Jeff Pearlman

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Jim Fischer

#104
My former cross country coach at the University of Delaware gave nearly three decades to the college. Then he was ruthlessly dumped. A story of love and greed. POSTED May 29, 2013

If you’re ever searching for ideas on the perfect way to mistreat an honorable and loyal employee, contact the University of Delaware’s administrative offices. That’s where someone will be able to explain to you how, two years ago, Jim Fischer—the school’s longtime (hell, legendary) track and cross country coach—was unceremoniously called into an office, dismissed from his position and told, oh, we’re also killing off your program.

Have a nice day.

Predictably, the athletic department cited the need to “exercise fiscal responsibility and remain in compliance with Title IX”—bullshit explanations that failed to mention, ahem, cross country’s paltry $20,000 budget, 12 roster spots and zero full scholarships. (Translation: Running doesn’t draw fans or generate revenue. Football—what with its 103-man roster—does. You can read all about the catastrophe here).

If this seems particularly personal to me, that’s because, well, it is. Back in 1990-91, I was a member of Delaware’s cross country and track teams. I was an awful Division I runner who didn’t belong at that level, but was nurtured and developed by Coach Fischer, a saint of a man whose impact on hundreds upon hundreds of Blue Hens cannot be measured.

Here, Coach Fischer talks about the end of his job and the death of his program; on why college running is under attack and whether it can survive the hugeness of football and basketball. He also dispenses some fantastic advice to aspiring marathoners. Coach currently operates his own running program in Delaware. One can follow him on Twitter here.

Jim Fischer, welcome to the Quaz …

JEFF PEARLMAN: You were the track and cross country coach at the University of Delaware from 1982 through most of 2012. Then the school chopped your head off. Coach, I know you’re a polite, kind, soft-spoken man … but can you tell us what, exactly happened? How did you learn of the dismissal? How did it affect you, emotionally? And are you really, really pissed?

JIM FISCHER: Well, obviously I’m upset that the program was cut and that I lost my job. Let me deal with my position first. I really loved my job. I enjoyed going to work every day, working with kids and trying to put all of the pieces to the puzzle together. I know that being a coach is not one of the top ten essential jobs in the world, but I enjoyed being part of an activity that many considered part of their college experience. I was told through the years that I would always have a place in the academic department and the same was said about the cross country/track and field program. Nothing was in writing. New administrators came in and promises were forgotten and went up in smoke.

When the men’s indoor team was cut a few years ago, we were upset. In the long term, we thought we had dodged a bullet. So, when the whole program was cut, I was to have a regularly scheduled meeting with my direct supervisor. I received a call that said the meeting would be moved up a day—no problem. I walked into her office and there was no supervisor (she was in another part of the country at a meeting). Instead, there were two athletic directors and two people from human resources. The meeting lasted 10 minutes—the total men’s program was cut and I was retiring. I was totally shocked, stunned. We had kids performing at a high level athletically and were always at or near the top of the department academically. And, we cost almost nothing.

J.P.: It seems like college administrators are increasingly willing to kill off running. Hell, Delaware’s getting rid of its indoor track as we speak. Why do you think this in? When did you first notice the trend? And is there something that can be done to reverse it?

J.F.: My theory is that it’s easier to interest the general public in team sports. Everybody can tell when a basket or touchdown is scored, so it’s an easy sell. People should be able to tell who’s won a race, but they don’t know who the winner is and if their performance was a good one or not. All of the team sports wanted a turfed indoor facility at the ready in case of inclement weather. The sacrifice was an indoor practice and game facility for the track and field. Why they couldn’t have bubbled one or two of the existing turf fields is beyond me. It would be the maintaining of another facility and I don’t think it was ever a strong possibility. My undergraduate college of 1,700 students in Minneapolis has had a bubbled turf field for many, many years. Another thing is that many administrators don’t understand track and field and have very little idea how a program is run—and they don’t try. I’ve had administrators tell me they don’t understand track and field after having been “in charge” of the sport for years. If the people don’t care about learning or have trouble comprehending everything, that’s a problem. Also, practices and meets look like unorganized chaos. The perception is that there is no control leading to thoughts that there isn’t anyone in charge of the program.

J.P.: As you know, shortly after you learned of your dismissal I was working on a Runner’s World piece that ultimately didn’t run. I found two things: 1. Most of your former runners at Delaware absolutely love you. 2. Most of your former runners at Delaware wanted you to stand on a chair and scream, “This is bullshit!” They wanted you to fight the decision, fight for the program and, really, for running as a college sport. It doesn’t seem like you did this, at least not in a bombastic manner. It felt sort of like you were hoping for a resolution, and therefore didn’t want to overly rock the boat. Am I off on this? And do you at all have regrets?

J.F.: First of all, I was so very upset that this was being taken away from not only the current students, but it was also taken away from past and future students. I was advised to stay out of it to protect my job, what was left of it, and my family. I guess I could have been out front and risked my position, really stood up for it all. I was always hoping that there could be some compromise. I did feel helpless and hopeless. I had put in 30 years and really enjoyed what I was doing. There were many of the alums and community members who were working on many fronts. Looking back, I’m not sure that I would have done anything different. I’m not an attacking-type person. The sense I got very early on from the administration was that any and all comments fell on deaf ears. They had a “frequently asked questions” column posted on the day the announcement came out and made no effort to respond to any comments or questions. The program was cut and they moved on. My regret is that I couldn’t figure out a way to reverse the decision.

J.P.: Why running? Like, what’s the love for you? The pull? How would you explain this to non-runners? The beauty of the sport and such?

J.F.: For me, it was always something I did well. I liked testing myself against others, against the many different courses, against the clock, and against myself. Running is a simple activity without much equipment to buy. You can step out your front door and go. It’s great when you get in good enough shape to be able to explore, go up hill hard, go fast or slow when you want, and to be in control. I seem to learn my way around new cities much more quickly by running than by driving.

J.P.: I know you’re from Minnesota. But how did you get here? What was your path from guy looking for work to 30-year Division I coach?

J.F.: My undergraduate degree is from Augsburg. I taught and coached for ten years in a suburban Minneapolis school district, Robbinsdale, and during that time, assisted during an indoor season at the University of Minnesota. That helped me to get a job at a division three school, Concordia College in Moorhead, Minnesota, as an instructor, track and field coach, and assistant football coach. After two years, I resigned and was moving back to Minneapolis when I received a call from Delaware. I had applied for the women’s cross country and track and field coach opening at Delaware. That was filled. When the men’s coach moved on to another job, they already had resumes and interviewed from those. I flew out, had a day of interviews, and accepted the job before I flew home. This was August, so it was a quick change in plans. I had no idea I would be at Delaware that long.

J.P.: What separates the OK runner from the great runner? Are there attributes the best of the best share? Can a good runner become great, or do we all have caps and limits?

J.F.: A talented athlete who is motivated is tough to beat. There are many who are talented who rely on their talent and never reach their potential. The person has to be driven to attain the very top level. The person also has to be resilient to injury and illness. I think some of it is genetic, some of it is training intelligence, and some of it is luck. The person has to be patient. The runner has to develop a sense of training and racing. The athlete also has to have help, developing a training program and receiving support to be able to live, work, and train all at once. I do not think there is a way for everyone to get to the top just by working hard. I do believe that everyone can reach their potential, whatever that is, through hard work and persistence.

J.P.: When something ends as badly as it did for you at Delaware, can you still have a love for the school? Can you still root for its teams? Or did you have to, more or less, put on blinders and move forward?

J.F.: I really like the school. My step-daughter just finished her freshman year and she absolutely loves it. Having said that, I am struggling with my thoughts and emotions on a daily basis. And now, to hear some of my long-time coaching friends from the other sports be elated at the prospect of the school “turfing” over the indoor track so they can have an indoor practice facility distresses me to no end. It was fun to watch the women’s basketball team this year. I tried very hard to separate my feelings. It’s hard. I know a lot of alums feel the same way. It does feel like my whole time at Delaware had very little meaning. I’ve watched other long-time coaches have department-sponsored retirement parties and celebrations. No one from the athletic department has made any official acknowledgment of my tenure. Other than a few people telling me they were sorry and saying that they didn’t understand the thinking, there has been nothing. I am gone and they’ve moved on. That does hurt. I was proud to work at the University of Delaware and represent it. That has been tempered and I have an empty feeling.

J.P.: I know you’re now working as a personal coach. How has the adjustment been for you, since the departure? Are you OK? Down? Are you able to get by OK, financially? Do you still get something out of working with runners?

J.F.: I am trying to get a personal running business started, but it’s tough. I have had a weekly training session for the community for the twenty-nine years. They have been free to the public as part of my “giving back” to whomever. It’s tough for me to start charging for what I have been giving to people for so long. I hate asking people for money, so that doesn’t bode well for my finances. This whole situation has been quite a hit for my ego and our family finances. We have a big mortgage and two kids in college, although the University of Delaware is honoring their commitment to helping with tuition. I am struggling with not having a full-time position. I’m sure it’s similar to what all retirees go through. But, I expected to and still wanted to work at something I really love to do for a few more years. I may soon be taking and job just to make money, That’s not the way I wanted to finish my career. I love working with people and seeing them realize some success. In the meantime, I am trying to put together a book on the way I view running, training, and racing. I am coaching part-time. I need to find something so I can have legitimate reasons to excuse myself from cleaning the house, doing the laundry, and tending to the yard work.

J.P.: I’m wondering what you think of the whole “Born to Run” craze? The barefoot approach, the thin-soled approach? Do you see merit to it? Is there an argument to be made against the $100 pair of Nikes?

J.F.: I have had people do running and drills barefoot and think that it strengthens. I feel that if people progressively increase the amount of time spent running barefoot, that it can be a good thing. There is science that helps to explain and I understand the reasoning. I have trouble with exclusively running barefoot from a practical perspective. I know it can be done. It would be tough to do hard training and to be safe on the hard surfaces in addition to all the glass, metal, and trash.

J.P.: Why did you allow crap runners like Jeff Pearlman to be on a Division I team? I’m actually being serious—I was never going to be competitive or win you a meet? Neither was Mike Halbfish or Paul Sedacca or a bunch of us competing in the JV races? You coached some marvelous runners in your career, and some truly unworthy (of DI) runners. Why allow the unworthies to stick around?

J.F.: I loved the challenge of working with Division I runners. But maybe I shouldn’t have been a Division I coach. I guess I am a developmental coach. I want to be a coach to everyone in the world. I don’t say that to be arrogant or to say that I know everything or even what’s best for everyone. I want to see everyone have the opportunity to improve, to reach their potential, whatever that is. My goal was to have a community of athletes, working together to get better. People told me many times that the athletes who never going to be competitive on a conference, regional, or national level were just taking time away from the top level athletes. That may have been true. That’s just not the way I wanted to do things. I had kids who never ran varsity be great examples of how hard a runner could work. I had kids who never ran varsity who were great teammates, friends, alums, and people. I had kids who came out of nowhere to become great athletes. You just never know. I wanted numbers. I wanted to include everyone. I guess that’s not division one thinking.

QUAZ EXPRESS WITH JIM FISCHER:

• Five greatest runners you’ve ever coached?: Mike DiGennaro, Nadine Marks, Steve Plasencia (high school), David Sheppard, Andy Weaver. (I’ll also include Candy Cashell and Alex Coles, but both were high jumpers, not runners. And, of course, Vicki Huber Rudawsky (the greatest, but I worked with her in her 30s and 40s. Really, I watched her do her workouts and learned. I can’t say that I coached her.))

• Rank in order (favorite to least): Marc Washington, Carrie Underwood, LA Gear sneakers, Alberto Salazar, candied yams, K-mart, Elena Delle Donne, the spork, Air Supply, Delaware State, Mookie Wilson, 100-degree days, Martin Luther King, Mitch McConnell: Tough—this will change if you ask me again tomorrow. Martin Luther King, Marc Washington, candied yams, Alberto Salazar, Elena Delle Donne, Carrie Underwood, Delaware State, Air Supply, K-Mart, 100-degree days, Mookie Wilson, the spork, LA Gear sneakers, Mitch McConnell

• You have to run a marathon next week. What’s your time?: If I would finish, it would be in about eight hours. Because of my knees, I would have to walk the whole way. I love to run, but I can’t run on hard surfaces and I can’t run on soft surfaces enough to get back in shape. I have good fitness from weight training and machines, but it’s not the same.

• Best single piece of advice for a new runner?: Stop when you could have done one more rather than you should have done one less.

• I’m freaking out about climate change. Why do I feel like I’m all alone?: You are not alone. It seems strange that with all of our scientific advancements, that we can’t figure out a way to put everything back to the way it should be, protect the environment.

• Most overrated item runners buy for a race is …: Special drinks.

• Eating advice you’d give a runner about to do his/her first marathon: Don’t do anything dramatically different than normal. Eat solid meals in the three days leading up to the race, including a high percentage of carbs. Don’t gorge yourself as your activity level is down and you don’t want to upset your system. Avoid high fiber. The night before, eat your favorite meal, making sure your carb stores are full. Don’t eat late and don’t eat anything that is going to upset your system. Get up three to four hours before race time to eat a light breakfast of easily digestible carb-ladened foods and then go to the bathroom. Drink a glass of water every thirty minutes. Eat a light carb snack an hour before the race.

• My mom always used to tell me running will ruin my knees and isn’t as healthy as walking. Did she have a point?: If you have some biomechanical issues and you run a lot on roads, she may have a point. I wish that I would have run a lot more on trails. Walking doesn’t have nearly the impact forces that running does, and that’s if you have good form and structure. If your structure is bad and your form is bad, the forces on your legs can be much greater.

• Celine Dion calls—she wants you to be her personal running coach. She’ll pay you $2 million annually, but you have to move to Las Vegas, change your name to Pablo Escobar-Fischer and only eat wheat germ, cheese sticks and bacon bits. You in?: I’m in! I am awaiting the call!

• Have you ever seen an actual blue hen? And, if so, do they bite?: I saw one in a cage at once. I would guess that it pecks. Legend has it that they were fighting hens. All others that I have seen have been stuffed.

  • Ted

    Proof that a coach can be a nice guy and be successful. The Mike Rices and Bobby Knights sicken me. Good luck to you, coach. Nice quaz.

  • Bill Taylor

    I too was upset when the UofD cancelled Track and Field and Cross-country and let Coach Fischer go. I was a sprinter on the UofD track teams for 1966-68 under Coach Jimmy Flynn.
    I really don’t understand why the administration did what they did.

  • Liz S.

    I am so thankful that I had the opportunity to work with Coach Fischer as one of his athletes. He is the nicest man you will ever meet and truly cares about each of his athletes regardless of how good a runner they are.

    Loved the Quaz, but in the question where you asked Fischer to rank in order from most to least favorite, you should have included Patrick Harker and Bernard Muir.

  • http://www.gomuhawks.com Joe Compagni

    If anyone needed any further proof of what a quality person Coach Fischer is, this interview is it. Along with answering painful questions about what UD did to the program he built, Coach Fischer also fielded Jeff’s sillier questions with a smile. Thanks, Jeff, for doing this, and bringing some more well-deserved recognition to a great person treated very poorly. And thanks, Coach, for being classy and professional even when those you work for were NOT.

  • Darryl Charache

    I too was one of those runners (’86-’89) that didn’t belong on a division 1 team, but Coach always made us feel as much a part of the team as the top athletes. He coached us just as much, and made sure we worked hard to reach our potential. Maybe other D1 programs should be run more like Fish’s, not the other way around. Thanks Jeff for helping those outside the program understand the kind of person Coach Fischer is, and how much he meant to all of us that were fortunate to run for him. And thank you Coach for your dedication to all your teams over the years.

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Once again, Jeff Pearlman has produced an exhaustively researched, elegantly written book that re-creates one of the most colorful and memorable teams of the modern era. No basketball fan's bookshelf will be complete without it.

— Seth Davis, author of Wooden: A Coach's Life