The sport that I excelled the most at was driven by exposure to some great coaches. I have always loved to run and as mentioned, Coach Wilber first exposed me to track and field. I was always honored when he came to meets in HS and when my college team ran in my hometown. One trait I would attribute to great coaches is that they invest themselves emotionally in the members of the team they are coaching. I can think of so many times when I was lucky enough to have coaches who, after a milestone event, were more excited than I was.
Before running I did experience some other sports and coaches. Along with many of my buddies, I played one year of Pop Warner football where we pretty much got our asses handed to us. Organized football is a long way from our “in the park” games and early on we pretty much resembled a Chinese fire drill. Our head coach, “Moose” McGrath, who had played for the Buffalo Bills, referred to us as his “gutless wonders” in a somewhat tongue in cheek manner. We were somewhat inept initially as we learned but by the end of the season we actually won a couple of games. For sure though, it was an absolute blast!
In basketball, other than junior high with Coach Wilber, my favorite season among many played in the City League, was one played with some of my best friends for Aero Sporting Goods. The Aero Sporting Goods store was a must for not just sporting goods but plane and car models and glue. It was run by the mother of one of my best junior high buds, Murray Gould, and it was for sure the most welcoming sporting goods store I’ve ever been in. The team was coached by the Dad of another junior high friend, Barry Ebert, and Mr. Ebert did a great job and had as much fun as we did. Two things distinguished this team. First, we won a city championship in our division (Mr. Ebert was so proud of us that he kept the trophy displayed on his mantle.) Second, we had THE BEST looking uniforms ever as Mrs. Gould went full throttle in choosing them.
Funny thing about my running career. While I have vivid memories of races, not just “big” races, and can recall who was in those races, what my splits were, final time, I cannot recall when I first pulled on an Oswego singlet in cross country or track. I think I ran as a freshman, sure I did really, but for the life of me, I cannot remember any specifics. I don’t know when I won my first race but I know who was coaching me, Coach Bob Milner.
I remember Coach Milner as kind of a leprechaun of a man. Crew cut, flashing eyes, constant smile, all of which helped hide his hyper competitiveness and intensity. He was a graduate of Syracuse University where he had run varsity cross country and track and as I remember, once finished in the top ten of the Boston Marathon. For all us runners, cross country and track, he pushed us way harder than we had ever been pushed. Many of us experienced blisters, aaaaagh, for the first time as we ran distances that we formerly did not believe possible. We ran repeats on epic hills, sometimes running 4 or 5 miles to the hill, doing 8 or 10 runs up the hill, and then running back to school. Improvements followed for us all.
Our cross country team’s home course was on the campus of SUC at Oswego and a lot of it was a wide dirt/grass trail through the woods adjacent to the athletic fields. It was a twisty trail with lots of short, intense uphills. Our workouts were often new experiences for us at the time but, for sure, I saw them again in college. Fartlek. Yup, we were in HS so there were snickers. Indian file. Great for team building and turning your legs to rubber. Mile repeats on the track where often, on our last rep, Coach would make us go an extra lap. We were taught subtle moves to make that really applied to our home course. Every turn you were taught to pick up the pace for a few strides as you completed the turn so anyone behind you would feel like they were losing ground. Ditto for hills.
My Junior year in cross country, Coach Milner’s training began to pay results. We had some great runners….Don Colloca, Rick McCann, Bob Buckley, Jimmy Johnson, Bill Hogan were generally our scorers and once in a while I could sneak into our top five. We were the first Oswego High School cross country team to win the big invitational sponsored by our local newspaper. The win Coach Milner wanted the most was the Section III title which was scheduled on our home course and had never been won by an OHS team. But, before then, he had some other plans for big wins.
One of Coach Milner’s best friends was a former Syracuse teammate and fellow Boston Marathon runner. And, that man, Jerry Riordan was already a legend in Central NY coaching perennial parochial state power Christian Brothers Academy. As we made the trip to Syracuse, CBA was riding a home winning streak in the low 40’s. Coach Milner had worked us hard on hills in preparation as the CBA course was seriously hilly. In short, we broke the CBA win streak but that wasn’t all Coach had in mind for the day. Coach Milner had us run the course again and THAT blew the minds of the CBA runners. We returned to that course the next Saturday for the league championships and put up a near perfect score, with all five scorers in the top 10, in a dominating performance.
In short regarding that year’s Sectional Championship, on our home course, we won the first Oswego High School Section III championship. Sweet but the thing I remember most was the last quarter mile. I was running along with one of my best friends, Jimmy Johnson, and one of us was going to be the final scorer for our team. Still on the woodsy trail, almost to the end, we ran into Coach Milner. Now, let me say that even though Coach Milner was a relatively small man, his outdoor voice was BIG. He let us both know CLEARLY that if we didn’t die, we were going to win. In fact, he let us know that for the rest of the way to the finish and although I don’t know if he ran all the way, I know that his voice pushed us in and Jimmy wound up as our last scorer. For all the years after that I ran after that day, I very often heard Coach Milner’s voice at crunch time.
Coach Milner moved on to become the track coach at Colgate University after my junior year but he certainly influenced my track career far more than cross country. I was a half miler, quarter miler although I had run some pretty fast miles as well. Problem was that we had a guy on our team, Rick McCann, that I just could not beat. Coach Milner coached us in indoor track as well although he had us running outside to train. We often got to run on the boards at Manley Field House on the Syracuse University campus and Coach Milner got us an invite to run at half time of an SU game (ok….time check….Jim Boeheim was actually PLAYING for SU.) and I will never forget Rick McCann running our anchor leg and annihilating the field.
My junior year, having run second to Rick in the half mile all season, Coach Milner talked me into dropping down to the quarter mile in our league championships. Again, in short, I actually won and I vividly remember Coach Milner being far more excited and prouder than I was. I only ran for Coach Milner once more and I honestly cannot remember how I did in that year’s sectionals but as my time with Coach Milner wound down, I was left with one of his cardinal rules that I took with me. “When you pass someone, don’t just pass them. Break their heart.”
So with Coach Milner gone for my senior year, he was recruiting me to attend Colgate University. I applied and was accepted but the finances were just out of reach, even with his assurances that it would work out. In retrospect, I’m sure it would have but, being the first in my family to attend college it just didn’t seem workable. The last time I saw Coach Milner was at the Section III meet at Hamilton College. We talked a bit about Colgate and coach wished me luck and said that he thought I could run in the top three that day. I looked him in the eye and told him I was going to win. He gave me a handshake and had that Coach Milner gleam in his eye. In a race that was not my normal style, I got further back than I wanted, but I never doubted I was going to win and I got the leaders at the wire. First to give me a hug (you have to remember, this was the days when parents didn’t follow you everywhere) was Coach Milner. Again, he could not hide his pride. I only saw him once more on an official visit to Colgate but the lessons learned stay with me today and, like your interactions with all great coaches, were used over the years for much more than running.