This week my college cross country coach Kent Finanger celebrated a birthday. Kent always encouraged his runners to appreciate that day in their life. “This is your day!” he’d egg us on! “Wow Fun Wow!”
That was one of Kent’s favorite sayings. The Wow Fun Wow! slogan was a simplified way of stating that no matter how hard the work might be, how tough the conditions in which you train or compete, it is always important to realize that being able to perform on that day is a great gift that should not be taken for granted.
And Kent took nothing for granted.
A few years after I graduated, the 1985 Luther College cross country team won an NCAA Division III national championship. The day was hot for the meet, yet the Luther runners peaked at the right time and brought home a cherished accomplishment for themselves and for Coach Finanger.
Raw young men
That win came on the heels of our 1978 team that placed second in the national meet behind North Central College, whose coach Al Carius is one of the most respected running coaches in all of college sport. The respect these two coaches always showed their runners is a hallmark of both their legacies. So many raw young men come under the tutelage of coaches like these and emerge as people with character, perseverance, and adaptability.
That’s certainly the job of a college coach, and Kent Finanger worked individually with every one of his athletes to bring it out. I recall so clearly a meet we ran in Mankato, Minnesota. The day had gone cool as we drove north from Decorah, Iowa, yet the trees along the course were bright yellow. Much of the running path was cinder and snaked around the campus. At the start, the opposing coach bluntly announced to the runners on the line that mile times would only be given to the first bunch past the markers, and that there may not even be mile times given along the latter parts of the course. This clearly agitated Coach Kent, who could be heard muttering about the other coach. This was a grand offense in his mind, because his philosophy was that every man counted.
Advocate for women
It was also true that Kent cared about the women he coached. In fact, the program at Luther College hosted its first two women cross country runners in 1975, my freshman year. Those two women who started the program trained together all season. Not all the men at that time showed them the respect they deserved. Yet a few years later Luther College would enjoy the accomplishments of women such as Tureena Johnson, who won individual national championships in both track and cross country. Many other great women runners went on to similar honors.
So Kenton Finanger was both a visionary and major advocate for women’s sports, and women in general. Sadly his first wife Lucia, who was a near-saint for adapting to Kent’s often overcommitted and hectic schedule, passed away from cancer in her 40s. He remarried and has lived a full life that includes spending time up north in Decorah, Iowa and winters in Goodyear, Arizona.
Little did I know that I would share that pattern of losing a wife to ovarian cancer in my own life. Or that my roommate from freshman year at Luther College, Keith Ellingson, would also lose his wife Kristi to ovarian cancer as well. Convergences such as these are mysterious and yet too common. But it was Kent’s example of fortitude in life that stood strong in my mind during my grief.
I entered college at Luther along with a set of runners that formed the nucleus of the team over four years. As shown in the watercolor painting (above) that I did for Kent Finanger a few years back, the five runners were Keith Ellingson, Chris Cudworth, Steve Corson, Paul Mullen and Dani Fjelstad. At various points in those years all of us played leadership roles, and Mullen and Fjelstad are installed in the Luther College Athletic Hall of Fame.
It would have been quite a fairy tale for us to have all scored points that day in 1978 when our team placed second in nationals. But alas, Keith Ellingson, a runner with a dynamically fluid stride, was slowed by a painful back that season. Mullen dealt with a chronic toe injury, yet consistently scored in the top five all season. Both were previous conference cross country champions and in a fully healthy state would have pulled our team even higher in the ranks. Perhaps we’d have even challenged North Central for the #1 spot. But cross country is a tough sport, and even Fjelstad, our team leader that season, came down with injury mid-season. That left it to Steve Corson, a runner who converted to cross country from playing football his fresman year, to lead us at the NCAA national meet. He barely missed All American status as an individual. And so depended on a couple freshman, Rob Serres and Tim Smith, to pull Luther into second place at nationals that year.
But that’s how a sport like cross country works, and Kent Finanger brought out the leadership abilities of his athletes in different ways. As we approached the national meet and were feeling the effects of heavy training, someone on the team blurted that we might be burnt out. Dr. Kent Finanger with degrees in kinesiology and physiology knew better. But he was also a master of psychology.
So Kent called his coaching proteges at the University of Wisconsin, the University of Chicago and well-known coaches from all over the country to corroborate the training methods we’d used. He sought to back up the idea that we were ready to compete in both regionals and nationals. As Kent read aloud the words and letters of those famous coaches, we sat in awe and wonderment. Who would go to such trouble? Kent would.
Shut up and run
Then he told us to go out and run six miles without talking. There was an edge in his voice and we knew he meant it, because hearing Kent show frustration or anger was a rare, rare thing. So we ran those miles with nothing but the sounds of our own footsteps crunching on the semi-paved roads. We took a route called Under Phelps-Ice Cave, which passed below tall chimney bluffs of limestone that leaked water over the roads. Our footsteps echoed off the walls of limestone as we went, as if ghosts of runners past were coursing along beside us.
At four miles we crossed the Upper Iowa river over a rickety old suspension bridge as dusk was closing. We made the climb up a 300-yard hill and came onto the long incline back toward town. By now we were cruising at sub 6:00 pace, a bit hard for a training run, but everyone was determined now to not let anything distract us.
The challenge was not through, because we barely squeaked through regionals in fifth place overall. We had not backed off training but effectively “ran through” that critical meet. But when we tapered the week before nationals, our legs surged with energy and it felt like something special would happen. And through it all, Kent had made inspirational tee shirts made up each week to inspire us in the the leadup to nationals. He sent encouragements through out SPO boxes. By the time the meet rolled around, we were fired up and ready to go.
And we made it happen. Second in the nation.
When the race was done, all of us shared hugs and posed for photos with Coach Kent. But it wasn’t until an hour into the ride back from Rock Island that it really dawned on all of us what we’d done. Coach Kent stopped the car and climbed out on the shoulder of a high road overlooking the Mississippi River. He stood there and shook his hands in the air, calling out the words, “Second In The Nation!” We all cheered because this was a man that deserved the honor of seeing his team succeed.
There were many such teams in all the years he coached. But it was perhaps the least talented runners that Coach Kent most admired. The guys and gals that would show up and train and never stand a chance to lead a race, or come anywhere close. Those were the runners that Kent invested so deeply in, and that is the hallmark of truly great man.