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Sports Business

Death of coach doesn't quiet echoes of his call

April 26, 2012
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All athletes should have at least one great coach in their careers.

I’ve been fortunate to have one of those in mine.

There’s so much I’d like to tell you about Tom Hathaway.

First, though, I must start with the end. Thomas Jefferson Hathaway died on Sunday. By the time you read this, he’ll likely be laid to rest at Forest Lawn Memory Gardens in Greenwood.

The bells at Rosedale Hills United Methodist Church on Indianapolis’ south side rang out for him at 10:30 this morning—and a lot of old Southport High School Cardinals cried.

He would have been 80 in July, and everyone who knew him would agree he died way too young. He looked forward to running one last 500 Festival Mini-Marathon May 5 and celebrating his 60th wedding anniversary to his wife, Jane, this summer.

But there’s more to tell—and even more that I remember that will be left unsaid.

He’s known simply as “Coach” to tens of thousands of area runners: those he coached at Southport High School, the University of Indianapolis and IUPUI, and those mentored through marathon-training programs. His coaching life spanned more than five decades.

He was a brilliant, innovative coach who won seven state championships and would have won more had they not separated Southport and Perry Meridian high schools in 1973.But he was more than a coach. He was a pioneer and an excellent teacher too.

He took mostly blue-collar kids and regularly whipped schools with more money, better support and finer resources.

Hathaway championed girls’ and women’s athletics long before anyone ever heard of Title IX. He laid the foundation for Indiana High School Athletic Association-sanctioned girls cross-country. His girls teams at Southport went four years during the 1980s without losing a single meet.

He pulled science and biology out of the textbook and plopped it smack into real life in a way that enthralled teenagers for decades.

I’ve never seen someone get so excited by a chicken embryo’s beating heart. His amazement over all things biology was contagious. He inspired my sister to become a nurse.

He was as committed to his wife and five daughters as any man I know. He was a devoted Christian.

There were lots of little things too.

He had a paralyzed vocal cord that made his voice rise and fall several octaves unexpectedly. It seemed to do so especially when he got excited. It made his inspirational speeches and encouraging calls during difficult races unforgettable.

His iconic yelp during races—a kind of “hooouueeet”—still echoes from the Masonic Home to Southeastway Park, where his teams won some of their biggest races.

His multi-octave chastisements also were memorable, as much for how he said them as what he said. But they were most memorable in the long-term for how much you disappointed the man who made so many want to please him more than anything.

He loved airplanes, and had dozens of models in his basement living room at his home along Mann Road. He was an accomplished pilot.

He was a much better orator than he was a pilot. We’d run eight miles from Southport High School to his house just to hear one of his talks. Then we’d run back.

He served us orange sherbet ice cream and butter cookies at his house the night before big meets. He switched to pretzels when he discovered how much fat and sugar were in those cookies, even though he knew it wasn’t about what was in your stomach as much as what was in your heart that made you run fast.

His athletes’ hearts, minds and souls feasted off of his every word.

He gave out marbles for outstanding performances, an aggie if you really hit a high. A meaningless token, really, but not to his runners. Many of them—even professional men and women in his more recent training classes—cling to those marbles even today.

He had a memory as sharp as his wit. He could recount races that happened decades ago with amazing clarity and detail.

He also had a faraway look and a wispy smile that made you wonder where he was sometimes.

If his face turned grave and his voice turned gravely, you knew just where he was and what was coming next. No matter how steely you were, you couldn’t help but cringe.

If you paid attention, he was a great role model for a kid coming up through high school.

He’d put an arm around your shoulder in a time of need.

He’d break a clipboard against a wall if he thought it would help you reach your potential.

If you ran hard for him, he never forgot it.

He taught his students and athletes lessons that they’d carry with them forever.

He never stopped learning either, transforming himself from a coach of high-level high school and college athletes to a mentor and father-figure to the masses through mini-marathon and full marathon training classes.

I’m thankful to local promoter Ken Long for taking Coach Hathaway to an even broader audience through his local running classes. Hathaway’s passion for running and teaching deserved to be seen and felt by multitudes.

Coach helped my wife finish her first marathon when she was anything but certain that she could.

He never stopped running, becoming one of only 250 people to run a 26.2-mile marathon in all 50 U.S. states.

Mostly, though, he never stopped being a coach. And he never stopped being my coach. I had the good fortune of staying in touch with him over the years.

People lined up for three hours to pay their respects at the calling Wednesday night.I wasn’t surprised.

He laid in his casket with a big blue aggie in his hand.

Looking at him there, I recalled a man who had the rare combination of an artist’s soul, an athlete’s spirit and a reverend’s heart.

What I’d like to tell you most about Coach Hathaway is this: The biggest gift he gave is that he convinced people they could do the seemingly impossible.

He told everyday people—lawyers and nurses, wrench turners and paper pushers—“you are athletes,” and so they were.

When I ran for him, he asked his teams to run through walls, and so we busted barriers we never thought breakable.

He told us we were great, and so we believed him.

He told us we were champions, and so we were.

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