Martin Ingelsby

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As a journalist I’m not supposed to admit this, but the Quaz has leanings.

I mean, just look at the all-time categorizations. I love people from Mahopac, I love writers, I love sex workers, I love Wonder Years cast members and I love love love love folks with ties to my alma mater, the University of Delaware.

It’s a strange thing, perhaps, because several years ago the school’s athletic department ripped my heart out by eliminating the men’s running program, and I swore I’d never forgive. But, ultimately, I’m a Blue Hen, and history is history, and love is love and forgiveness is forgiveness and …

I digress.

With March Madness upon us, I thought it’d be cool to extend a Quaz invite to Martin Ingelsby, first-year men’s basketball head coach and a guy who, from all accounts, did a marvelous job in taking over a pretty thin roster and leading the Hens to a 13-20 mark. Martin came to UD from Notre Dame, where he played point guard before serving as an assistant to (former Delaware coach) Mike Brey for 13 seasons.

Here, he discusses what it’s like to watch the NCAA Tournament from a sofa, how a coach goes about connecting with a new roster, why Michael Porter, Jr. won’t be receiving a letter on Delaware stationary and um … what the hell is a Blue Hen?

One can follow Martin on Twitter here, and learn more about the basketball program here.

Martin Ingelsby, you didn’t wind up in the Elite Eight. But you’re the elite 301st …

JEFF PEARLMAN: So … what’s it like watching March Madness when you want to be in it?

MARTIN INGELSBY: Honestly, I hate it. I feel like I don’t have any friends. To not be a part of it, I felt like I was a bad kid for the year and I didn’t get any presents on Christmas. It’s very weird. But that’s always the goal—it’s the end goal to teams. At Notre Dame we would always talk about, ‘All you need is access to be a part of it.’ There’s nothing better than being there with your team, celebrating your season, seeing where you’re selected, seeing your team on the board. There’s so much excitement to be a part of that. And it hurts to miss that. We weren’t really sweating out selection Sunday like some teams. But I wish we had been.

J.P.: This will sound weird, because people are generally like, ‘March Madness! I love the final!’ But my favorite moment is always that early spark for the underdog, when hope is alive and it’s ‘Vermont 12, Duke 9’ or ‘Delaware 6, Arizona 2,’ with a minute gone in the game. Do you get that?

M.I.: A little bit. I think the best part of March Madness is the first weekend, when you have the upsets, you have teams … the 5-12 matchups, the 4-13 matchups. It’s so much hope. And when it whittles down you really do get the best of the best teams in college basketball. But what makes March Madness special is anybody can beat anybody. In a 40-minute game you’ve seen some of the greatest upsets in sport history coming out of the NCAA Tournament. Teams have hope. If you play well for 40 minutes, anything can happen.

J.P.: Do you think we’ll see a 16 beat a 1 in the next decade?

M.I.: I don’t. I don’t. I think the ones are so good. Now I think the 16s can play them tough for 30-to-32 minutes, but I’m not sure a win will happen.

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J.P.: For you personally, what’s your greatest March Madness moment?

M.I.: Hmm … let’s see. I’d say personally for me, being a part of it my senior year at Notre Dame. We hadn’t been to the NCAA Tournament in 10 years, and kind of putting our program back on the map. It was Mike Brey’s first year at Notre Dame, and just to be able to be there, to experience it. I remember watching the selection show in coach’s basement. To see our name pop up. We were the sixth seed, Xavier was the 11th seed with Skip Prosser was there, God rest his soul. And just to be able to be a part of it. So many memories over the year.

I’m from Philly, and in 1985 I remember watching Villanova knock off Georgetown and play a near-perfect game. Shoot over 80 percent from the field to knock off one of the best Georgetown teams ever. I remember being in my living room. My dad is a Villanova grad and I was a huge Villanova fan growing up. I was 7 at the time, and that’s the one I remember at a young age.

J.P.: If Georgetown-Villanova played 100 times, Georgetown wins 90 …

M.I.: No doubt about it.

J.P.: I’ve never asked a coach this—what is the transition like taking off a program? What I mean is, you’re named the coach of Delaware. Do you call [former coach] Monte Ross? Does that type of stuff happen?

M.I.: I did not. We did not communicate when I got the job. I’ve known Monte and his assistants for a while. I followed this program, obviously being from the area. I took an unofficial visit here when I was being recruited out of high school. But, you know, it was such a whirlwind for me to get the job. I interviewed in Philly, came down here and it was like, ‘Wow, it’s real. What do I do?” Because there’s not a manual listing the next steps. I did get the job, I went to Friday’s across from the Carpenter Center, I turned on my phone and I had 344 text messages to get through. So I got the tallest Coor’s Light beer I could get, tried to get through the texts and next thing you know there are another 325 texts becaue people are texting me back and forth. It’s a whirlwind, I’m thinking about moving my family, who do I need to call, who do I thank, talk to my parents, talk to Coach Brey. And it’s like, ‘OK, here we go.’ So that’s how it happened.

As a guard at Notre Dame.

As a guard at Notre Dame.

J.P.: Is the initial emotion excitement? Is it fear? Is there, ‘What did I get myself into’?

M.I.: Yes. Absolutely. All of the above. There were a lot of emotions. I remember when [Christine Rawak, Delaware’s athletic director] offered me the job I got choked up a little, because it was, ‘Wow, this is real.’ I had a chance to interview for some jobs over the last couple of years and unfortunately I didn’t get those. But this is the one I always wanted. I thought it was unbelievable potential; it’s a sleeping giant of an opportunity. So I was so excited to be able to et it. Leading into the interview I didn’t think I’d get the job. So I prepared myself not to get it. You know, maybe it’s just not my time.  So to be able to go through the interview, meet with the president, meet with the AD and to get the job on the spot—it was a whirlwind. Because then you’re packing up at a hotel, you’re heading down to campus, I have to talk to the team. What the heck am I gonna say to the team now? I’m going down there, we’re checking into the hotel, the press conference tomorrow, my phone’s blowing up. Then I have to speak to the team at 5 o’clock and I’m thinking, ‘I have to make a good impression on these guys so they’re excited they have a new coach.’

J.P.: So what was your message?

M.I.: So I went in, and I went around the room and I introduced myself and shook everybody’s hand and told them how excited I was to be their head coach, and that we have to get to work. And I promised them three things. I said: 1. We’re going to have a lot of fun; 2. Things are going to be different. And I said, ‘The third thing I promise you is things are going to be harder. And they have to be harder for us to improve as a basketball team.’ And it was short, and it was sweet, and it was, ‘OK, let’s get to know these guys.’ And I gave them my cell number. It was all about developing a relationship with your guys. I learned that from Coach Brey—it’s the most important thing when building a program. You have to have a relationship with your players.

J.P.: Here’s another weird one that I’ve never asked a coach. You’re Delaware. Do you send a letter to Michael Porter, Jr.?

M.I.: Haha.

J.P.: Do you send the letter, just for the hell of it? Or is that stupid?

M.I.: I wouldn’t waste … whatever a stamp costs these days, I don’t think I’d waste the 40-some cents to do that. You know, in recruiting it’s all about relationships and contacts and it was important for me to put a staff together to help us get really good players. Because at the end of the day I can be the best Xs and Os coach in the country, and it comes down to having really good players. I would love to recruit Michael Porter, but he’s not going to give us the time of day. I’d love to get our level Michael Porter … I mean, look, guys fall through the cracks and you need to turn over every stone. But we’d be wasting our time if we were calling him or Lonzo Ball—his dad. Can you imagine dealing with him in the recruiting process? You’d stay away from that one.

J.P.: When you coach at a Delaware … this is before your time, but when I was there they were opening the arena, and they had these sketches and it included banners from 20 years in the future and it was stuff like DELAWARE: 2020 NATIONAL CHAMPIONS. It was silly. Notre Dame, obviously that’s the ultimate goal. At Delaware, can you peddle that? Or do different schools have different outlooks on what they can accomplish?

M.I.: Yeah, I think each school has probably different outlooks. The blue bloods of college basketball aren’t worried about making it to the tournament. They’re about reaching the Final Four and winning a national championship. Um, not to say we can’t do that here. But we need to build our program to get access and be on a level where we can consistently get to the NCAA Tournament. I think it would be unrealistic to say ‘We’re going into this season to win the national championship right now with where we are at Delaware.’ Now, what gives you hope is a George Mason, a VCU, a team kind of at our level can make a run to get to a Final Four. A Butler, when they were building their program; to be able to make those runs and get to a Final Four and a national championship game … you need to have a lot of things fall into place and have some luck through the process. But we’re just trying to build our program to be in a position to reach the NCAA Tournament. Anything can happen. We have everything in place to be successful here. We have to get the players and establish our program and the culture to be able to get to that next level. It’s a process—the big word in sport is ‘process.’ The process to get there. I think we would be a little unrealistic and go into kids’ homes and say, ‘We’re in it to win a national championship right now.’ That’s not where we are right now.

J.P.: Steve Steinwedel is a former Delaware coach, and I always got the feeling he hated recruiting. You’re going into these homes, you know there are other guys selling their product, you’re begging an 18-year-old to come … how do you deal with recruiting? Because I feel like it’d lead me to put a bullet in my head …

M.I.: Hahahaha. Well just like sales … you’re a used car salesman, and you’re trying to sell an 18-to-22-year-old kid on an opportunity here at Delaware. Just like you would a student. When I got into the profession Coach Brey told me a great line. He said, ‘If you wanna make it in this business you have to remember three things and be really great at three things. One is recruiting. Two is scheduling. And three is recruiting.’ And he said, ‘Never forget that.’ That’s the backbone of a program—you have to have players. Obviously the way colleges recruit has changed over the years with Twitter and Facebook and Snapchat … the social media platforms. But I enjoy getting to know kids and evaluating prospects and getting to know families. You’re not just recruiting a 17-year-old kid, you’re recruiting his family. That plays a part into it. And you want a supportive family that’s pushing a kid to be a really good student, and also athlete. And as we recruit kids, it’s not just necessarily what they do on the basketball coach. You’re really trying to evaluate whether this kid is a good fit for our program. And talking o a high school coach, talking to a guidance counselor, talking to a teacher. Gathering information. Because one bad apple can turn a tide for a whole team. So it’s so important to get the right kids to build, and to know they’re represent your program in a first class-manner in everything they do.

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J.P.: Is there an awkwardness that comes with the phone call from the kid telling you he’s not coming to your school?

M.I.: It’s usually very short and sweet. Sometimes you expect it, sometimes you’re not sure. Sometimes, the ways kids now make their announcements, you find out about it on Twitter or some social media. You can tell by the tone of the voice that this isn’t going to go well. “Hey, Coach, I wanted to call and just tell you I’ve decided to go elsewhere …” You know, it’s hard because you invest a lot of time and money and energy in recruiting a kid, so to not be able to get the guys you want … that’s hard to swallow. Myself as an assistant, our assistants … you get to know a kid, you think he’s a great fit, he’s going to help change the program, he’s a starter from Day One, you’re invested—and all of a sudden he decides to go elsewhere. It’s a little knock on your pride. It definitely humbles you when you don’t get the guys you’ve heavily invested in.

J.P.: Have you had moments when you were completely, totally shocked by a guy not coming?

M.I.: At Notre Dame we had a kid who we recruited for, gosh, four years, and we thought we were going to get him. He was a point guard, he was really going to be a good fit for us. You know, it was between us and another school, but we thought we were going to get him at the end. It was, ‘Stay the course … stay the course—he’s coming.’ And all of a sudden he calls and says, ‘I’m going somewhere else.’ And it’s, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me.’ You don’t say that, but you feel that. You’re furious. You don’t wanna talk to anybody. And nowadays social media makes such abig deal of it. It’s out there. ‘These guys won, these guys lost, they don’t know what they’re doing, how did they not get this kid.’ You have to have thick skin when you’re going through recruiting battles. And it’s different at this level, because we really have to recruit more kids than we did when I was at Notre Dame. If you had 10-to-12 kids on the board, you knew you’d get two or three of them. Here at Delaware we’re recruiting hundreds of kids, and you’re evaluating everybody. Because guys fall down to this level and there’s just more kids that are fits. Maybe not as talented to play at the high-major level, but they’re really, really good mid-major players. You have to have your eyes and ears open, and you’re on the phone all the time, and doing your homework, and watching video, trying to get the guys to help you take the next step.

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J.P.: Pardon my ignorance, but was it your staff that recruited [Colonial Athletic Association Rookie of the Year] Ryan Daly?

M.I.: Yes. And I actually went to the same high school as Ryan Daly, and he’s a Philadelphia Catholic kid, went to Archbishop Carroll, that’s where I went to high school. My high school teammate is the head basketball coach at Archbishop Carroll. So Ryan had committed to Hartford in the fall, signed his letter of intent, some stuff happened up there, got out of his letter of commitment to Hartford and was going to kind of wait it out, because he really wanted to go to Delaware. He had a bunch of buddies that went here, was close to home. And then they fired Monte in mid-March, and they didn’t hire me until two months later. So he was gonna wait it out, kept waiting it out. And, literally, I had talked to Paul Romanczuk, the coach at Archbishop Carroll, and said, ‘Hey, what do you think?’ He said, ‘If you get the job, Ryan really wants to come.’ So I got the job, Wednesday was the press conference, I called him Wednesday night, I talked to his mom and dad and him and he said, ‘Coach, I’m coming. I’m going to announce it tomorrow.’ Like that, it got done.

Now I knew we were getting a good player—Philadelphia Catholic player, tough kid, knew how to play. Did I think he would have the freshman year he had? I’d be lying to you if I said I did. But just the consistency with the way he’s been able to play and the way he’s been able to produce for us. And the one thing I tell people is when you see him play in games, that’s what we see every day in practice. And that’s the one thing I give the kid credit for. When he steps on the court in practice he’s ready to compete every day, he plays his tail off. I tell people all the time, when he steps on the court he is ready to rip your throat off. He is ready to go. And there’s a toughness about him that you can’t teach and coach.’

J.P.: Do you find it weird when a kid like Ryan requests uniform No. 0?

M.I.: Hahaha. I was surprised. All these low numbers are a thing now. When I was in college it was the teens, the 20s, the 30s. Now everybody wants 0, 1, 2, 3, 4. They want these single-digit numbers. The guys here refer to Ryan as “Agent Zero.” I guess that was a Gilbert Arenas things when he played. That’s his tag line now. His hashtag. He had a phenomenal year for us.

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J.P.: Your dad Tom played in the ABA with the Spirit of St. Louis. Did he tell stories, or was it a bip?

M.I.: He actually went out there last year, they had a celebration for that team. He has some great stories, some probably not appropriate for the phone. He had a great time. He said it was complete chaos. He talks about the guys on the team, but the play by play guy on that team was Bob Costas. And it’s amazing to kind of watch his ascension in the ranks, and there he was. But my dad definitely has some great memories of being out there and playing on that team. I’m going to get this wrong, but he said the owners of that organization made one of the best deals in sports history, and now it’s paid off in huge ways.

J.P.: I often ask this of sportswriters, but I’ve never asked a coach—you look around the world and you see climate change, famine, war. Do you ever have moments where it’s a Thursday and you’re coaching a bunch of kids and you ask, ‘What the hell am I doing with my life?’ I don’t mean that in a bashing way … sometimes I’m writing a book and I ask, ‘What am I doing?’ Do you ever have these crises of conscience, or never?

M.I.: Sometimes. I remember being at Notre Dame and Coach Brey talking about that. As an assistant a lot of times you’re suggesting things, and the head coach makes decisions, and sometimes he would be in a staff meeting and say, ‘What are we doing? What are we doing?’ And then a second later he’d say, ‘We have the greatest jobs in the world … we have the greatest jobs in the world. It sures beats a day job.’ But sometimes you have to step back and put it in perspective, and whether it’s through the ups and downs of the season … I’m the oldest of five kids. I have a brother in California who’s in the movie business. And he’s a screenwriter. Sometimes I’m coaching basketball, he’s doing this in Hollywood, my buddies from Notre Dame are making a ton of money in the financial world. And I ask, ‘Is this really what I want to do?’ And there were occasional moments before I became a head coach where I thought, ‘Maybe I just want to go back and be a teacher and coach high school basketball.’ You always have those thoughts in your conscience, and trying to figure out, ‘What is my purpose, and what am I trying to do?’ There is so much stuff going on. I don’t get caught up in politics, but with all that went on with this election—I watched it on CNN to distract myself from sports at times. And there’s a lot of interesting things going around in this country and in the world.

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• Five greatest basketball players you’ve ever seen in person: Michael Jordan, LeBron James, Allen Iverson, Magic Johnson, Charles Barkley.

• Worst loss of your life on the court?: I would say my senior year at Notre Dame when we lost to Ole Miss in the NCAA Tournament. That, and then my senior year in high school we lost in the Philadelphia Catholic League championship. We were 27-0, we were the favorites to win the Catholic League championship, we got upset by St. John Neumann. That was one of the hardest basketball experiences I ever had after losing a game.

• Would you recruit 17-year-old you to play at Delaware, and what’s the scouting report?: Absolutely. I’m trying to find one now. Or a couple of them. Heady guard, knows how to play, can make shots, makes his teammates better, kind of a coach on the floor. We need one or two of those guys right now.

• Three all-time favorite movies: 1. Hoosiers; 2. The Usual Suspects; 3. Goonies.

• If someone asked you to explain what is a Blue Hen, could you do it?: No, I couldn’t. I need to. It’s some bird that has a light blue tail or something. I need to find out, because people ask me and I say, ‘Oh, the Blue Hen! It’s a bird that has a blue … um …’ (Jeff’s note: He did sorta try)

• Five words that apply to Mike Brey: Um … cool, loose, confident, positive, fun dude. That’s probably six.

• We start you right now, tonight, for the Knicks at guard. What’s your line?: Geez. 0-for-2, 0-for-1 from three, maybe nine assists, two turnovers and a handful of rebounds. I probably could play 18 minutes.

• Have you ever thought you were about to die in a plane crash?: No. I’ve been on a lot of planes, too, and charter flights that have been a little bit scary. My senior year we actually got struck by lightning heading to the NCAA Tournament. That was a little bit scary. We had two band members who refused to come back on the plane when we left. You feel the lightning hit. Even the pilot got on and said, ‘That’s the first time that’s ever happened to me. We got struck by lightning.’ And the plane, like, for about two seconds … we had guys on our team throwing up. It was a little scary. We were headed from South Bend to Kansas City to play in the NCAA Tournament through a bad storm.

• How’d you meet your wife?: At a bar in South Bend, Indiana. We went to school together. She’s from Denver, I knew some of her friends. I’ll never forget—we were at a bar, one of my friends said, ‘I have this girl I want you to meet …’ And the rest is history.

• I love the vision of you telling your wife from Denver, ‘Guess what? We’re moving to Delaware!’: Hey, we lived in South Bend a long time …

• The biggest cliché line used by coaches in pep talks is?: Oh, man. You’re putting me on the spot. I’ve always been, ‘Onto the next play … get onto the next play.’ That’s my thing. But that’s a tough one. You’ve stumped me on that.

Bad Sports at Delaware

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I’ve never met anyone who doesn’t like and respect Monte Ross, Delaware’s men’s basketball coach.

I’ve also never met anyone who thinks he’s a bad coach. Why? Because he’s an unambiguously good coach. A really good coach. Strong recruiter, smart dude, extremely likeable. He also led the Blue Hens to the CAA title last year and a birth in the NCAA Tournament. Delaware was outmatched by Michigan State, and rightly lost. But the Hens weren’t embarrassed. They played hard, played well, kept the game closer than it should have been.

Now, it seems, Ross is on the way out.

According to a piece from Kevin Tresolini in the Wilmington News Journal, Delaware athletic director Eric Ziady anticipates hiring a new coach for next season. He actually probably wanted to fire Ross after last season, but—dammit—a conference championship spoiled that plan. Oy.

I can go on and on about this, but Kevin’s story explains the details best. What I will say—and it’s uttered as a very proud, very loyal University of Delaware graduate—is that my school has an uncanny way of screwing sports up. Whether it’s joining the wrong conference (Colonial over Atlantic 10) or refusing, for years, to play Delaware State in football or getting rid of the men’s running programs, the Blue Hens always seem to mess this stuff up.

But getting rid of Monte Ross … well, that’ll take the cake.

Coaching men’s basketball at Delaware is a beast. Your team plays in an OK conference, but any high-quality regional players will turn to Villanova or Temple or Rutgers over your school. Even though people in the state live and die with the Blue Hens, the school has very little national recognition. Which is weird, because UD grads include Joe Biden, Chris Christie and Joe Flacco. Attendance at games is pretty pathetic, school spirit is meh … it’s just a bad scene.

But Ross is a shining light. He’s passionate, detailed, wise. He makes you want to play for the Hens; makes you proud to be a Hen.

If he doesn’t return (and he almost certainly will not return), we can once again be reminded why sports at Delaware always struggle.

It’s a self-imposed fate.

Jim Fischer

If you’re ever searching for ideas on the perfect way to mistreat an honorable and loyal employee, contact the University of Delaware’s administrative offices. That’s where someone will be able to explain to you how, two years ago, Jim Fischer—the school’s longtime (hell, legendary) track and cross country coach—was unceremoniously called into an office, dismissed from his position and told, oh, we’re also killing off your program.

Have a nice day.

Predictably, the athletic department cited the need to “exercise fiscal responsibility and remain in compliance with Title IX”—bullshit explanations that failed to mention, ahem, cross country’s paltry $20,000 budget, 12 roster spots and zero full scholarships. (Translation: Running doesn’t draw fans or generate revenue. Football—what with its 103-man roster—does. You can read all about the catastrophe here).

If this seems particularly personal to me, that’s because, well, it is. Back in 1990-91, I was a member of Delaware’s cross country and track teams. I was an awful Division I runner who didn’t belong at that level, but was nurtured and developed by Coach Fischer, a saint of a man whose impact on hundreds upon hundreds of Blue Hens cannot be measured.

Here, Coach Fischer talks about the end of his job and the death of his program; on why college running is under attack and whether it can survive the hugeness of football and basketball. He also dispenses some fantastic advice to aspiring marathoners. Coach currently operates his own running program in Delaware. One can follow him on Twitter here.

Jim Fischer, welcome to the Quaz …

JEFF PEARLMAN: You were the track and cross country coach at the University of Delaware from 1982 through most of 2012. Then the school chopped your head off. Coach, I know you’re a polite, kind, soft-spoken man … but can you tell us what, exactly happened? How did you learn of the dismissal? How did it affect you, emotionally? And are you really, really pissed?

JIM FISCHER: Well, obviously I’m upset that the program was cut and that I lost my job. Let me deal with my position first. I really loved my job. I enjoyed going to work every day, working with kids and trying to put all of the pieces to the puzzle together. I know that being a coach is not one of the top ten essential jobs in the world, but I enjoyed being part of an activity that many considered part of their college experience. I was told through the years that I would always have a place in the academic department and the same was said about the cross country/track and field program. Nothing was in writing. New administrators came in and promises were forgotten and went up in smoke.

When the men’s indoor team was cut a few years ago, we were upset. In the long term, we thought we had dodged a bullet. So, when the whole program was cut, I was to have a regularly scheduled meeting with my direct supervisor. I received a call that said the meeting would be moved up a day—no problem. I walked into her office and there was no supervisor (she was in another part of the country at a meeting). Instead, there were two athletic directors and two people from human resources. The meeting lasted 10 minutes—the total men’s program was cut and I was retiring. I was totally shocked, stunned. We had kids performing at a high level athletically and were always at or near the top of the department academically. And, we cost almost nothing.

J.P.: It seems like college administrators are increasingly willing to kill off running. Hell, Delaware’s getting rid of its indoor track as we speak. Why do you think this in? When did you first notice the trend? And is there something that can be done to reverse it?

J.F.: My theory is that it’s easier to interest the general public in team sports. Everybody can tell when a basket or touchdown is scored, so it’s an easy sell. People should be able to tell who’s won a race, but they don’t know who the winner is and if their performance was a good one or not. All of the team sports wanted a turfed indoor facility at the ready in case of inclement weather. The sacrifice was an indoor practice and game facility for the track and field. Why they couldn’t have bubbled one or two of the existing turf fields is beyond me. It would be the maintaining of another facility and I don’t think it was ever a strong possibility. My undergraduate college of 1,700 students in Minneapolis has had a bubbled turf field for many, many years. Another thing is that many administrators don’t understand track and field and have very little idea how a program is run—and they don’t try. I’ve had administrators tell me they don’t understand track and field after having been “in charge” of the sport for years. If the people don’t care about learning or have trouble comprehending everything, that’s a problem. Also, practices and meets look like unorganized chaos. The perception is that there is no control leading to thoughts that there isn’t anyone in charge of the program.

J.P.: As you know, shortly after you learned of your dismissal I was working on a Runner’s World piece that ultimately didn’t run. I found two things: 1. Most of your former runners at Delaware absolutely love you. 2. Most of your former runners at Delaware wanted you to stand on a chair and scream, “This is bullshit!” They wanted you to fight the decision, fight for the program and, really, for running as a college sport. It doesn’t seem like you did this, at least not in a bombastic manner. It felt sort of like you were hoping for a resolution, and therefore didn’t want to overly rock the boat. Am I off on this? And do you at all have regrets?

J.F.: First of all, I was so very upset that this was being taken away from not only the current students, but it was also taken away from past and future students. I was advised to stay out of it to protect my job, what was left of it, and my family. I guess I could have been out front and risked my position, really stood up for it all. I was always hoping that there could be some compromise. I did feel helpless and hopeless. I had put in 30 years and really enjoyed what I was doing. There were many of the alums and community members who were working on many fronts. Looking back, I’m not sure that I would have done anything different. I’m not an attacking-type person. The sense I got very early on from the administration was that any and all comments fell on deaf ears. They had a “frequently asked questions” column posted on the day the announcement came out and made no effort to respond to any comments or questions. The program was cut and they moved on. My regret is that I couldn’t figure out a way to reverse the decision.

J.P.: Why running? Like, what’s the love for you? The pull? How would you explain this to non-runners? The beauty of the sport and such?

J.F.: For me, it was always something I did well. I liked testing myself against others, against the many different courses, against the clock, and against myself. Running is a simple activity without much equipment to buy. You can step out your front door and go. It’s great when you get in good enough shape to be able to explore, go up hill hard, go fast or slow when you want, and to be in control. I seem to learn my way around new cities much more quickly by running than by driving.

J.P.: I know you’re from Minnesota. But how did you get here? What was your path from guy looking for work to 30-year Division I coach?

J.F.: My undergraduate degree is from Augsburg. I taught and coached for ten years in a suburban Minneapolis school district, Robbinsdale, and during that time, assisted during an indoor season at the University of Minnesota. That helped me to get a job at a division three school, Concordia College in Moorhead, Minnesota, as an instructor, track and field coach, and assistant football coach. After two years, I resigned and was moving back to Minneapolis when I received a call from Delaware. I had applied for the women’s cross country and track and field coach opening at Delaware. That was filled. When the men’s coach moved on to another job, they already had resumes and interviewed from those. I flew out, had a day of interviews, and accepted the job before I flew home. This was August, so it was a quick change in plans. I had no idea I would be at Delaware that long.

J.P.: What separates the OK runner from the great runner? Are there attributes the best of the best share? Can a good runner become great, or do we all have caps and limits?

J.F.: A talented athlete who is motivated is tough to beat. There are many who are talented who rely on their talent and never reach their potential. The person has to be driven to attain the very top level. The person also has to be resilient to injury and illness. I think some of it is genetic, some of it is training intelligence, and some of it is luck. The person has to be patient. The runner has to develop a sense of training and racing. The athlete also has to have help, developing a training program and receiving support to be able to live, work, and train all at once. I do not think there is a way for everyone to get to the top just by working hard. I do believe that everyone can reach their potential, whatever that is, through hard work and persistence.

J.P.: When something ends as badly as it did for you at Delaware, can you still have a love for the school? Can you still root for its teams? Or did you have to, more or less, put on blinders and move forward?

J.F.: I really like the school. My step-daughter just finished her freshman year and she absolutely loves it. Having said that, I am struggling with my thoughts and emotions on a daily basis. And now, to hear some of my long-time coaching friends from the other sports be elated at the prospect of the school “turfing” over the indoor track so they can have an indoor practice facility distresses me to no end. It was fun to watch the women’s basketball team this year. I tried very hard to separate my feelings. It’s hard. I know a lot of alums feel the same way. It does feel like my whole time at Delaware had very little meaning. I’ve watched other long-time coaches have department-sponsored retirement parties and celebrations. No one from the athletic department has made any official acknowledgment of my tenure. Other than a few people telling me they were sorry and saying that they didn’t understand the thinking, there has been nothing. I am gone and they’ve moved on. That does hurt. I was proud to work at the University of Delaware and represent it. That has been tempered and I have an empty feeling.

J.P.: I know you’re now working as a personal coach. How has the adjustment been for you, since the departure? Are you OK? Down? Are you able to get by OK, financially? Do you still get something out of working with runners?

J.F.: I am trying to get a personal running business started, but it’s tough. I have had a weekly training session for the community for the twenty-nine years. They have been free to the public as part of my “giving back” to whomever. It’s tough for me to start charging for what I have been giving to people for so long. I hate asking people for money, so that doesn’t bode well for my finances. This whole situation has been quite a hit for my ego and our family finances. We have a big mortgage and two kids in college, although the University of Delaware is honoring their commitment to helping with tuition. I am struggling with not having a full-time position. I’m sure it’s similar to what all retirees go through. But, I expected to and still wanted to work at something I really love to do for a few more years. I may soon be taking and job just to make money, That’s not the way I wanted to finish my career. I love working with people and seeing them realize some success. In the meantime, I am trying to put together a book on the way I view running, training, and racing. I am coaching part-time. I need to find something so I can have legitimate reasons to excuse myself from cleaning the house, doing the laundry, and tending to the yard work.

J.P.: I’m wondering what you think of the whole “Born to Run” craze? The barefoot approach, the thin-soled approach? Do you see merit to it? Is there an argument to be made against the $100 pair of Nikes?

J.F.: I have had people do running and drills barefoot and think that it strengthens. I feel that if people progressively increase the amount of time spent running barefoot, that it can be a good thing. There is science that helps to explain and I understand the reasoning. I have trouble with exclusively running barefoot from a practical perspective. I know it can be done. It would be tough to do hard training and to be safe on the hard surfaces in addition to all the glass, metal, and trash.

J.P.: Why did you allow crap runners like Jeff Pearlman to be on a Division I team? I’m actually being serious—I was never going to be competitive or win you a meet? Neither was Mike Halbfish or Paul Sedacca or a bunch of us competing in the JV races? You coached some marvelous runners in your career, and some truly unworthy (of DI) runners. Why allow the unworthies to stick around?

J.F.: I loved the challenge of working with Division I runners. But maybe I shouldn’t have been a Division I coach. I guess I am a developmental coach. I want to be a coach to everyone in the world. I don’t say that to be arrogant or to say that I know everything or even what’s best for everyone. I want to see everyone have the opportunity to improve, to reach their potential, whatever that is. My goal was to have a community of athletes, working together to get better. People told me many times that the athletes who never going to be competitive on a conference, regional, or national level were just taking time away from the top level athletes. That may have been true. That’s just not the way I wanted to do things. I had kids who never ran varsity be great examples of how hard a runner could work. I had kids who never ran varsity who were great teammates, friends, alums, and people. I had kids who came out of nowhere to become great athletes. You just never know. I wanted numbers. I wanted to include everyone. I guess that’s not division one thinking.


• Five greatest runners you’ve ever coached?: Mike DiGennaro, Nadine Marks, Steve Plasencia (high school), David Sheppard, Andy Weaver. (I’ll also include Candy Cashell and Alex Coles, but both were high jumpers, not runners. And, of course, Vicki Huber Rudawsky (the greatest, but I worked with her in her 30s and 40s. Really, I watched her do her workouts and learned. I can’t say that I coached her.))

• Rank in order (favorite to least): Marc Washington, Carrie Underwood, LA Gear sneakers, Alberto Salazar, candied yams, K-mart, Elena Delle Donne, the spork, Air Supply, Delaware State, Mookie Wilson, 100-degree days, Martin Luther King, Mitch McConnell: Tough—this will change if you ask me again tomorrow. Martin Luther King, Marc Washington, candied yams, Alberto Salazar, Elena Delle Donne, Carrie Underwood, Delaware State, Air Supply, K-Mart, 100-degree days, Mookie Wilson, the spork, LA Gear sneakers, Mitch McConnell

• You have to run a marathon next week. What’s your time?: If I would finish, it would be in about eight hours. Because of my knees, I would have to walk the whole way. I love to run, but I can’t run on hard surfaces and I can’t run on soft surfaces enough to get back in shape. I have good fitness from weight training and machines, but it’s not the same.

• Best single piece of advice for a new runner?: Stop when you could have done one more rather than you should have done one less.

• I’m freaking out about climate change. Why do I feel like I’m all alone?: You are not alone. It seems strange that with all of our scientific advancements, that we can’t figure out a way to put everything back to the way it should be, protect the environment.

• Most overrated item runners buy for a race is …: Special drinks.

• Eating advice you’d give a runner about to do his/her first marathon: Don’t do anything dramatically different than normal. Eat solid meals in the three days leading up to the race, including a high percentage of carbs. Don’t gorge yourself as your activity level is down and you don’t want to upset your system. Avoid high fiber. The night before, eat your favorite meal, making sure your carb stores are full. Don’t eat late and don’t eat anything that is going to upset your system. Get up three to four hours before race time to eat a light breakfast of easily digestible carb-ladened foods and then go to the bathroom. Drink a glass of water every thirty minutes. Eat a light carb snack an hour before the race.

• My mom always used to tell me running will ruin my knees and isn’t as healthy as walking. Did she have a point?: If you have some biomechanical issues and you run a lot on roads, she may have a point. I wish that I would have run a lot more on trails. Walking doesn’t have nearly the impact forces that running does, and that’s if you have good form and structure. If your structure is bad and your form is bad, the forces on your legs can be much greater.

• Celine Dion calls—she wants you to be her personal running coach. She’ll pay you $2 million annually, but you have to move to Las Vegas, change your name to Pablo Escobar-Fischer and only eat wheat germ, cheese sticks and bacon bits. You in?: I’m in! I am awaiting the call!

• Have you ever seen an actual blue hen? And, if so, do they bite?: I saw one in a cage at once. I would guess that it pecks. Legend has it that they were fighting hens. All others that I have seen have been stuffed.

A Great Super Bowl for a Hen

I love Super Bowl matchups like Baltimore-San Francisco, because none of us know who’s about to win.

I mean, back in the 80s, when I’d watch the games from my living room with a bunch of pals from junior high and high school, it was always sorta obvious. Nobody was beating Joe Montana, nobody was beating the ’85 Bears, nobody was beating the Giants. We’d hope for close games, pretend we truly believed Denver could pull it out but, in our hearts, we knew. We just knew.

So we’d gather around the TV, eat our subs and chips and feign interest as some NFC powerhouse jumped out to a 28-3 halftime lead.

That was a long time ago.

I love this upcoming Super Bowl for myriad reasons. Ray Lewis’ final game. The Harbaugh vs. Harbaugh coaching matchup. San Francisco’s return to the big stage. The emergence of Colin Kaepernick. My hometown hero, Ray Rice.

Mostly, I love seeing Joe Flacco, a Delaware Blue Hen, start at QB.

To hell with Alabama, Auburn, Clemson, LSU, Miami, etc … etc. Delaware, my alma mater, is about to have its second quarterback start a Super Bowl. The first came 10 years ago, when Rich Gannon and the Oakland Raiders got smoked by Tampa Bay. Now, Flacco.

This might be hard to understand for someone who attended an enormous university with a stellar program, but there’s something … special about attending a non-football powerhouse, then watching its players excel. You know the fields they trained on, the system they ran, the halls they walked, the dorms they lived in, the pressures they experienced. You know that, were Flacco to hear about the Stone Balloon or Klondike Kate’s, he’d know whereof you spoke. That’s cool and funky and neat and special.

Even if the quarterback during my days at Delaware was …

Bill Vergantino.