Say you coached the last American to win the Boston Marathon, or heck, were just the coach of the last American male to medal in a distance race at the Olympics. Let’s not even mention the Big Ten titles, the All-Americans you coached, or the four decades you’ve been around.
Doesn’t it feel like some gratitude should have come your way by now?
Recognition finally caught up with Michigan men’s cross country coach Ron Warhurst this past January when he received word that he would be on the U.S. coaching staff for the Track and Field World Cup in Athens, Greece on Sept. 16 and 17.
Warhurst wasn’t exactly sure why the U.S. Track and Field Committee chose him as one of the coaches, but he did offer an amusing speculation.
“Maybe they just felt sorry for me after those 33 years of coaching,” Warhurst said with a laugh.
Warhurst had never been involved with the national team. But at the meet last week, many familiar faces, including some fellow Wolverines, made him feel right at home.
“It was my first experience representing the United States and coaching the U.S. track team,” he said. “My responsibility was to coach the distance runners, men and women. And fortunately, I knew most of the athletes.”
Why it took so long for one of the nation’s most respected distance coaches to receive such an honor is a mystery even to Warhurst, but he said he felt it was a rewarding experience for him and the athletes.
“I hope from (the athletes’) perspectives it was nice to see a friendly face who at least knew who they were and had watched them run at college,” Warhurst said. “(It) made them feel at home.”
Although Warhurst helped many athletes feel at home, the three athletes that probably benefited from his presence weren’t even on the U.S. team. They were three Michigan alums running for their home countries.
Recent graduates Nick Willis and Nate Brannen finished third and sixth, respectively, in the 1500-meter race. Willis represented team Oceania, running for his home country of New Zealand, and Brannen ran for Canada on the Americas team. One of Brannen’s fellow countryman, Kevin Sullivan, placed fourth in the 3000-meter run.
Warhurst rooted for his former pupils, even though they were now his opponents.
And apparently, all his loyalties run deep. His national pride kept him wearing his red, white and blue in and out of Athens Olympic Arena, despite World Cup officials’ warnings.
“They told us to be careful of wearing your identification as an American and U.S. gear because of terrorism,” Warhurst said. “But I wore my U.S. hat wherever I went and my U.S. shirt, and I was proud to be there as an official coach.”
Grateful for the opportunity to coach many of the world’s best athletes and to watch his former Wolverines race, Warhurst had to make time for the World Cup around an already busy schedule.
One week before he departed for his international coaching debut, Warhurst underwent surgery to have two stints implanted in his heart. But even surgery wasn’t enough to keep the coach out of usual his lighthearted mood.
“(Coaching) was a great experience, especially after coming off of heart surgery,” Warhurst said. “It made it even more exciting to see how I was going to feel.”
Warhurst said he felt great watching his former athletes competing on an international level. But he didn’t feel great about having to leave his current runners for a week. He missed out on their dominant performance in East Lansing the weekend of the World Cup.
But no worries for Michigan; everything continued like business as usual.
“Well, a lot of the coaches were amazed that I would leave my team,” Warhurst said. “I was really proud of the way they conducted themselves with the workouts and winning the Spartan Invitational.”
Overall the United States, the only country that is not part of a continental team, fared well. The men’s team came in second, four points behind team Europe, and the women placed fourth. Only professional athletes are allowed to compete in the two-day event.
Warhurst – done having his fun in Greece – and his 18th-ranked Wolverines are now gearing up for their first tough competition of the season at the Notre Dame Invitational on Friday.
“South Bend will be flat and fast, with good competition,” Warhurst said. “This will be the runners’ first ‘quiz’ of the semester.”