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  • Writer's picturePat Melgares

Adversity strengthened Joe I. Vigil...

When you read the book, Chasing Excellence: The Remarkable Life and Inspiring Vigilosophy of Coach Joe I. Vigil, don’t be fooled into thinking that this is a story about one man’s wildly successful coaching career.

Rather, it is a story about adversity. And specifically, overcoming adversity.

Roll the tape…

November 25, 1929

Coach Vigil turns 91 in late November this year. More than nine decades ago, his life began in poverty, the third of three boys born to Melinda Vigil, who was in the process of finalizing a divorce from an abusive husband. The family lived in Antonito, one of the poorest towns in southern Colorado, and he was born just one month after the New York Stock Exchange tanked, setting off the Great Depression.

Coach never knew his Dad; he knew only what he was told. His father, Augustine, died in a Los Angeles prison just three months after baby Joe was born.

Melinda packed up her three boys and moved them to Alamosa, 30 miles to the north where she had taken a job that would allow her to keep food on the family’s table, and little else.

“…To counter the negative challenges young Joe would face,” writes the legendary Billy Mills in the Foreword for Chasing Excellence, “his mother raised him to rely on faith and responsibility. Faith and responsibility became the cornerstones in Joe’s life, playing a major role as he matured into a young adult and began choreographing his professional career.”

Coach Vigil and his family lived on the poorer south side of Alamosa, where opportunities to thrive were fewer, and temptations to slide into negativity were plenty. Instead, steeled by his mother’s values, Joseph Isabel Vigil grew to become a straight-A student, honored Eagle Scout, All-State athlete and Navy sailor.

Following college, where he earned All-Conference honors in football, he was a beloved teacher and coach at his alma mater, Alamosa High School, which set the stage for a legendary college and professional coaching career.

Adversity strengthened Joe I. Vigil.

Summer, 1967

Just two years into his coaching career at Adams State College, likely nobody expected that Vigil could forever transform American marathoning. Why would they? Sans a couple cross country team titles in the mostly anonymous Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference, Adams State had no reputation for distance running excellence in the United States.

But Vigil had an iron will…and a great ally. Buddy Edelen, a former U.S. record holder in the marathon, had just come to Alamosa to do graduate studies at Adams State. The two quickly became friends and were part of a movement to attract elite American athletes to Alamosa, where they could train at altitude in advance of the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City.

As the pieces came together, and athletes saw the value of training at higher altitudes prior to Mexico City, Vigil and Edelen recognized an opportunity to approach the Amateur Athletic Association (or AAU, the governing body at the time for the U.S. Track and Field team) about holding a qualifying race for the three spots on the United States Olympic team in the marathon.

It had never been done before. Up to then, America’s team was determined by athletes’ performance at several key marathons across the country.

From Chasing Excellence: “Maybe it was fate, maybe it was Edelen and Vigil’s persistence, or maybe it was just dumb luck, but at its annual meeting in Chicago in late 1967, the AAU chose Alamosa as the site for the first-ever U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials. It came with a caveat: the AAU could provide only minimal organizational help, and no budget…”

Seriously? The nation’s largest organizing body couldn’t come up with a few bucks to help out?

“Buddy and I had to do everything,” Vigil said in a 2018 story for the Road Runners Club of America. “We were running around ragged. I remember one time, we looked up at each other and just about started crying.”

The following summer, 113 runners toed the line to run a 5.2-mile course known in Alamosa as “The Loop.” They ran the course five times, plus a finish near Adams State’s Plachy Hall. George Young, Kenny Moore and Ron Daws became the first Americans ever to qualify for the Olympic marathon via the Trials. American legend Frank Shorter failed to finish in what was his introduction to the marathon, but it was a springboard to his winning Olympic gold in 1972 and silver in 1976.

Adversity strengthened Joe I. Vigil.

Fall, 1978

Twelve years into his tenure at Adams State, Coach Vigil’s program was on the cusp of breaking through to national prominence. They had won the NAIA cross country title in 1971, national runner-up in 1976, and then the school’s second NAIA title in 1977.

Heading into the 1978 cross country season, Adams State was loaded…or some it would have seemed. They had four returners from the 1977 national championship squad, and what seemed to be a great freshman class.

Then, it fell apart. For various reasons, only senior Bob Fink returned and Vigil was left with a team of mostly freshman. “As far as a coaching miracle, that year was it,” Fink told me, “because he was basically starting our team from scratch and we managed to get back to nationals and placed third. He was able to bring that new group around…it’s one thing to have a really good team and do things with it, but it’s another to develop a team that maybe is not considered all that good. I always think about that 1978 team…that was really coaching.”

From 1979 through 1989, Vigil’s teams went on to win 10 of 11 national cross country championships. They obliterated the record books: team titles, lowest score, biggest margin of victory, most All Americans in one year, course records, individual champions, and more….

Adversity strengthened Joe I. Vigil.

Fall, 1993

Jealousy can be a vile attitude. Let me be frank: Coach Vigil got caught square in the crosshairs of a couple colleagues and an empowered administrator in the latter part of his college coaching career.

In fairness, I never did talk to those colleagues or the administrator for their perspective on what transpired in the early 1990s in Adams State’s Plachy Hall. It is possible they had good reasons for having a hardened attitude toward the wildly successful coach. The university’s rules and the NCAA’s rules may have been in their favor. They were playing the game the way they were told it was supposed to be played.

Nonetheless, that rarely gets the benefit of the doubt if one talks to local folks about how Coach Vigil’s abrupt departure came in the Fall, 1993. “It wasn’t Adams State. It wasn’t Alamosa. It wasn’t the San Luis Valley…there were three people in that athletic department that were so jealous of him and his team’s success that they almost wanted to see him fail,” said Norm Roberts, an Alamosa businessman and a member of the 1971 NAIA cross country championship team.

After leading Adams State to back-to-back NCAA Division II titles in 1992 and 1993 – the first two years the school competed at that level – Vigil stepped away from his 28-year run as head coach. He asked for a modest office in Plachy Hall to continue working with international federations who were coming to Alamosa to train, but was denied the opportunity to stay in the college’s athletic facilities. Adams State’s most successful coach ever was shunned at the height of his career.

“It was very hurtful because of the way it happened…,” said Carolyn Vigil, Coach’s wife since 1978. “You never know what people are thinking except that all of this happened and Coach became very depressed about it and I did too because we thought we’d always be there. We wanted to be in Alamosa…It feels like you have no friends at all when you’re kind of ousted like that. And we had no idea what was going on.”

From Chasing Excellence: “Vigil was left to pick up his life after serving the school he loved for nearly 30 years. From the time he was a young child, riding his bike on Alamosa’s south side, serving his community as a loyal Boy Scout, he had so treasured his hometown and the people in it. Now, at the height of his professional success, Vigil felt betrayed by some of those who he loved…and who he thought loved him.”

“The problems I had,” Coach told me, “were not with Adams State as a college. There were three people in Plachy Hall who wanted to see me gone. And I guess they got their way.”

In the years that followed, though, Vigil wrote a book – since 1995, he has sold more than 27,000 copies of Road to the Top, a leading resource on coaching athletes at all levels – and began his own training group in Alamosa.

In 2001, he was one of two coaches hired to coach Team USA California in Mammoth Lakes, a high-altitude training group that aimed to revive American distance running. That program’s early successes included a silver medal at the 2002 women’s World Cross Country Championships; silver and bronze Olympic medals by Meb Keflezighi and Deena Kastor in 2004; and eventually an American resurgence from 2004 to 2016 that includes Olympic medals at every distance between 1500 meters and the marathon (except the women’s 5000).

In 2008, at age 78, he was named the head coach for the U.S. Olympic distance runners, the second time he held that position in his career.

“To be honest with you, I think (the departure from Adams State) is probably one of the best things that could have happened to my dad because he moved on to greater things,” said Peggy Vigil, the Coach’s youngest daughter.

“I think life is too short to have anger and resentment. That doesn’t get you anywhere. I think favor comes to him because he is constantly paying it forward, helping people, and in turn great things happen to him. I keep seeing that over and over. He’s a great example of what it means to pay it forward.”

Adversity strengthened Joe I. Vigil.


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