By Martin Stillion
Longtime Coaches Can't Afford to Stand Still
In college athletics, coaches are most often remembered for two things: success and longevity. Not surprisingly, both of these attributes are hard to come by. It's a rare individual who assembles winning teams year after year, and an even rarer one who resists every temptation to leave the job when another offer comes along.
Consider, too, the constant changes that coaches face. Teams move to new conferences or divisions; rules are adjusted; technologies evolve; cultures and communication styles shift. Furthermore, team membership turns completely over once every four years.
Seattle Pacific University, however, is one place where a coach with long-term success is not unusual. Doris Heritage (cross-country) and Cliff McCrath (soccer) have both entered their fourth decade of coaching at SPU. Laurel Tindall (gymnastics) isn't far behind, and Ken Foreman retired in 2000 after 37 years as track and field coach. During their tenure, all of these coaches have produced successful teams and trained highly competitive athletes. Along the way, they've learned a few things about coping with change.
"I'm always in the process of upgrading my coaching methods and philosophy," says Heritage. "When I started, I was a high-level athlete. I was used to running with the team during workouts, and I could coach by having a feel for what they were doing, because I was doing it too. I'm almost 60 now, so I can't do that anymore."
These days, when she turns her team loose for a practice run, "I find a place where I might see them pass by a few times, where I can encourage them and praise them, and if they have any questions, they know where to find me."
She uses videotape to help runners improve their technique, but warns that technology can have its drawbacks: "Running is a lifestyle, one that doesn't lend itself to sitting in front of computers and television. I spend a lot more time on conditioning and preventing injuries, because athletes coming into the sport need that toughness and resilience that children had when they were more active physically."
Toughness comes naturally to soccer coach Cliff McCrath, who grew up on the mean streets of Detroit. "I developed an inner drive to survive where people around me were not surviving," he explains. "That's what translated into my accomplishments as a coach."
In his first few seasons at SPU, McCrath didn't find it hard to impart that drive to his players: "If I told those teams to go through a brick wall, no question — the wall was in trouble." He quickly led the Falcons to four national championships.
By the end of the 1980s, however, cultural shifts had forced McCrath to change his tactics. "That was the MTV generation," he says. "They were used to having information in sound bites; I could no longer hold their attention on just the strength of my personality. They were also more analytical; they'd ask why they had to go through a brick wall. With those kids, I had to find a halfway point between command and explanation." He succeeded, to the tune of another championship in 1993.
But this year, when SPU missed the playoffs, McCrath knew it was time for another adjustment. "My mistake has been believing the athletes would figure out their own motivations because they're so smart," he says. "Next year we're going to let the demands of daily training supply the motivation. That's the secret to this generation: demand something of them they've never experienced before, and believe that down deep they really do want to pay the price."
While SPU coaches train young athletes, they're also preparing the next generation of coaches. Three former Falcons recently assumed head coaching duties: Bobby Bruch (women's soccer), Kellie Radloff (volleyball) and Jack Hoyt (track and field).
Replacing renowned track coach Ken Foreman is an intimidating prospect, but Hoyt is prepared. He trained under Foreman as a decathlete, and then spent a decade as an assistant coach. "I don't try to fill Ken's shoes," says Hoyt. "There'd be about twenty pairs of shoes to fill. He was on fire — either you got burned, or you cooked with him — and he motivated people by getting them fired up. My style is more about getting athletes to believe in their own abilities. Still, I'm blessed to have had him as a mentor."
Coaching styles, methods and even personnel may change, but a few constants remain. "We're fortunate that the new coaches have the same vision for students and athletes that we older ones do," says Heritage. "We believe in SPU's values and in the opportunities we can give."