Thursday, June 5, 2014

The Nearly Forgotten Coach

As fans of track and field, fans of sport, are looking back at what happened 50 years ago tonight, when Jim Ryun became the first high school runner to run a sub-4 minute miler.  You'll read nothing from the man who guided him to this astounding feat.  In a couple of weeks Bob Timmons will turn 90.  He is almost invisible, largely due to his diminished mental state.

My relationship with Timmie is complicated.  39 years ago I was busting my ass trying to keep up with the tough regine required to run at the University of Kansas.  I lasted about six weeks before getting kicked off the KU cross country team by Timmie. I cried like a baby when he told me, "Come back when you get in shape." I had quit the last part of a tough workout the day before, after battling a case of diarreha all day. It was one of the toughest things I've ever experienced in my life, certainly the toughest at that point at age 18.

I wasn't in the kind of shape that I should have been to try and run for KU. What's sad is that now at that same ability level if I was to walk on at Kansas, I would be a member of their varsity. My how the program has fallen.

During the Timmons era at Kansas, the program for most of the time was top notch. His predecessor, Bill Easton, had turned Kansas into a national power. Easton lost his job, due in part to Bob Timmons and a high school phenom he had coached, Jim Ryun.

Timmon's former athlete had decided to attend Oregon State. Timmons, who had become Easton's assistant during Ryun's senior year in high school, was handed KU's head job after Easton was fired for some minor transgression. Suddenly Ryun was Kansas bound, and the rest is history.

Ryun had a wonderful career at Kansas. The program continued to flourish for the next 15 years with the Jayhawks winning a handful national titles in track and field. They were unbeatable in the old Big 8. But Timmons reign had one glaring weakness. There were no more Jim Ryun's.

By and large distance runners from Kansas never lived up to the potential they had shown in high school. A few did, Kent McDonald, one of my old training partners, was an All-American and finished second at the old AAU nationals one year. Bill Lundberg was another standout who went on to coach.  George Mason, a high school nobody, flourished under Timmons.   I could name three or four others but the point is, none of his distance runners at Kansas, ever won a national title, or made an Olympic team, except for Ryun.

Timmons had made his name as a great high school swim coach and later on as a track and field coach. He put his swim coach philosophy to use in track and created two legendary high school milers, Ryun and Archie San Romani, Junior. But his workout regiment was brutal. I experienced it first hand. A few runners, like McDonald, learned to coast through some of the workouts, in order to stay fresh and competitive. But very few did and some simply burned out.

For a long time I despised Bob Timmons. I blamed him harshly for KU's fading fortunes in track and field at the start of the 1980's. He had faults, but at heart he was and is a good and caring man. And as I grew older, more sober, I began to realize that my bad feelings were a waste of time. I began to value the experience that I had with Coach Timmons and became thankful for that eventful day when he kicked me off the team.

I became so grateful in fact that I produced a documentary about Timmons and his prized prodigy Jim Ryun in 1996. Most people probably assumed I did it as a tribute to Ryun, a world record holder in the mile and an Olympic silver medalist. But the real reason I did it was to give Timmons the credit he deserved for putting Jim on the path to greatness. It was my way of making amends to the man, even though he never knew (at least I don't think he knew) that I had harbored such ill will for him.

Five years ago Runner's World magazine published a hit piece about Bob Timmons. Coach was very old and had terrible lapses of memory. I saw him two years before the article and he didn't even recognize me. You could literally see the fog in his eyes. I don't know what the point of the article was. All it did was dredge up a lot of bad memories for athletes who had suffered at the hands of Timmons more than 20 years ago. Ben Paynter, the author, did his homework. But in the end, the work is meanspirited

I later learned the impetus for the article came from a hatefilled, self-pitying former Kansas runner.  Timmons is really defenseless at this point in his life. His triumphs far outweigh whatever failures Paynter tried to foist the readers of Runner's World.  You can click here to read it if you care.

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