Michigan track and field head coach Fred LaPlante is a storyteller.
Or as former head track coach and now assistant Ron Warhurst says he’s a “pisser.”
“In the old days, that means he’s funny as hell,” Warhurst said. “He’s the best storyteller you’ll ever want to hear.”
When asked to recall his favorite story of LaPlante’s, Warhurst joked that it probably wasn’t appropriate for him to say.
For most of the athletes he coaches, LaPlante’s stories act as inspiration.
“Every time I’m going through something, he has a story for it,” sophomore hurdler Carl Buchanon said. “It’s easy to relate to that instead of just, do this, do that. If you have a story for it, it makes it more realistic.”
LaPlante draws his stories from a long career in track and field.
When LaPlante was in high school he had heard of Warhurst, a Western Michigan runner who went on to become a graduate assistant at Eastern Michigan. When LaPlante attended Eastern Michigan in 1969 to run track, he thought he would learn from Warhurst. But Warhurst decided to join the Marine Corps and was shipped to Vietnam.
During his tour in Vietnam, Warhurst kept up correspondence with the track team, and LaPlante remembers reading Warhurst’s letters posted in the locker room.
“When he came back, that’s when I came to know him,” LaPlante said. “He was living in Ann Arbor and he was like a local guru. He was 25 or 26 years old, close to our age, and knew a lot about running. So a lot of us would listen to Ron.”
After LaPlante graduated, the two parted ways. Warhurst was hired as the men’s cross country coach at Michigan and LaPlante headed to California to pursue a career in running. But, soon he found out he didn’t have the talent to become an Olympian.
“From way back I knew I wanted to coach,” LaPlante said. “My high school coach was somebody I looked up to as a person, and I just got this sense that’s what I want to do in life — be a track coach.”
LaPlante received his first head coaching job in 1979, taking advantage of Title IX at San Diego State.
“There were some girls around that were interested in track and they were close to my age,” LaPlante said. “So I started coaching them and they actually became great runners.”
At San Diego State, he eventually coached a world-record setting athlete. LaPlante later took over as head coach for Southern Cal’s team and continued his success in collegiate women’s track and field. But he wasn’t satisfied.
“I didn’t want to coach women,” LaPlante said. “There’s nothing against women, but I want to coach guys. I was afraid of getting labeled as a coach who only coaches women.”
In an unusual move, LaPlante spurned the sun of southern California and headed home to Eastern Michigan to become the assistant men’s coach.
He later went on to be the head coach of men and women at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania for four years before he was offered the job of associate head coach to lead the sprint and hurdle athletes at Michigan.
The main reason he came back to Ann Arbor was obvious: the opportunity to coach alongside his former mentor, Warhurst.
Over the past 12 years, the two have become best friends, and their relationship has grown on and off the track.
“We have a great time coaching together,” Warhurst said. “Every day, it’s fun to come to work. We can get a laugh out of anything.”
Warhust and LaPlante’s chemistry is evident in how they coach their athletes. When they try to motivate a runner, they often try the good cop bad cop routine.
“Somebody would yell and the other would go and pat the guy on the back,” Warhurst said. “We’d go back and forth every lap about it. But it was always with the intent of helping the athlete.”
On September 3rd, Warhurst stepped down as head coach of the men’s track team, and there was only one man he considered to replace him — LaPlante.
“He’s a fantastic communicator, a great organizer,” Warhurst said the day of the transition. “It’s just a natural slide. I count on him and coach (David) Kaiser as co-coaches anyways. It’s just somebody else is going to be designated as a head coach.”
Though he stepped down as head coach, Warhurst isn’t retiring from coaching and said he plans to spend at least 10 more seasons with LaPlante.
“(I’m proud) that we lasted in college coaching this long and remained friends,” Warhurst said. “We’ve known each other for such a long period of time, and I think we’re going to step away together.”
Maybe whenever they do retire, LaPlante and Warhurst will sit back and recall the stories of their careers and how they ended up together.