After team members circulated rumors about feeling “burnout,” our coach Kent Finanager turned on the motivational jets. What coach wants to hear their runners bitching and whining their way into failure? The season was already marked by success. But it was the remarkable performance of two freshman that year, Tim Smith and Rob Serres, whose native talent and dedication filled a gap due to the injury-plagued season of Keith Ellingson, our top runner for three years.
Even as Elly started to come back into form with his first sub-27:00 five-mile race at the Carthage Invite, the quality of those two freshman could not be ignored. They were running in the top five every week. Heading into the conference meet their contributions could not be taken for granted.
Smith was a quiet and often introspective distance runner. His presence in the training pack each day was never demonstrative. He demanded no attention. Sometimes he’d slide to the outside of the front group, but mostly he moved within the amorphous group just putting in the mileage. Yet I once looked to the side of the road to find him running along next to us down in a ditch. He was a reserved guy, but also a wryly wise non-conformist.
By contrast, Rob Serres was an ebullient young kid with a strong upper body and a running style more typical of the miler that he was in track. His eyes were always wide and his staccato laughter frequently peppered the training group. He was also an astute observer of human nature. I arrived at practice one morning with a face flushed pink. He stared at me for a moment, pointed at my face and said, “You look like you just had sex!”
I laughed, because it was true. He’d caught me red-faced and post-coital. I’d gotten it on with my girlfriend only minutes before practice that morning, then threw on my shorts and ran straight down to run.
Serres pointed at me again and said, “You did! You just had sex!” he crowed, and the whole team chuckled along. Pretty sure I got a couple back slaps that day as well.
The inspiring truth needs to be said: that 1978 season would not have been so successful without Tim Smith and Rob Serres. While the five captains Corson, Cudworth, Fjelstad, Mullen, and Ellingson represented the core of the team, it was Serres, Smith and sophomore Joel Redman that filled out the team and formed an important glue in our team scores. I’m forever grateful to those guys for their talents. As it turned out, Smith and Serres led Luther to a Top Three nationals performance a year or two later. That makes them the only two cross country runners in Luther College history to have two trophies on their resume. Well done, boys.
With that mix of ages and talent in play, Coach Finanger knew that the chemistry between us was unique, and thus important. When we arrived for practice that Tuesday in late October, the blinds were shuttered in the fieldhouse classroom and a screen was pulled down over the blackboard. We all knew something unusual was happening, but no one was prepared for what came next.
Coach Kent was more animated than usual, and that’s saying quite a bit. He quite typically nudged and prodded us with his favorite saying of “Wow!Fun!Wow!” to celebrate the daily joys of running. He’d often follow up that phrase with a “You can’t beat fun!” and we’d cynically mutter in reply, “Yeah, it’s like a sore dick…” College kids, you know.
But we believed in what he had to tell us despite our snarky college nature. Kent made everyone on the team feel important. Every guy and gal out there deserved that, because everyone put in the same miles of training, albeit at different paces between groups. There are many great small-school cross country programs in the United States, but that Luther Blue was a fun tradition to uphold.
Everyone was paying attention as Kent stalked the front of that room that day with his eyes fixed on all of us. Then he lifted the screen in front of the blackboard to reveal a list of names that many of us had heard before. They were the names of some of the leading cross country coaches in the country. Kent began explaining the reasons why he listed those names on the blackboard.
“I called Ted Haydon, University of Chicago,” he told us. “I said, ‘My boys think they’re burned out. But look at the results!” Finanger turned to us with all his physical and emotional energy poured into what he was about to say. “Coach Haydon says you’re not burned out,” he told us. Then he listed all the wins we’d accomplished thus far that season.
Kent listed the screen a bit further, revealing another name to us. “And I talked to Dan McClimon, University of Wisconsin,” Finanger continued. The Wisconsin Badgers were one of the top cross country programs in the nation. “Dan McClimon says your training looks good. Your results look good. You look ready to succeed,” Kent intoned.
We knew that McClimon knew what he was talking about. The UW Hall of Fame lists his accomplishments on their website:
- Served UW as head men’s cross country (1971-82) and men’s track (1978-83) coach
- Three-time (1978, 1981, 1982) NCAA Cross Country Coach-of-the-Year and five-time NCAA District Cross Country Coach-of-the-Year
- Led the 1982 Badger cross country team to the NCAA title
- His cross country teams qualified for 11 NCAA Meets in 12 years and registered seven Top-10 finishes
- Five of his cross country teams won Big Ten team titles
- Thirty of his student-athletes won Big Ten individual titles (three in cross country, 27 in track)
- Coached 36 All-Americans (18 in cross country, 18 in track) one national champion (steeplechase star Randy Jackson in 1980)
- Served as President of the NCAA Cross Country Coaches Association
- Served as head coach of the U.S. National Team in a meet vs. the Soviet Union in 1982
It shocked us that Finanger would call the head coaches of these well-known programs to discuss our little Division III cross country school. But Kent was well-respected nationwide and served at the national level cross country association as well. He knew what he was talking about. And he wanted to remind us that he did.
His voice rose with enthusiasm and positive fury as he related what even more respected coaches said about our program, and us. I confess that I was shaking in place while sitting my seat. At that point, I wanted to go out the door and run through a wall or two. My eyelids filled with tears as Kent kept up the psychological pressure. He was literally running over the idea that we were ‘burnt out.’
Then our trainer Chuck Kemp pulled out a cardboard box. He handed out tee shirts to everyone on the squad with a big number 8 the size of a football printed on the front. “We’re going for #8 this weekend,” he explained with regard to the conference championship. We wore those shirts for the run that day.
And so it went during the last few weeks of preparation for conference, regionals, and nationals. More motivational talks, often complemented by tee shirts suited to the theme.
And that weekend in Dubuque, on that horribly hilly course at Bunker Hill, we didn’t mess around, taking 7 out of the top ten spots. Tim Smith led the way in second, Paul Mullen ran third, Steve Corson fourth, Dani Fjelstad was sixth, Rob Serres in seventh, Chris Cudworth in eighth, and Joel Redman, our seventh man in ninth place. While I didn’t kill the performance that day, there were only two other runners in the conference that beat me, and it was my highest finish in the race since a ninth place as a freshman. The Luther press release from that meet said it best. “Coach Finanger said, “We’re certainly pleased to win our eighth straight conference title. Our performance was truly a team effort, with our seven runners only 17 seconds apart from each other.”
The only odd part of that meet was the post-race speech given by the individual conference winner Jerry Fitzsimmons. Clearly happy to have beaten the Luther guys for the win, he launched into an embittered talk about our rivalry that made everyone present uncomfortable. We all understood the reasons behind his combative talk, but found it unfortunate that he let loose at an occasion like the awards ceremony. That was no way for a “Runner of the Year” to behave. But part of me could not blame him. It’s tough to bump heads with a seemingly immutable rival, losing season after season.
Fitzsimmons was an exceptional runner and proud of his improvement. I might have made a similar speech if I’d been in his position. But I remember that his talk infuriated Coach Finanger, whose principles of sportsmanship were indeed pure. The only time I saw Kent that mad was during our freshman year when the Mankato coach announced that there were be no mile times given out to the entire squad. Kent believed in achievement, but he also embraced and delivered equality of opportunity to every runner in every program.
Consider his commitment to those principles. Coach Finanger had brought the Luther women’s program from two gals in the fall of 1975 to a full roster of nearly 15 women that fall of 1978. The girls were starting to make an impact in the Midwest, and one of the top women runners, Cheryl Westrum, actually finished third in the Chicago Marathon that fall in 2:57, a sub-7:00 performance.
Those Number 8 tee shirts really had done the trick. No words of burnout were spoken from that point forward. We ran our workouts with renewed focus, but there were immense challenges immediately ahead with the first-ever cross country regionals to be held in Pella, Iowa. Even with a great season behind us, we knew that it would be tough to qualify for the national meet to be held on the course of our keen rivals, Augustana College in Rock Island, Illinois.