Willard Hirschi is a historian by hobby, a coach by trade. During his travels to athletic events around the world, he not only took time to visit historical sites, he took notes. Closer to home, he has interviewed over 200 people, some of them more than 100 years old, along the Utah-Arizona border region where he used to herd cattle on the family ranch in his youth. He has conducted extensive research about the area in public and private libraries throughout the West.
"I've got a world of material stacked away," he says. "I don't even know what I have for sure. I hope to write a book on the history of that area."
It is where his own small place in history is concerned that Hirschi is more uncertain and reluctant. Two weeks from retirement, he looks back on his 36 years as a track coach at BYU and sees himself as a bystander to the success that surrounded him.
"I always felt out of my element," he says. "I never felt very important in anything that went on. You've got an accomplished athlete, and the coach is just a facilitator. I never felt like anything I did was of any significance . . . like the results would have been the same without me. Of course, it's not totally that way, but . . . "
Hirschi is anti-hype. He always did detest the self-promotion that is commonplace in sports nowadays. At the 1996 Olympic Games, he could be seen standing literally in the shadows under the Olympic stadium, anonymous, as his great pupil and now friend, Frank Fredericks, won silver medals in both the 100- and 200-meter dashes. That was his style.
But if Hirschi were writing his own history, what would he write? What should we record for him?
The basics are this: In 1964, Hirschi returned to BYU, where he had once been a hurdler of some repute, and served as an assistant coach to the formidable Clarence Robison until Hirschi became head coach in 1988. His replacement will be Robison's son, Mark.
"I was the meat in the Robison sandwich," Hirschi likes to say.
The credentials are this: Hirschi coached Ralph Mann when he set a world record in the 400-meter intermediate hurdles and won an Olympic bronze medal. Late in life, after becoming the head coach 13 seasons ago, he turned BYU into a sprint haven. For decades, BYU simply couldn't recruit speed, largely because of the cold weather. Then along came Fredericks, a skinny, scholarly kid from Namibia who ran track simply as a means to pay for a degree in computer science. The coach saw something more. Fredericks wound up becoming an NCAA sprint champ and, after graduation, and after he convinced Hirschi to tour the world with him as his personal coach in the summer, he won four Olympic silver medals and a couple of world championships.
Hirschi's reputation grew. Others followed. Oluyemi Kayode won a silver medal in the 4 x 100-meter relay in the '92 Olympics and was headed for bigger things until he died in a car accident. Leonard Myles-Mills won two NCAA titles at 100 meters. Kenneth Andam currently is one of the nation's top collegiate sprinters. None of them came to BYU with great credentials, so maybe Hirschi was more than a bystander ("I guess I learned some things that proved to be successful with these kids," he says). Other foreign sprinters have asked Hirschi if they could move to Provo and train with him.
"I've never encouraged it," he says. "I just tell them that if they want to come work out with us, that's fine."
Unlike most coaches who work with post-collegiate track athletes, Hirschi doesn't charge a dime — "That way if they don't like it, they can't blame me," he says. "It didn't cost them anything. If they have any complaints, they can always go."
A month shy of his 66th birthday, Hirschi is pleasant mix of homespun philosophy, wisdom and devout religious faith. He learned a few things during his four decades of coaching. Recently, he gave a speech at BYU in which he eloquently stated the real purpose and place of sports at BYU for both athletes and fans. Since then, Hirschi has received numerous requests for copies of the speech. BYU athletic director Val Hale has sent copies of it to every member of the athletic department staff and says that every one on campus should have a copy.
"The response has been unbelievable," says Hirschi. "I've been shocked."
Hirschi has had a close-up view of sports' phenomenal growth and their rise in importance in our society. Much to his disappointment, he also has seen the rise and fall of his sport. He has seen the emergence of drugs (he once found a syringe in a toilet used only by athletes and coaches at the Olympics). He has seen his sport sucked dry, first by budget-minded athletic directors and then by Title IX. Track scholarships have been cut from more than 40 at some schools to an NCAA-mandated 21, then 14 and now 12.6, while women's scholarships in the same sport have headed the other way (currently 18 and climbing). He has seen the sport so diminished that teams long ago were unable to field enough athletes even to hold dual meets. As a result, the once-popular dual-meet rivalry with Utah has died.
But what galled Hirschi the most was having to tell athletes they couldn't even compete for his team without a scholarship, no matter how good they were because it would create a participation imbalance between men and women and thus fail to meet the federal government's misguided mandate for strict proportionality.
"I find that reprehensible," he says. "Title IX is proving to be a disaster for men's athletics because the way it's been implemented has abandoned all reason."
Somehow, Hirschi managed to assemble strong, balanced teams anyway, and they won a total of 16 indoor and outdoor conference titles and placed fourth, sixth, 12th and 17th in the NCAA championships. The hallmark of his sprinters were their polished, graceful technique, which Hirschi patiently honed with hours of drills and corrections. At most training sessions, Hirschi doesn't even bring a stopwatch to the track; all he tells his sprinters is to sprint a specified distance and concentrate on relaxation, which is the great paradox of sprinting — on the one hand you are telling the athlete to run as fast as he can, but to do it relaxed.
"There's too much effort," Hirschi will tell a sprinter after he finishes one of his sprint intervals. "You can run that fast with less effort."
He teaches his sprinters to move with grace, relaxation, rhythm and fluidity, and he brings an eye for the small details for anything that might hinder any of the above — "Bring the knees up," he'll tell a sprinter, "watch the rotation of the shoulders," and so forth. No sprinter in the world does all this better than Fredericks.
Now someone else will do the coaching at BYU. After this weekend's NCAA championships in Durham, N.C., Hirschi will retire, even if his timing is poor. Next year the Cougars expect to field their best team in years, one that Hirschi believes will contend for a national title.
"In terms of the success we're having, it's not the best time to leave," he says. "I can't believe how good we're going to be next year. I can honestly say I don't know why I'm retiring. Just a multitude of reasons, some that can't be expressed. I guess it's best to go early than to stay too long. And I've got other things I want to do."