Iowa's Larry Wieczorek's coaching tree sprouting

BY SAM LOUWAGIE | MAY 09, 2012 6:30 AM

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Signs of the passage of time stood on both sides of Larry Wieczorek. They were reminders of things he had done right in his 25-year coaching career at Iowa — the 48 All-Americans and 50 Big Ten champions he has coached and the 2011 Big Ten Coach of the Year award he won.

He stood next to the track at the Drake Relays on April 26. He talked to Jeff Kent — the director of operations for women's cross-country and track at Arkansas — and Matt Esche, assistant coach at Bradley. Heath Moenck, the head cross-country coach at Simpson College, stood a few feet away.

All three had been Hawkeye runners for Wieczorek no more than six years earlier. Now they swapped training strategies for their athletes while a meet went on around them.

"My wife and I don't have children," Wieczorek said. "But when I see those guys with their teams, I feel like a proud papa.

Wieczorek is developing a coaching tree of sorts. Several of his recently graduated runners have gone on to pursue coaching careers. He stopped talking, snapped his fingers, and blurted out a new name several times during a conversation about the topic.

Stetson Steele, at a high school in Illinois. Scott Williamson at Nevada. Ray Varner. Jason Wakenight.

Coach Wiz, as his runners fondly call him, half-joked that he tries to discourage them from following in his footsteps. He said he cautions them against ending up "a beaten, bedraggled man with a broken heart."

"They still seem to do it," he said with a grin.

Stealing a Badger

Esche's parents flew a Wisconsin Badger flag in their front yard as he grew up in Waukesha. All his relatives, neighbors, and distance-running teammates assumed he would go on to run for the Badgers. Esche was a decorated high-school runner, and Wisconsin had long been a dominant cross-country program. It was a perfect fit.

But Esche remembers his prep coaches getting a call from Iowa — a program, he said, that was "not good at the time" — and telling him how impressed they were by the ambitious, genuine Hawkeye coach.

Esche and his parents visited Iowa and took a tour with Wieczorek.

Hawkeye football coach Kirk Ferentz ran into the group, pulled them aside, and told Esche's parents Wieczorek was "the best man on campus" and that their son would love running for him.

Esche committed to Iowa. He went on to be a top-10 finisher at Big Ten meets and an all-region cross-country runner.

"Wisconsin was a little too cocky," he said. "Coach Wiz was the opposite. He just said, 'I want to build a program, and I want you to help me do that.' "

An injured prodigy

Micah VanDenend was a distance-running prodigy — one of the state's best — as a high-school sophomore in Glen Ellyn, Ill. But VanDenend, now a head coach at Wisconsin-Parkside, suffered a nasty stress fracture to his leg before his junior year. He couldn't run or train for eight months. As a result, VanDenend didn't get much attention from around the country.

But he did from Wieczorek. VanDenend remembered being surprised by the continued letters sent to his coaches and offers for informal visits to the Iowa campus, even as he was unable to guarantee any kind of recovery from his injury.

VanDenend healed and became a state champion his senior year. He came to run for Wieczorek and the Hawkeyes, who "stood out" as the one program that had shown faith in him while he was hurt.

The injury problems didn't go away for VanDenend once he reached campus. Leg problems prevented him from competing in a single outdoor track meet during his first three seasons.

But Wieczorek stayed positive. The pair's motto became "greatness deferred is not greatness denied."

"Any other program or coach would probably have taken me off scholarship or removed me from the team," VanDenend said. "It was big to have a coach who had been through the same things."

A life in running

Wieczorek knows about injuries. You can see it in his perpetual slight limp.

He also knows about being a running prodigy. He ran for the Hawkeyes and won six Big Ten championships in cross-country and track. He once held conference records in the one-, two-, three-, four-, and five-mile runs.

Wieczorek was drafted into the Army after college. He got amended orders to join the Army track team instead of being sent to Vietnam.

"Who knows?" he said. "Maybe running saved my life that way."

He ruptured his Achilles tendon while running for Army. It brought his competitive running career to a sudden end.

But Wieczorek had known he wanted to coach for some time by then. His own college coach had inspired him.

So he returned home, newly married, and moved on to coaching. He spent 12 years coaching high school before he came to Iowa as a field-events coach in 1985. He took over the Hawkeye cross-country program two years later. And he became the head coach of the entire track and field program in 1997.

He has won over countless runners and athletes with his friendly demeanor and inexhaustible flow of compassion during that time.

"Very few coaches out there anymore are as interested in developing the person as they are the athlete," said Arkansas coach Jeff Kent. "But Coach Wiz is. He would loan me books from his personal library that dealt with any issues I was having. He would print out inspirational quotes and put them in my locker."

Kent said he uses the same motivational technique at Arkansas.

Esche said Wieczorek could always share at least a few personal facts about every member of his 55-man track team. Every few months, Esche said, his parents call him and say, "Coach Wieczorek called to chat today."

"And I've been out of college for what — five years?" he said. "That's one of the biggest things I've tried to do as a coach. Every day, keep up your personality."

But Wieczorek admitted to having rare, strategically timed blow-ups. He never feels good about it afterward, so it has happened less and less often as the years have gone on.

But it happens.

Once, Esche recalled, it was a 45-degree rainy day, and the team was sluggish during a workout. A frustrated Wieczorek asked the team if they were exhausted or cold. And then, Esche said, Wieczorek took off his shirt and started running.

An old record falls

VanDenend began the final lap of his first-ever 5,000-meter race and looked at the clock. Wieczorek saw his runner's eyes widen as VanDenend realized he needed to run that lap in under 60 seconds to break a 38-year old school record.

A record held by Larry Wieczorek.

VanDenend finished the race in 13:55.96. He had beat Wieczorek's mark by 0.04 seconds.

It was a joyous culmination of years of rehab for VanDenend, and Wieczorek called it one of his happiest moments as a coach.

"At some point, records aren't doing you any good anymore," Wieczorek said. "You just get your name back in the paper if somebody breaks it. Micah did some amazing things."

VanDenend thought about what his coach had often told him as he struggled in the trainers' room or sat on the sidelines.

"He would always tell me, 'This is going to end with us hugging at the finish line,' " VanDenend said. "And that's exactly what happened."

The coaching tree grows

Kent said Wieczorek was "90 percent" of the reason he wanted to become a coach. Several of his teammates said similar things.

"Wiz proved every day it's possible to love work," Heath Moenck, the Simpson College coach, said. "Without Wiz, I'm pretty sure I'd be miserable in some cubicle, working 9 to 5."

The coaching life has separated close friends Kent, VanDenend, and Esche. But every so often, a big event will bring the whole group together.

Wieczorek will spend time with them. They're his colleagues now, but they still ask him for advice. He remembers the panicked feeling of being new to the job, so he'll give them tips on how to manage athletes, how to feel the pulse of a team, and know exactly what workout they need at a given time.

He'll coach them on coaching.

As he looked around at the Relays last month, and saw so many former pupils who are now friends, Wieczorek felt a little bittersweet.

"I'm closer to the end of my career than the beginning," he said. "One of the things I'm really going to miss is the relationships with the guys that develop into friendship. The ups and downs of their life that you go through with them. And then all of a sudden, I won't be Coach Wiz anymore. Standing out there with those guys, I was thinking, 'I'm going to miss this.' "

Follow DI reporter Sam Louwagie on Twitter.

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