Coach was obviously an exceptional coach, but he was an even more exceptional man. I trusted him as my coach, I loved him as my friend. — Farley Gerber
Like so many of the athletes whom coach Chick Hislop recruited to run track and cross-country for him at Weber State, Farley Gerber was, in Gerber’s own words, “pretty average.” He won two state championships at Bingham High, but his times were modest and there was little interest from college programs.
Hislop saw something in him even if no one else did, Gerber included. “I think the thing that stands out to me is that he understood probably as well as anyone I’ve met how to evaluate the potential of an athlete and of a person,” says Gerber.
In 1984, Gerber won the NCAA 3,000-meter steeplechase event and set an American collegiate record of 8:19.27, beating the future Olympic champ in the process. A couple of weeks later he finished fourth in the U.S. Olympic trials in the L.A. Coliseum — one place from making the Olympic team.
“He knew what I could do better than I did,” recalls Gerber. “He could see that I could perform much better than I could see.”
Hislop died a week ago at the age of 86. Gerber, an aerospace engineer in Iowa, flew to Utah this week to speak at Hislop’s funeral Friday.
Gerber was Hislop’s prize pupil, but there were many others who achieved national class under his direction at tiny Weber State. Hislop was the cross-country and track coach at Weber State forever, or so it seemed (actually from 1969 to 2007. Never mind for a moment that he excelled in churning out distance runners; there was the sheer endurance of the man. He coached in more than 1,000 track meets (one track meet is an endurance test for any fan or coach). He coached Weber State in 106 conference championships.
More numbers: He coached 152 conference champions; 26 athletes who earned 46 All-America certificates; and 22 conference championship teams.
His calling card became the steeplechase event, a 3,000-meter (7 ½-lap) race over water barriers and heavy wooden barriers. In the early 1980s, he decided it was an event that was underutilized by coaches. There was an opportunity there. He decided he could take good, but not great, distance runners, and, by teaching them to become efficient hurdlers and to run an even pace, they could excel. The steeplechase was the equalizer for such athletes.
Until that point, Hislop had had only three All-Americans in his first 14 years as a head coach, none of them distance runners. During the next 13 years he produced 11 All-Americans, all of them in the steeplechase (and a 12th All-American three years after that). Gerber was the first, placing fourth in the NCAA championships in 1983 and winning the event a year later.
“He proved it; he kept cranking out All-Americans who were not top recruits,” says Gerber.
Weber became Steeplechase U. and Hislop the steeplechase guru. He was invited to make presentations around the world and spoke to the International Coaches Convention at the 1984 and 1996 Olympic Games. He was retained as an assistant coach for the 1996 U.S. Olympic team in charge of distance runners.
It was Hislop who helped Gerber develop a bold race plan that resulted in the biggest upset of the 1984 NCAA championships. After watching Kenyan star Julius Korir run a fast 800-meter race earlier in the season, “We knew we couldn’t beat him with a kick,” says Gerber. “We knew I couldn’t run that fast.”
They decided they had two choices: Try to break away early in the race and go it alone, or make Korir suffer through a long kick over the last two laps (half-mile). They chose the latter. “We trained for a half-mile kick,” says Gerber. “Korir either had to come with me and take the same chance I was taking — that he might blow up — or let me go and try to catch me with a late kick.”
Korir let Gerber open up a 15-meter lead over the final two laps and then made a late charge, nearly catching him at the finish line. Gerber was clocked in 8:19.27, Korir 8:19.85. It was the only defeat of the 1984 season for Korir, who went on to win the steeplechase in the Summer Olympic Games two months later.
Hislop’s plan worked.
That was nearly 40 years ago, but Gerber and Hislop remained connected. “We’ve been close over the years,” says Gerber, who is 62 and married for 38 years, with four children and 10 grandchildren. “Anytime I’m in Utah I stop to see him. We’d talk about how things were going and our families. Coach always liked to talk about running so we talked about his team and other things that interested him.”
Gerber recalled that Hislop would meet with his athletes at the start of every school year to discuss goals, and then he’d write the workouts to help them get there. “He was always interested in all our education,” says Gerber. “He was pretty strict with all of us about going to class, getting the grades. It was more than staying eligible; he was encouraging us to do our best, not just get by.”
The last time he visited his coach was in January, but they talked on the phone in early February, only a couple of weeks before the old coach passed away with his family gathered around him.
The track at Weber State bears the coach’s name — the Charles “Chick” Hislop Track. The track had been named after Bill Child, a former Weber State track athlete who had donated $1 million to the school in 1996 to help renovate the facility. In 2007, shortly after Hislop retired, Child recommended that the school drop his name and give the honor instead to Hislop.