A Coaching Life In Retrospect

Mike Woods recently put his finishing touches on his 23rd season as head coach of the men's and women's cross country teams at SUNY Geneseo. Also an assistant coach with the track & field teams for the last 11 seasons after serving as head coach for 12, he announced that 2014-15 would be his final campaign with the Knights. Below, he puts into words what his Geneseo experience has meant to him.

I can remember my trepidation in the summer of 1992 when I decided that, after some encouragement from my son, Chris, and daughter, Meghan, I would take the head cross country and track & field position at my alma-mater, SUNY Geneseo. Did I have the right science for college coaching? Would they buy into my "Believe" philosophy? How much of a culture change was I going to have to make? Could I inspire collegiate athletes like I was able to inspire my high school athletes at York Central? So many questions to deal with and only uncertainty as a clear answer. I tossed aside the uncertainty however, and waded into the task with the one quality that I felt was necessary to succeed anywhere in anything: belief in myself.

Ironically, as my Geneseo coaching career comes to a close 23 years later, I am facing the uncertainty devil again. This time, however, the stakes and questions are different. Chief among them, can I exist without the encouragement and help of the wonderful student-athletes that have supported me over the last two-plus decades?? It is, after all, about them and what they've given to me and to the program. 

I would often say to my closest friends that I can't believe they pay me to work with these immensely-talented young people who come to Geneseo every year. I have been blessed with six generations (four years being a generation in my coaching world) of student-athletes who were passionate, hardworking, loyal, responsible, intellectual, fiercely dedicated to their sport and, most important, willing to laugh at my bad jokes. They have been a source of pride to me and so many have become not only good Geneseo alumni, but good friends as well. 

Mark Twain once wrote, "Laughter is the best medicine." I've always subscribed to that philosophy of life and I hope I've passed that on to all my athletes. Running, after all, should be fun - a way to lessen the academic and social pressures that exist at any college. One of my key coaching points was that I wanted the runners who came here to learn and to run, to leave loving running more than when they came. Interestingly, I looked at one of my favorite former runner's Facebook page the other day. A 2004 graduate, his profile picture showed him in a race outfit, with a bib number pinned on the front and a smile from ear to ear - 10 years later. Yessss!

I would be remiss if I did not thank some key people who helped me build the program: John Spring who, I'm sure, took a leap of faith when he hired me and my ponytail back in 1992; Marilyn Moore who did not fire me even though I never quite cleaned my office like she wanted me to; and my current athletic director, Mike Mooney. These three people understood my vision for Geneseo distance running and did their level best to support it year after year. 

The SUNY "G" has been present at all the big-time distance meets on the East Coast like the Penn Relays in Philly, the Bucknell Spring Invite, the Boston Valentine's Day Indoor meet, the Colonial Relays at William and Mary, the New Balance Invite at the NYC Armory, the Harry Groves Spiked Shoe XC Invite at Penn State etc., etc. Speaking of the Penn State meet, one memory I'll always treasure was the day we won what was usually a predominantly Division-I field. It's held each year on the Blue Golf Course at State College, Pa. and the runners take off at the start and quickly go out of sight for about 15 minutes; they then reappear and climb a long arduous hill back to the finish. As the lead runners came into view that day, it was Lee Berube in first place followed by Eddie Novara and Mark Streb, 1-2-3 runners all wearing the SUNY "G." A guy standing next to me says, "Boy, Georgetown has a real good team this year!" I immediately turned to him and said, "That G stands for Geneseo my friend." To which he replied, "who in the hell is Geneseo?" Another person who now knows who Geneseo is. Yessss!

Behind our leaders in the athletic department however, stood some outstanding support staff that I have to thank: secretaries (Donna); grounds and maintenance (Bill, Jerry, Richie, Leo); SIDs (George and Tim); trainers (Sharon and Jeremie); travel (Dianne); equipment (Karen and Roy); and stores (Chris). Each year I leaned on all of these people to help make our program successful. They delivered every time. Thanks go out as well to my coaching colleagues for their support and encouragement during the last 23 years. I sincerely hope I didn't make you too mad at me.

People have asked me what other memories I have of the hundreds of great student-athletes and performances I've witnessed over 23 years. I could fill a book really. Maybe, someday, I will. In no specific order, I'll try to mention some that will never leave my memory:

The 2005 women’s cross country team winning the college’s first-ever team National Championship. What more can I say?

Melissa White winning the NCAA Indoor 5K National Championship at DePauw University in 2003. She set a meet record that day which stood for nine years. Post-collegiately, I've seen her qualify for two Olympic Trials in the 10k (2004 and 2008) and two trials in the marathon (2008 and 2012). Look for her in the 2016 marathon as well!!

Liz Montgomery and Lee Berube both finishing runner-up at the NCAA Cross Country Championships in 2007 and 2011, respectively.

Our men's and women's distance medley relay teams both finishing third at the 2013 NCAA Indoor Track & Field Championship held at North Central College in Chicago, each finishing less than two seconds out of first place. Those were probably the two most agonizing races I've had to experience ever - and they came back to back in the meet - no time to unwind. Don't know how my heart stood it. 

Alyssa Smith's incredible spring of 2013. What she did was historic: she won the collegiate steeplechase in April at the most well-known track meet in the country, the Penn Relays - defeating runners from Division-I powers Princeton, Georgetown, Penn, Texas, Iona, Cornell - the list went on. She took it one step further in May, winning the steeplechase at the NCAA Division III Outdoor Championships in LaCrosse, Wisc. I have been a part of Geneseo sports as a student-athlete in the 1960s, a loyal fan in the 1970s and 1980s, a coach in the 1990s and 2000s – totaling over 50 years of being associated with Geneseo athletics. Alyssa's accomplishments that spring stand, in my humble opinion, as the greatest individual athletic accomplishment for anyone that has ever worn a Geneseo uniform, male or female, in any time period ever. The magnitude of her efforts has never been equaled before or after her triumphs. As Linda Richmond (played by Mike Myers) in her “Coffee Talk” program from the old Saturday Night Live skits would say - "Discuss."

I can't leave out two post-collegiate performances that helped further Geneseo distance running in the nation's conscience. Tim Chichester's performance in the 2012 Boston Marathon will always bring a certain amount of pride to Geneseo – finishing 11th overall (and second-fastest American) among over 10,000 runners in that historic race. My head couldn't fit through the office door for a few days after that. I was also elated when Alex Brimstein was picked by the Boston race group to run at Boston University in the 2-mile race where Galen Rupp tried to break the world record. That race was broadcast internationally and there was a Geneseo grad running right next to him. Amazing!! SUNY-G Pride!!

In the SUNYAC contests we've participated in, two team performances will be forever etched in my mind. Before I mention them however, I have to say one thing: I truly will miss the SUNYACs. No matter where we stood as a team, we would get ‘geeked up’ for those meets. I think it's the same for all sports here at Geneseo. The SUNYAC is a fantastic collegiate conference - one of the best in the country in any division. Being able to attend the SUNYAC swimming & diving championships all four years when my daughter swam for Buffalo State showed me what college sports is all about. The spirit in that three-day swim meet was unbelievable and showcased all that is good about college sports. It's the same in cross country and track & field - long live the SUNYAC! In 2004, our men's cross country team made history by posting a perfect score of 15 points after our runners swept the top-five spots. In the 59-year time span of cross country in the SUNYAC, it's the only time that has been done on the men's side. Ted Turner, Jeff Beck, Jason Casey, Matt Young and Ross Huncovic, I salute you one more time for that accomplishment.

On the women's SUNYAC side, one meet stands out among the rest, and it was one we didn't win!. It was the closest cross country meet I've ever been a part of, high school or college. It was fall 2000 at Cortland. The meet scores at the end of the day were: 1. Plattsburgh (40 points); Tie for 2.- Geneseo, Cortland (41 points). 

Three teams, one point between them. As I write this, I still can't believe we lost!! But I do remember getting the women together after the race. Their heads were down, a few tears dropped and I think they were expecting the worst from me. I know I shocked them to their core when I spoke: "Ladies, this is a watershed, a triumph, a corner-turning moment for Geneseo women's cross country!!!" Their collective jaws dropped. "You mean you're not mad because we lost," they asked. "On the contrary, I'm elated." I had been trying for eight years to beat Cortland, who, at that time, was arguably the premier women's cross country program in the nation (coached by the great Jack Daniels whom Runner's World Magazine, the renowned Bible of the sport, had dubbed "World's Greatest Distance Coach." I never argued with that moniker.) On that day, I knew we were finally there - even though we only tied them, I knew we had arrived as a national program. "We've got a piece of their mind now!" I told the girls. For once, I was right. In the next 14 SUNYAC Women's Cross Country Championships, the tally was Geneseo 13, Cortland 1. I don't care if it's cross country, track & field, soccer, basketball or Can-Jam. When Geneseo beats Cortland, it's a special moment - to me anyways!

So many people have asked me, "Why are you leaving now?" My simple and heart-felt answer is that I want to spend more time with my grandkids. I'm a bi-coastal grandpa now and I need time to hang out with them on both coasts. They mean so much to me. I may, like my good friend and fellow coach, Dave Mead, go back into the classroom. I also have a wealth of stories rattling around in my head from 44 years of coaching and playing in a rock and roll band to boot. There has to be some good tales in both those venues - maybe I'll try my hand at committing them to the page. Maybe I'll chase the perfect golf swing - haven't caught it yet. I can't say at this writing where I'll go or what I'll do. You'll see me at most future Geneseo cross country and track & field meets however; I can't leave this sport cold-turkey. That would be impossible.

Whatever I do, I'll never forget my experiences here at this great institution. Other than the birth of my two children, October 4th, 2014 was one of the greatest days of my life. So many of my former runners and their parents came to this year's SUNY G Cross Country Invitational and/or my retirement party afterwards. I was stunned at how many ex-Geneseo runners were there that day. Those that couldn't make it sent cards, made videos, texted me their congratulations. I again thank them all for making that day special in my life. That celebration was made possible by the hard work of two of my former Geneseo athletes: Chris Popovici, who is now Geneseo’s new head track & field coach, and Dan Moore, who is an assistant for both cross country and track & field. Without their sacrifice this fall, my special day would not have been possible. I am eternally grateful to them. In addition, thanks to their efforts, our beloved Genny Invite was renamed the Mike Woods Invitational. I could not be any prouder! 

One item I am most passionate about: I very much want to see this program handed down to former athletes who share my passion for Geneseo track & field and cross country and have the coaching ability to keep the tradition going onward and upward - we are almost there!!

Finally, (yes I'm done), I want to mention something that is a special point of pride to me. The fact that the college, again through Chris and Dan's diligence, has set up an endowment for the program in my name. This is indeed, very humbling but very encouraging as well. Now, if we want to attend a big meet in the midwest, or asbestos particles fall on our equipment, or we run past our recruiting budget, or we want extra meal money for a big-city trip - whatever befalls us financially, we have a source that is strictly for our program. I am so thankful to those of you who have contributed to this fund and I promise a personal letter once I have the time. Hey, that may come sooner than expected!