one sophomore and four freshmen), including another 2-time All-American, Ladia Albertson-Junkans, will be back. The future looks bright for the women’s program. Any comments?
Yes we feel the future looks very bright. Not only do we have 6 of our top 7 back but also 18 of our top 20 kids. We also have Nikki Swenson [Class A champion in cross country last year] coming next year from Dawson, Minnesota, as well as Dagmara Handzlik. Dagmara is from Poland and went to the University of Toledo for 3 semesters. She was the MAC runner-up in CC and was an NCAA Cross Country [national meet] qualifier as a freshman there. She will join us this winter.
Can you share the names of any in-coming freshmen you’ve recruited for cross country?
Nikki and Dagmara are our scholarship kids who have signed early. There are others we are recruiting but NCAA rules do not allow me to comment on them. We think we will add about 10 new kids to our roster next year.
Speaking of your roster, I counted nearly 50 gals on it. What’s your philosophy on that? Do you let anyone who’s interested join the team?
I have always had big teams. When I was at UW-LaCrosse we would have as many as 70 women on our team.
We limit our team to kids who have run under 5:45 for the mile and 11:45 for the 2 mile.
We have had a lot of success with walk on kids and as long as a young woman brings positive energy to the team and a dedication to work hard we accept many young people.
I have always felt that athletics is an educational opportunity for kids to learn life lessons. It has never been a win at all costs or an elitist philosophy for me.
Every year, except this year, we have had at least 2 to 4 kids on our top 7 who have walked on the team.
When you took this job 22 years ago, you hung a plaque in your office that said, “Home of Future Big Ten Champions.” Last spring, that became a reality as your Outdoor team won the conference meet. Recently you retired as the head coach of the women’s track program (and signed a 6-year extension to coach cross country). Was that a matter of “going out on top” or were you planning on retiring no matter what?
I think retirement is a misnomer. [laughs] Things will not change except Matt [Bingle] will have the reins of track and field. I will still be coaching CC and the distance runners in track.
As I told someone the other day, “I have been on the road for about 10 days straight doing clinics and recruiting. If this is how retirement goes? I must have missed a memo.” [laughs]
I have been considering this [retiring] for the last two years. Joel Maturi [UM athletic director] and I have been discussing this for a long time. The change really had nothing to do with the fact that we won last year but of course it is always nice to go out on top.
My main concern was that I have seen soooooooooooo many coaches who have been some place for a long time, hang around too long as the Head CC and Track and Field coach. That is all well and good but I think young kids want to know if the program will be the same if they commit to an older coach.
I think that if there isn’t a younger person in place to insure that the program will continue at the same high level, you risk the chance that you will lose recruits that you shouldn’t [lose].
This transition will insure that not only will our program remain at a high level but also that recruits will see that it is a stable situation.
Also I would add that I have a wonderful young volunteer for the distance runners by the name of Sarah Hesser. She ran for me and has been with me for two years now. She is going to be a star. I hope I can keep her around a while longer but eventually she will move on and take the reins of her own program. She will be hard to replace but we always have great alums who come back and help.
I always try to have someone who has run for me be my assistant. They have shown loyalty to the U by coming and running here and I feel it is my obligation to reward them by helping mentor them so they can go out and be great coaches in their own programs. Patti Walsh-Percival is one of those. She is now going to be the Head CC coach at White Bear Lake and it is rewarding to know that she was with me for a while and hopefully learned some things along the way.
Your list of accolades is extremely long; Coach of the Year-here, Hall of Fame-there, President’s Award for Outstanding Service, etc. However, you know you’ve “made it” when you’re the topic of debate on the running message boards. That’s exactly what happened last year after it was announced that Elizabeth Yetzer was coming to the University. Do you follow any of that banter and, if so, how do you deal with it?
I do not follow that banter but of course my kids and assistants bring some of it to my attention.
The things that concerns me about any of these message boards is the fact that people are sitting behind their computers and do not even have the guts to put their real names on the comments that they make. Any coward can do that.
I am a big boy and can handle any of this because I consider the source, however what concerns me is that people make comments on situations that they know NOTHING about.
People have to realize that not every school is right for every kid and that coaches live and die every day with the kids in THEIR program. Kids who come to a school do so because they believe in the program and they believe in the school.
It is not right for someone out there to throw rocks at any kid’s decision. If kids go someplace and decide they do not like it then they transfer BUT to me it is waaaaaaaaaaay out of line for anyone to comment on things they have no FIRST HAND knowledge about.
As the old saying goes, “If you can’t say something nice, then say nothing at all.”
I try to do everything I can to discourage our kids from getting on the internet when it comes to face book or letsrun.com. Looking for results is fine, but when it gets into someone else’s personal life or the life of another team it is a waste-of-time.
As I tell people. Instead of wasting time putting someone down, why don’t you go out and volunteer someplace and try to make the world a better place.
One of your former athletes is curious how you got interested in coaching women runners and why?
When I was at UW-LaCrosse, I took over for a guy who was gone getting his doctorate. I was coaching the men’s track and field team then.
In 1977 Buck Jones, the coach who was on leave, returned and I was offered the Head Women’s CC OR Track and Field job. I had never coached women and was VERY unsure that I wanted to. I looked for other men’s jobs that summer but at the end it just felt right to stay at UW-L and coach the women’s cc team. It was the best professional decision I have ever made. I was coaching women for less than two weeks and I knew that was what I wanted to do the rest of my life.
It has been an awesome journey to see just how far the women have come since those very early days.
What types of training resources would you recommend for post collegiate runners who want to keep competing?
I think that post collegiate kids should stay with the coach who worked with them best in college. However, if that is not possible then I think it is best to try to hook up with a team like Team Minnesota or some other club. Dennis [Barker – coach of Team Minnesota] does a great job with those people and if a post collegiate kid can find that type of situation then it is awesome.
Post collegiate kids have to have a purpose to their training. The thing that those kids miss the most is the team aspect of things and if a coach can provide that at the post collegiate level then that kid will flourish.
I will say this. I think we make a HUGE mistake in this country with our post collegiate distance kids. These kids need time and money to prosper.
If we could keep most of our top kids running for ten years after college we would really have something.
I think we waste a lot of money on Olympic Training Centers. Do not get me wrong, I think they serve a purpose but if we gave the top 50 in each event $20,000 per year and said you work with YOUR coach that got you to where you are then I think we could take a serious run at distance medals in the Olympics and World Championships. Runners do not need a lot of money to get by, they simply need enough to eat and have a roof over their head.
What is happening right now is kids are leaving college, trying to find a new coach and at the same time trying to make ends meet financially and then they struggle and then finally end up dropping out.
You have a reputation of giving so much of your time and being passionate about all your athletes. How do you balance family and work?
I have a wife who is a saint. Suzy has been at my side for 30 years and when we first met I told her, “I am a coach and that is what I do.” Her comment was that she always wanted to marry a coach. Right away I knew that I had a winner. Perhaps not a very bright winner (just kidding Suzy) but a winner.
I would not have had a career if it was not for the support of my wife and our three wonderful children. A coach can not make it without that.
It is a balancing act but somehow we all get through. However, I will say this. When our kids were young I always made every attempt to be at home for dinner and then spend an hour after dinner “rough housing” with them.
I think that made a world of difference. However, being a coach’s wife and a coach’s kid is not for the faint of heart.
Finally, training the body receives a lot more attention than training the mind. You recently gave a speech on “Sports Psychology and Visualization” at the Nevada Holiday Distance Summit. What type of drills do you have your runners perform to help build their mental toughness?
We do not do any special drills. However, we do have our kids do visualization as a team and as individuals. We have this as a regular part of our program.
I was very lucky to have a great mentor at UW-L by the name of Jack Curtis. He taught me so much and even wrote books and had videos called THE MINDSET FOR WINNING. The skills I learned from him have been invaluable over the years.
I think trying to coach toughness is a very difficult thing. In my experience being mentally tough is almost a genetic thing and if not, it is learned long before the kid reaches college.
I think the reason I like farm kids is the fact that they have had to learn to get up in the morning and do the chores. Of course that is not all, but I love blue collar kids who do not expect me to wait on them hand-and-foot. I have never done that and when I recruit I tell them just that; “You are here to learn to be an adult and I want you to grow at all levels. I want you to grow from being a scared 18 year old freshman into being a self reliant, confident, strong young woman who can go out into the world and make a difference professionally and personally.”
Hopefully we do that well here at Minnesota. I think that is one of the reasons that Joel [Maturi] and I get along so well. He believes in athletics as an educational experience. I know that the business-side of things is very difficult for him to get his arms around. I know that it tore him up inside to have to fire Dan [Monson – UM basketball coach] and Glenn [Mason – UM football coach] because he knew what great people they were.