Michigan track star Nate Brannen remembers
a race at the NCAA Indoor Championships his freshman year that
didn’t quite go as he and coach Ron Warhurst had planned.

Beth Dykstra

After the race, Brannen walked by Warhurst.

“That sucked,” Brannen said.

“No. You sucked,” Warhurst responded.

“I kept walking, and I thought, ‘Yeah, I did
suck,’ ” Brannen recalled.

In general, Warhurst doesn’t really care what comes out of
his mouth. He’s a war veteran with salty language and a
“hard-ass” attitude, and in 15 minutes with him in his
Weidenbach Hall office, you’ll join him in a good cackle a
dozen times.

“No one feels weird about talking to him,” Brannen
said. “He’s such an open guy.”

So open that sophomore Nick Willis had to stop himself before
telling stories from his two years with Warhurst.

“I could tell you, but you wouldn’t be able to print
it,” Willis said with a grin.

At the age of 25, Warhurst volunteered for the Marines and
headed off to Vietnam because “it was something to do.”
He was a self-described hippie and wasn’t ready to make a
decision about his life.

Warhurst is the senior member of the Michigan coaching staff,
having taken over as cross country coach and assistant track coach
in 1974. At the ripe age of 60, his hair may have grayed, but even
that hasn’t slowed him down; he has a one-and-a-half-year-old
son.

“It wasn’t a Viagra boy either,” Warhurst
said. “Another joke … I’m a jokester.”

In 30 years of coaching Michigan’s long- and
middle-distance runners, he’s turned average runners into
great runners and great runners into Olympians. Right now,
he’s working his magic on two of the world’s top young
runners, Brannen of Canada and Willis of New Zealand, who will both
sit out the outdoor track season to prepare for the Olympic
trials.

“He has a passion for getting the best out of
someone’s limits,” Willis said. “He’s (hard
on us) because he wants us to get the most out of
ourselves.”

Two is better than one

At this point in what would have been his junior year at
Michigan, Alan Webb might have already won three or four individual
national championships.

Webb gained national acclaim by setting the high-school record
in the indoor and outdoor mile and committed to run for Warhurst at
Michigan. After an up-and-down freshman year, he left school,
signed a pro running contract with Nike and has since had his
life’s work chronicled in a book called “Sub 4:00: Alan
Webb and the Quest for the Fastest Mile.”

Webb’s exit from Ann Arbor was no tragedy for the track
program, though. Now, instead of having one star that shines over
all, Warhurst has Brannen and Willis.

“They’re better,” Warhurst said.
“They’ve got it all. They’re the package —
they raise the expectations for everybody.”

Willis, who sports an “I just rolled out of bed”
hairdo and an accent like Crocodile Dundee, is reaching his
potential in his second season under Warhurst. Last month in
Boston, he set the collegiate record in the 3,000 meters —
which isn’t even “his event” — with a time
of 7:44.90.

Brannen, the Canadian high-school record holder in the mile,
came to Michigan the same year as Webb, but Webb was the one who
got all the media attention. Since Webb left, all Brannen has done
is win the 2003 indoor national championship in the 800 meters.

“With Willis, it’s totally different,” Brannen
said. “We both share the publicity equally. There’s no
one in front all the time.”

Except on the track, where inevitably, either Willis or Brannen
will outrace the other.

“In some ways, I’d prefer Nate beat me in every
race,” Willis said. “We’re using each other to
get better rather than run each other into the ground.”

Realizing their dreams

Running each other into the ground wouldn’t do much for
Brannen and Willis’s native countries in the upcoming Summer
Olympics in Athens, Greece.

Unlike most college runners, Michigan’s duo cares more
about winning Olympic medals than NCAA championships. They trust
Warhurst to get them to Athens and beyond, mainly because of the
way he trained Kevin Sullivan, who finished fifth in the 2000
Olympics while running for his native Canada. Sullivan is now 29
and still makes running his livelihood — something that both
Brannen and Willis aspire to do.

Warhurst has earned their trust by taking their goals and making
them his own.

“Other coaches, they race their athletes just to get
points for the school,” Willis explained. “They
don’t care about the athlete’s future. Ron has been
here 30 years; his job is not at risk. He’s got the
athlete’s heart in mind, rather than his wallet.”

“Since Sullivan, I don’t really care about a dual
meet against Eastern Michigan or Indiana,” Warhurst said.
“You have to pick your battles.”

Brannen and Willis run in specialized events in the indoor
season. Brannen will try to repeat as national champion in the 800
meters, and Willis likely could win several events.

“I would have the possibility of tripling in the mile, the
3K and the 5K,” Willis said. “Yeah, I might get us
seven points, but I might get injured from doing that.”

“You can’t go into every skirmish and come out
licking your wounds,” Warhurst said.

Warhurst supports Brannen and Willis’s decision to sit out
the outdoor season, even though it greatly decreases
Michigan’s chance of making noise nationally.

Joined by Olympic hopefuls and former Wolverines Tim Broe and
Sullivan, Brannen and Willis’s workouts will intensify in May
and June because they want to hit their stride for the Olympic
trials in early July. They will all be in Ann Arbor, training under
Warhurst’s guidance, and then will depart for their
respective trials, where Brannen and Willis expect to qualify.

“I know I can get them there,” Warhurst said.

In the “win now” culture of college sports, Warhurst
goes out of his way to ensure that his kids are successful in what
matters to them. He knows that win or lose, medal or no medal,
Brannen and Willis’s performance in these Olympics will do
more for Michigan than any dual meet ever could.

J. Brady McCollough can be reached at
bradymcc@umich.edu.

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