Joe I. Vigil: 'Team is Everything'
I need to take you back to the year 1988 to start off this week’s blog post.
I was co-captain of the Adams State cross country team with my good buddy Craig Dickson. It was about the middle of October and Joe I. Vigil had just returned from coaching the U.S. distance runners at the Olympic Games in Seoul, South Korea.
It was also about the middle of the semester, and the grind of the workouts, class schedule and job as sports editor of the college newspaper was wearing on me.
I remember it being a Monday, the day that we headed out to Cole Park for 16 one-lappers – a grueling workout for sure. Mentally, it seemed like too much for me that day, so I decided to ask Coach Vigil for a day off, to get away and iron out my head. His reaction was not what I expected.
“You need to be with your team,” Coach told me.
That simple. I could skip the workout, but there was no way he would not let me be around the men and women of Adams State. His point was clear: I had to contribute to my team every day, even if not by running with them. I needed to be there to support someone else, in whatever way possible.
Or that was how I took it. Looking back 32 years later, I’m pretty sure the wise ‘ole Coach was looking out for me. Whatever burdens I was facing in my personal life, I needed to resolve them with the group of people who he knew loved me.
I changed into my running clothes, took a deep breath and joined my teammates for the one-mile warmup to Cole Park. While they pounded out lap after lap, I ran loops around Cole Park. Easy at first, then a little faster, then a little faster, and faster…
Turns out, I got in a pretty good workout that day, too.
It’s a memory that speaks to me personally about Coach Vigil’s philosophy about placing importance on others ahead of one’s own desires. To me, it says: Working to improve yourself is not for the sole purpose of making yourself better, but rather to make your team better.
In 2008, Coach Vigil was interviewed by the producers of a documentary on the York High School cross country program, led for 60 years by Joe Newton – another U.S. coaching giant and close friend of Coach Vigil.
Vigil is asked about the value of team. Here is that video:
I’m not going to share the full transcript of that video here, but there are some key points he makes that I want to highlight, with some additional comments on each.
“Team is everything.”
That same year, 1988, before Coach Vigil was heading off to his assignment with the U.S. Olympic track and field team, he met with graduate assistants Damon Martin and Scott Slade to talk about what would be expected while he was gone.
“I set aside a big chunk of time,” Slade told me. “I had a notebook that I was ready to fill with pages and pages of wisdom and daily workouts for the weeks to come. I sat there eagerly, and then Coach said: ‘You guys understand training well enough, so I’ll leave that to you. But the number one thing to remember while I am gone is to maintain team unity.’ That was it. No wisdom. No daily training plans. Maintain team unity. To me, that showed how strongly he felt about the importance of the team over the individual.”
“…in a team setting, you’re energized by your teammates. We meet at the same time every day. We’re there and if we have a positive attitude and we’re encouraging, they feed off this.”
Some might take the concept of team to be Coach Vigil’s rah-rah speech for training college athletes. You know, there’s a lot of glory to be had in winning collegiate national championships.
But some of the best team dynamics took place after Coach Vigil left Adams State, perhaps none better than the time he spent working with professional athletes in Mammoth Lakes, California in the early 2000s.
Understand that, except for a few performances, American distance runners were pretty insignificant on the international scene from 1980 to 2000. The Mammoth Lakes program is thought to be the first effort – and certainly one of the earliest – to bring together elite distance runners to train together in a team setting.
Within two years, a team of U.S. women brought home silver from the World Cross Country championships (one year after finishing last in the same meet). In 2004, two of the program’s brightest stars – Meb Keflizghi and Deena Kastor – won silver and bronze in the Olympic marathon, equaling the number of U.S. distance medals won in the previous four Olympics combined.
Kastor, perhaps America’s greatest female distance runner ever, was coached for her entire professional career by Vigil. From the day in 1995 that she showed up to train with a group of men in Alamosa, Colorado, the importance of team was drilled into her head. Here’s what she told me recently:
“Distance running looks so individual. There’s the cliché of the loneliness of the long distance runner. Luckily I have never felt that way. I’ve felt nothing in this sport but being part of a team and being supported and supporting others…really feeling like it’s a huge collaboration and teamwork to reach and fulfill these goals. My only job on race day was just to give back to Coach and my team for being there and encouraging me and giving good advice. And when I’m passing on that advice Coach gave to me to my teammates in my own way, it’s like paying it forward, but more importantly it’s reinforcing the values that he taught to me.”
“There’s a pecking order and you have to rely on that pecking order and everyone has its place on that team. And we look to each other for leadership. But it’s the synergy we get from each other when everybody is trying to achieve the same goal to be successful. And that synergy is something that’s hard to come by today because people are individuals. You know, we are worried about “I”, not about “Us,” but the “Us” can get it done for you.”
In 1958, Denny Nash – a senior at Alamosa High School – was heartbroken when he failed to qualify out of the district meet for the Colorado State Track and Field championships. The young man was a supportive teammate and a state medal contender in the mile run.
Vigil couldn’t undo the missed shot to compete at state, but he still had a spot for Nash. He invited the young man to travel with the team, knowing that he would be a source of energy for those competing.
In 2018, Nash wrote a letter to Vigil to let him know what an impact that had on his life. “You must also be recognized for your support for and rewarding of the athletes who didn’t win the ribbon or medal. You encouraged, guided, supported and recognized that each of us performed to the best of our abilities, and in doing so, you have played a significant role in who we have become.”
“In the case of Joe Newton and his Long Green Line. He doesn’t speak so much about the guy that’s No. 1, but what the team can do. Because you’re only as good as your weakest link.”
In the mid-1980s, Coach Vigil made the two hour drive to Gunnison to meet with Duane Vandenbusche, the head coach for Adams State’s fierce rival, Western State College.
The two men talked for four hours one evening in Vandenbusche’s kitchen, with Coach Vigil sharing much of what he had learned coaching college athletes the previous 20 years. That meeting leads to a great moment in Vigil’s biography in which Vandenbusche talks about how he was able to trust that Vigil was telling him the truth. (No spoilers here – you’ll have to read the book!).
One golden nugget that Vandenbusche gained was the value of team. Here’s what he had to say about that:
“…He told me 40 years ago when we met in my kitchen that in cross country, the strength of the pack is the wolf, and the strength of the wolf is the pack (a quote associated to Rudyard Kipling). Every team in the country is one runner short of being a national champion. You have got to have the depth.”
Joe Newton was notorious for shaking the hands of every athlete – more than 200 of them – every day after practice. To build his string of state and national high school championships, Newton really only needed seven boys to step up each year. Yet, he cared about every one of the 200, because each one brought something to help the team win.
That, too, is Joe I. Vigil. Beginning with his days of coaching high school athletes, team – indeed – is everything.
Chasing Excellence: The Remarkable Life and Inspiring Vigilosophy of Coach Joe I. Vigil is now available for $19.95 from Soulstice Publishing of Flagstaff, Arizona.