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Wiz’s last lap

BY JORDAN HANSEN | JULY 03, 2014 5:00 AM

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Sometime after 5 p.m. today, a 68-year-old coach will walk out of the coaches’ offices in Carver-Hawkeye Arena and past the Dan Gable statue one last time as a part of the Iowa Athletics Department.

In his arms, he’ll carry the last physical remnants of a career that saw him start as a star distance runner and ended today with his retirement after spending 30 years coaching cross-country, along with track and field at Iowa.

In his mind, Larry Wieczorek will carry a whole lot more.

One must go back to the mid-1960s to really understand the man. Coached by the legendary Francis X. Cretzmeyer, the Iowa cross-country and track star was at the peak of his athletics career.

Wieczorek’s individual accolades certainly stand out; he was a four-time All-American with six individual Big Ten titles during his time as a Hawkeye athlete. But in his mind, it was the team success that meant the most.

“I had individual success, but more importantly, we had team success — we were team cross-country champs and Big Ten track champions,” Wieczorek said. “It really worked out for me. We had success, and I had a good relationship with the coach.

“They are the things that really mean a lot to you as you look back on them.”

In college, he learned that team success was better than simply having individual success. This may seem obvious, but it became the entire basis of his coaching philosophy.

During his time competing in Iowa City, he decided that he loved the sport enough to make it his career. After graduating from Iowa with a B.S. degree in physical education, he then pursed a master’s degree in the same subject from Northern Illinois University.

He then traveled roughly an hour east and began coaching track at Proviso West High School in Illinois for 14 years — three as an assistant and the rest as the head coach.

“I was a physical-education major, so I had studied coaching and the science of the sports and everything,” Wieczorek said. “Suddenly, one day I’m at Proviso, and I started having a panic attack, I said, ‘I’m the coach; I don’t know what I’m doing.’ ”

Eventually, success came, and in 1984 he got an opportunity to joinIowa’s track team as an assistant coach.

Surprisingly, he did not start his college coaching career coaching distance runners but rather throwers. It was not an accident, and his flexibility in coaching a number of different events eventually became a hallmark of his career.

During this time, he coached Chris Gambol, Iowa’s first-ever Big Ten outdoor shot put champion in 1987. Gambol was a two-sport athlete and went on to become a third-round pick of the Indianapolis Colts in the 1987 NFL draft.

The two remain close and fondly remember the day in the same year when they won a Big Ten title together.

“We had talked about it for several years prior, how it would be something that you would hold on to forever,” Gambol said. “When I finally won, I was so happy and he was so happy that after I won, I ran over, picked him up, and carried him around the track.

“We celebrated by jumping in the steeplechase pit — it was a great day for both of us, and we still talk about it to this day.”

In three quick years, Wieczorek had shown the ability to train champions, and he took over the men’s cross-country program the following year in addition to his track responsibilities. This also meant he shifted his focus to the distance side of the track and field team.

This, it seemed, was what he was meant to do — coach distance athletes to break the Iowa records that he had set. Things stayed this way for 12 years.

As a self-described student of the sport, his knowledge and passion for the sport slowly grew as he ventured deeper and deeper into his career.

“I’ve always loved reading about the sport, talking to coaches about it, going to coaching clinics … it really fires me up to do that,” Wieczorek said. “Really, I think you have to be a student of your sport — you have to continue to keep learning how to teach it, how to coach it, and I think that’s why my love of coaching has grown throughout the years.”

Judging by the sparkle in his eye as he talks about why he loves to coach, it makes quite a bit of sense that Iowa hired him to coach the men’s track and field team when he replaced Ted Wheeler after the 1996 season.

The wealth of experience in all events separated him from the rest of the staff during the in-house search for a new coach.

“I’ve coached every event at one time or another, and that’s something that I’m very proud of, and I think it made me a better head coach,” Wieczorek said. “It gives you a perspective and a knowledge than if you’re just a sprints coach or a distance coach that maybe you never have.”

A career of study and coaching paid off during the 2011 season. The Hawkeyes were a very good team and took the Big Ten by a storm.

After finishing fourth in the indoor Big Ten championships, it was obvious they would be contenders a few months later at the outdoor conference meet, which was to be hosted at the track named after Wieczorek’s head coach.

No one, however, could have predicted that the championship would come down to one race at the very end of the meet: the 4x1,600-meter relay — a distance race.

Iowa won the race by a narrow margin, giving Wieczorek his first team title, the first since he competed as an athlete.

Maybe legendary track and field announcer Mike Jay said it best.

“When Iowa won the Big Ten championship in 2011, just to see the look on his face and the tears running down his cheek, it really was the pinnacle of success in his eyes, from an athlete winning a Big Ten title to a coach winning a title in Iowa City,” Jay said. “You couldn’t have scripted it any better.”

For some, the best part was after the race during the celebration of the victory.

His wife, Jackie, ran out and gave him a hug as those tears of joy streamed down his weathered face. Seconds later, the coach was carried off the field by an exuberant track team that had just given an incredible amount of fulfillment to a beloved coach.

“It was a lifelong dream of his and something that he worked very, very hard for,” head track and field coach Layne Anderson said. “The picture of him on the student-athletes’ shoulders really epitomizes him to me, and it was one of the true highlights of my 11 years at Iowa to be a part of that.”

It only speaks to Wieczorek’s dedication to the team that he came back for another three years instead of going out on top — literally.

While his love and passion for the sport are intense, they pale in comparison to his love for the athletes whom he has coached.

He often could be found talking to athletes about their lives and took an opportunity to get to know each and every athlete over the course of their careers.

“That’s one of the things about him that really stuck out the most — his taking that time and becoming almost like a father figure,” former Hawkeye standout Zeke Sagon said. “He’d ask you about your parents and what was going on in your life … it was never formal; he’d just pull you aside.

“He genuinely cares about people.”

One of his coaching philosophies was to make Iowa an athlete-driven program that put them first over the rest of the athletics program. His goal was to make the track,field, and cross-country athletes feel as if their sport was the most important at the university.

He loves the athletes he has coached, and that part of his life will be hard to replace.

“The thing that I think I’m going to miss the most is the relationship with the athletes,” Wieczorek said. “I’ve had a team for 42 years between high school and college, 30 of them at Iowa, and every day, even now in the summer, I start thinking about next year and thinking about the team.

“Come July 4, I’ll no longer have a team.”

While there was a touch of sadness in his voice as he spoke those words, bitterness was completely absent. Turning over a program is not an easy thing to do, but in his mind, something very good will come out of this change.

That doesn’t mean it will still be a difficult transition, especially for those the athletes whom he loved so much who were expecting him to coach next season.

“I was very surprised — to be honest, it felt like I had just gotten broken up with,” Hawkeye senior Kevin Lewis said. “I didn’t see it coming, but at least he’ll be here in the area, so it’s not as if my old coach is completely leaving.”

Lewis is poised to have a very good season next year, and while his old coach will not coach him, he will be part of the legacy that the coach left behind.

It will be a legacy filled with people who had their lives touched in a positive way by a coach with unshakable ties to his athletes, all those who worked closely with him, and the passion he has for the sport itself.

For the coach, however, the legacy he wants left as he walks out of his office one last time is quite simple.

“When your life’s work is over, most of us, I think would like to say that we are proud of the legacy that we left,” Wieczorek said. “I want it to think that I left Iowa cross-country and track and field better than I found it — and I think that any of the coaches before me would say that, too.”

 


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