Two men walk into a bar...
During an interview in June to promote the book, Chasing Excellence: The Remarkable Life and Inspiring Vigilosophy of Coach Joe I. Vigil, I was asked whether Coach had a sense of humor, or whether he was serious all of the time.
The man is as serious as an accountant on tax day. Hard as steel. A strict, bare knuckles disciplinarian.
The truth is that Joe I. Vigil is one of the most pleasant guys to be around that most of us will ever meet, partly because of his sense of humor and humility. He’s not one to tell traditional jokes, but rather displays a quick wit for appropriate humor that is borne out of his personality and relationship with others.
“He and my husband (Andrew) have this thing where they call each other ‘ugly.’ They don’t even call each other by their first name,” said 2004 Olympic marathon bronze medalist Deena Kastor, who was coached by Vigil for nearly two decades. “Coach will say, ‘How’s ugly doing?’ I’ll tell Andrew that Coach wants to know how you’re doing, and Andrew will say, ‘Tell him to get a facelift!’
“Or Coach will say he’s on his way to his doctor to get a checkup. And Andrew will say ‘oh, is he finally going to get that facelift?’ They answer back and forth about each other being ugly. It cracks me up!”
One of the stories I really enjoyed in writing the book was one about Coach and former UCLA coach Bob Larsen waking up at 2 o’clock in the morning to spend a day at the high altitude performance center near Neuchatel, Switzerland, site of the 1986 World Cross Country championships.
It was a few hours’ drive away, so they began their journey in the dark hours of the morning. They get to a spot in the road that goes through the mountain and the road is closed. A train is transporting cars through the mountain and Vigil drives the car onto the train. Off they go through a pitch dark tunnel.
Shortly after, Larsen – who had been sleeping – wakes up. “Where are we?” he asks Vigil.
“Oh Bob,” Vigil quips, “we’ve been in a terrible accident. We’re on the way to heaven.”
In 1978, Adams State was in Chicago’s O’Hare airport on their way home from the NAIA national meet in Kenosha, Wisconsin, where they had finished third.
“All the guys on the team got all excited because Pete Rose was walking through the concourse,” said Tom White, a freshman on that team. Rose, of course, was the all-star third baseman and leadoff hitter for the Cincinnati Reds and the 1975 World Series MVP, but infamous for having been banned from the sport after he was caught gambling on games.
“So, all of the guys are mobbing Pete Rose for an autograph, and they actually brought Pete Rose over to meet Coach. They’re saying, ‘Coach, Coach…This is Pete Rose. Coach, you’ve got to meet Pete Rose.’
“Coach is looking at him, and he says, ‘Pete Rose?’ And the guys say, ‘Yeah, yeah.’ And coach, just as serious as can be, says, ‘What event does he run?’”
It goes on and on with Vigil. In 1988, the Adams State team is heading back from a tiring workout across the Great Sand Dunes National Monument. Vigil is driving the 15-passenger team van and team captain Dan Jaquez is in the passenger’s seat.
Vigil is sleepy and his eyes are drooping. Jaquez – known as Hawk – is keeping an eye on the coach and on one occasion thinks the ‘ole Coach is drifting off to sleep.
“Coach, Coach…wake up!” Hawk says.
“What the hell you talkin’ about Hawk,” Vigil responds. “I’m wide awake!”
And then there are the stories that are probably appropriate for college-age athletes only:
“I love it when his little kid comes out,” White said. “One day we were running up at Fort Garland and Coach drops us off and we had the weenie bus (a nickname for the team’s van) and we all take off running and he was going to come pick us up.
“It was one of those Fall days when you can’t tell what the weather is going to be. We’re all wearing shorts and maybe a long-sleeve t-shirt, and a frickin’ blizzard hit. The clouds came off the mountain and sat down on us and just started pounding us with snow, and the temperature dropped 20 degrees in a very short time.
“We were all separated. You couldn’t even see. Coach was driving around picking us up as we were struggling along. And me and Coop (teammate Randy Cooper) were struggling along together. Coach stops, he’s laughing, man… and he says ‘Get in here boys!’
“Well, Coop’s (genitals) were just frozen, man. He hurt so bad. Coop got in the back seat and he’s saying, ‘My nuts, my nuts hurt so bad.’ And Coach was just laughing. He says, ‘Coop I hope those things shrivel up and fall off and regenerate in four years when you’re done here!’”
“I loved it when coach was like that. Just fun-loving and one of the guys,” White said. “He’d get this twinkle in his eyes….”
Vigil had numerous words or phrases that were equal parts motivation but also light-hearted that he would use to get his runner’s attention. “You’re being a candy ass,” he might say, or “You’re a creampuff.” He’d call someone a “Mass of corruption” or tell a really fast runner that they’ve only got one gear, “…and it’s slow.” If an athlete was not meeting expectations, Vigil would threaten to “put my size 9 ½ up your bazooka.”
“Also, I’ve never heard someone use the word ‘shit’ in so many ways,” Kastor said. “He says it when he throws his head back and laughing, ‘Ah, shit!’ He says it when he drops something in a quiet voice, under his breath…shit! And then you say something funny, and he says “OH SHI-I-I-T!” as he’s laughing. I’ve never known ‘shit’ to mean so many different things. For him, it’s a noun, it’s an adjective, it’s a verb….”
“I think he’s so well read that he also understands that laughter and being happy like that is very healthy.”
So, yeah, I guess one could say Joe I. Vigil is pretty serious.