IRVINE – He is a man who holds no secrets.
In a coaching career that covers parts of five decades, UC Irvine cross country and track coach Vince O’Boyle has been generous to a fault with other coaches and athletes and not too proud to admit he’s borrowed from the best. The true key to O’Boyle’s success, however, is not found on a workout sheet posted on a locker room wall or in a training diary or an afternoon of 400-meter repeats.
“Everyone talks about the science of coaching, exercise physiology and biomechanics and it’s important. And there are a lot of variables in writing a workout,” Cornell coach Lou Duesing said in trying to explain his longtime friend’s success. “But what I believe is most important is the art of coaching: finding out with each person what’s going to work, what isn’t going to work. SCOTT M. REID
“Great painters know the science of using colors, how different colors work together, but in the end it’s the application to a canvas that determines what is in fact a great piece.”
On a canvas that stretches from the early 1970s to the NCAA West Regional cross country meet Friday, his final meet after 32 seasons at UCI, O’Boyle has produced at least two masterpieces as well as a string of gems perhaps only best appreciated and understood by other masters. It is those coaches and athletes who realize that O’Boyle’s real strength and vision came not in broad, sweeping strokes but in small, subtle touches; his ability as Olympic middle distance runner Ruth Wysocki said, to instill in his athletes “a belief that, ‘Hey, this is possible.’”
O’Boyle, 67, was the architect behind both an upset that rocked the track world on the eve of the 1984 Olympic Games, Wysocki’s stunning victory over Olympic cover girl Mary Decker at the Olympic Trials, and one of the most thrilling races in NCAA championships history, Charles Jock’s duel with Virginia’s Robby Andrews in the 2011 NCAA 800-meter final. In between, O’Boyle guided the U.S. women to the silver medal at the 1992 World Cross Country Championships and has been college cross country’s version of a BCS buster. Chris Petersen with a stopwatch. His 1990 UCI women’s cross country team, the best in a series of underfunded yet overachieving, giant-slaying squads, finished fourth at NCAAs, knocking off superpowers Oregon, Arkansas and Wisconsin.
“He has this willingness to always learn,” Duesing said. “(It’s rare) for someone who’s had success along the way as he’s had but is always wanting to learn, always wanting to do a better job, not afraid to ask, not afraid to learn. To me that’s the sign of an artist still creating.”
Which is why O’Boyle might be the only coach to have athletes on the cover of Track & Field News, the self-proclaimed bible of the sport, 27 years apart. Yet, while ever evolving, O’Boyle has remained true to himself and a set of core beliefs. He is a warm, mischievous and an unapologetically sentimental man; quick to smile, joke and needle, and just easily moved to tears.
“I wear my stuff on my sleeve,” O’Boyle said. “It’s OK to be emotional. I’m not afraid to shed a tear, happy or sad.”
Through the tears this much was always clear to his athletes: O’Boyle’s unwavering belief in them and that he was there for the long haul. He coached Wysocki for 22 years.
“Again it’s that philosophy of developing over a period of time,” O’Boyle said. “Ruth didn’t walk in and set the world on fire. She had more bad races than good races. She never quit, she never gave up on herself, she never quit trying. So you look at that and that was important to me.”
Wysocki didn’t quit because O’Boyle never quit on her. Wysocki, her triumph over Decker forgotten by a sport with a short attention span, once cracked, “In 1984 my shoe sponsor said it would take care of me for life. I guess I died in 1988.” O’Boyle, however, hung with her, guiding Wysocki, at 38, to the 1995 World Championships 1,500 final.
“It takes time and if you’re in it for the long haul, you’ll have a legacy, an identity,” said O’Boyle, who came to UCI as cross country coach in 1982 and then took over the track program two years later.
O’Boyle at a young age embraced the role of underdog and an identity shaped by his childhood in Monrovia growing up in a working-class Irish family, frequented by tragedy.
He fell in love running in grade school while competing in CYO meets.
“I just liked it,” O’Boyle said. “The competitiveness. Time meant something to me, obviously we all understand time. But when you head up against somebody it’s just a footrace. It’s always been a footrace. If you can beat somebody then let the time take care of itself.”
He was recruited by both Bishop Amat of La Puente and St. Francis of La Canada but had to stay home and attend Monrovia High after his mother, Katherine, was struck with breast cancer. At Monrovia he was courted by Citrus College and Pasadena City College, coached by future Hall of Fame coach Ted Banks.
“And Ted was a real go-getter. Hustle, hustle, hustle,” O’Boyle said, recalling a drive that later helped Banks lead Texas El Paso to 17 NCAA team titles in cross country and track. Banks’ counterpart at Citrus had a more low-key approach that seemed to resonate with O’Boyle’s father, James. One night Banks called the house. The elder O’Boyle, “a few belts under his belt,” his son recalled, answered the phone. The call was brief.
“Listen you son of a bitch, he’s not coming to your place. He’s going to Citrus,” O’Boyle, laughing, recalled his father saying. “And he hung up the phone. (Banks) still won’t say much to me.”
After Citrus, O’Boyle enrolled at Cal Poly Pomona to stay with his mother after his father died. At Cal Poly, in a precursor of his coaching, O’Boyle was part of a squad that placed a surprising eighth at the 1968 NCAA Cross Country Championships. After graduating he continued to run with the Southern California Striders, eventually returning to Citrus, taking a spot on the disabled education faculty staff and helping coach the track and cross country teams. In the mid 70s Wysocki’s father approached O’Boyle about coaching his teenage daughter. O’Boyle had never coached a woman before.
The pair first gained national attention when Wysocki, then Ruth Caldwell, upset Decker in the 1978 U.S. Championships 800. But that race was long forgotten when Wysocki and Decker stepped to the starting line at the Coliseum for the Trials 1,500 final.
Decker was the first woman to break 4 minutes, 20 seconds in the mile and in 1982 had set six world records between the mile and 10,000 meters. In 1983, Decker’s victories at 1,500 and 3,000 meters at the inaugural World Championships was the first major crack in the Soviet bloc’s decade-long hold on women’s track. The triumph landed her on the cover of Sports Illustrated as Sportsperson of the Year and string of major endorsements.
“Mary had everything going her way,” O’Boyle said.
Wysocki, was still primarily a half-miler, and had already made the Olympic team in the 800. Her 1,500 best was more than 15 seconds slower than Decker’s American record. But O’Boyle still thought Decker was vulnerable with the right race. “Vince was the master at peaking athletes at the right time,” Wysocki said. “And from my training I knew I was going to be ready. It gave me that confidence that something big was possible.” Wysocki had added motivation: she loathed Decker, who felt just as strongly about her longtime rival.
“Cats on a hot tin roof,” O’Boyle said.
O’Boyle’s plan was simple. “Make her hurt at a point where she doesn’t want to hurt,” Wysocki said. “It was just a matter of having the guts to hang on to her to that point.” With 200 to go Wysocki was still with Decker. “I remember thinking ‘You’re going to beat her,’” said Wysocki, who pulled away to win in 4:00.18.
“And there’s no love lost when that happened,” O’Boyle said. “Like I said cats on a hot tin roof. I’d gone kooky excited. (Wysocki’s husband) Tom kept them separated after the race.”
Recalled Ruth Wysocki, “it was pretty surreal in a lot of ways.”
Wysocki wasn’t the only one in the sport trying to get their bearings. Many maintain Decker never recovered in 1984 from the loss. She dropped the 1,500 from her Olympic program, choosing to focus on the 3,000 where she became entangled with Zola Budd, her Olympic dreams shattered once more. Wysocki finished sixth in the Olympic 800, eighth in the 1,500, still the only American woman to finish in the top 8 in both events at the Olympics.
“It was huge, absolutely huge,” Duesing said. “… It told other people ‘Wait a minute, (Decker is) not invulnerable. We can beat her.’”
Six years later O’Boyle made another statement, coaching the Anteaters women, just three scholarships split between the seven of them, to fourth place at the 1990 NCAAs.
“The achievement of that fourth-place team speaks volumes,” Duesing said.
It was the equivalent of Boise State or Utah reaching a BCS bowl game. “In fact Boise State still has 85 scholarships,” Duesing said. “It’s a very, very hard thing to do.” So hard that Cornell under Duesing and Dartmouth are the only non-BCS, non-BYU women’s programs to finish that high since 1990 and no non-BSC, BYU women’s team has done it since 1997. Not that O’Boyle’s success seemed to carry much weight with the beancounters and suits at Irvine. UCI dropped the men’s program in 1992. After three months of campaigning by O’Boyle the program was restored but the damage was done. Top athletes, male and females, including future Olympians, left for programs such as UCLA and USC. And now O’Boyle had to figure a way to support two programs on the women’s budget.
“It was a wound that had to become a scab and the scab had to go away,” O’Boyle said. “It was a long time. People were like ‘Oh, you still have a men’s program?’ ‘Oh, you have a men’s program?’”
If the administration didn’t appreciate O’Boyle, his sport did. He was chosen to coach the U.S. women at the 1992 World Cross Country Championships, considered by many as the hardest race in world-class distance running. American Lynn Jennings won the individual title and the U.S. women took the team silver medal, finishing ahead of global superpower Ethiopia. It is a team finish the American woman have duplicated only once (in 2002) since.
At UCI, O’Boyle continued to turn athletes overlooked by other schools into All-Americans, 15 in cross country, 10 in track. One of them was Jock.
There was a special connection between the two underdogs, O’Boyle and Jock.
“In here,” O’Boyle, tearing up, placing his hand on his heart. “We all know the stories. There’s an internal connection.”
Like O’Boyle, Jock lost his father too young. Dr. John Jock led his family, including infant son Charles, on a long journey out of the war and famine of their native Sudan, through peril and refugee camps in Kenya and Ethiopia before settling in San Diego only to succumb to liver cancer at 54.
“That connection made it easier for him to relate to me, to have something deep down inside like that,” Jock said.
Jock, described by O’Boyle as “all legs and no fear,” soon blossomed into a world-class half-miler who gained international attention by delivering an NCAA 800 final for the ages. Walking to the track on a rain-drenched Iowa night in 2011, Jock told O’Boyle he planned to take the race out faster than usual. “Whoa, timeout here,” O’Boyle said. “You can’t go crazy.” Jock explained his reasoning. O’Boyle gave his blessing. Jock courageously led from the opening gun, passing the 400 mark in a blistering 49.85, and continued to hold the lead until he was caught by Andrews at the finish line, the two separated by a scant four-hundredths of a second. Jock went on to make the 2011 Worlds team and win the 2012 NCAA title.
In recent days Jock reflected on his daring tactics against Andrews and O’Boyle’s support. He had run through the storm that day not with a recklessness or cockiness, but with the security of man running with a true belief. But then why shouldn’t he have? After all O’Boyle believed in him and that was always more than enough.