Oct. 24, 2009
By Larry Watts
At 66 years of age, it should be easy for Ron Warhurst to walk away from the University of Michigan and enjoy his retirement. But as one quickly finds out, Warhurst isn't a retiring type of guy.
"Hey, I've got a 7-year-old at home," Warhurst says of his son Luke. "I've got bills to pay!"
In his 36th season leading the men's cross country team and coaching distance runners in track, Warhurst is the fourth-longest tenured coach in Wolverine history. And he's not even thinking about stopping.
"At this point, I think I can do this for another 10 years," he says. "I need something to keep me going, so the plan is to keep this up until Luke is 17 or 18. I don't know what else I would do. I'm still having some success, not as much as I used to, but I have a group of young kids now who I hope will put us back on the map."
Those around the national cross country scene know Warhurst is no stranger to success. His first three teams at Michigan (1974-76) won Big Ten championships and he has won four more since then, winning its last title in 1998. His teams have cracked an NCAA top-10 finish 12 times and he has directed 21 different runners to a combined total of 39 All-American awards.
Warhurst readily points to his wife Kallie as the biggest reason for his rejuvenation. They met 15 years ago and married five years later. His first marriage lasted only three years, but it ended amicably.
"I had the best of both worlds," he says with a laugh. "She was divorcing me and she was my divorce lawyer. We remained good friends."
Although 20 years younger, Kallie has proved to be Warhurst's perfect match. "She is of Greek heritage and was raised in Ann Arbor," he says. "She has that Greek temper and knows how to put me in my place. All of her family still lives in Ann Arbor, so I went from being single to going to family get-togethers of 60 people every Thanksgiving and Christmas.
"The best part of it is I have a 7-year-old son now. Fortunately, he has her looks and smarts. Unfortunately, he has my personality and my mouth. He hasn't cussed at me yet, but it's coming, I can tell."
Warhurst says his path to Ann Arbor was just a matter of luck. A former member of Western Michigan's national cross country championship squads in 1964 and '65, he eventually enlisted for a two-year duty in the Marine Corps at the age of 25.
"I went to boot camp and the drill sergeant thought I was a lieutenant who had been planted in his squad to keep an eye on him," he says. "A few years earlier there had been some problems with a drill sergeant in Paris Island. He got drunk one night and got his troops up at 2 a.m. for a forced march through the swamps. Two of them ended up drowning and caused a pile of problems for the Marine Corps."
After boot camp, Warhurst was supposed to head out to jump school at Fort Benning, Ga. But the fighting in Vietnam had intensified and he was shipped out.
"I spent every day in mortification," he says. "I was in combat most of the time. At one point I was the company commander's bodyguard, I did counter intelligence and went on prisoner snatches."
Warhurst wound up earning two Purple Hearts after twice being wounded by shrapnel. He took one hit to the head ("Some of the guys on the team still think I have a piece of shrapnel in my brain") and the other struck him in the left leg.
"We were getting attacked at night and we knew they (North Vietnamese) were going for our gun position," he says. "We could hear them dropping the mortars into the tubes from about 100 yards away. I could hear the whistle from one, hit the deck and then felt the burn to the side of my head before I even heard the explosion. It must have landed 8-10 feet from me and if I had been standing up I would have been blown to bits.
"My helmet came off, but I was afraid to touch my head because I had this visualization from a week earlier of seeing one of the guys taking a bullet through his cheek and having the back of his head blown out. Fortunately this piece of shrapnel just tore my scalp, but I had a helluva headache from the explosion."
Two months later, Warhurst took a piece of shrapnel in his left leg from another mortar. Infection set in and he had to be hospitalized in Da Nang for 10 days.
"I didn't want to go because I didn't want to leave my unit," he says. "I still have a big indentation in the bone from where the infection ate in."
But it wasn't until a couple of weeks ago that Warhurst finally sent in his card to receive his Purple Heart.
"The local paper came out to do a story on me for Father's Day because they thought a 66-year-old coach at Michigan and father of a 7-year-old would make a good human interest piece," he says. "They had me put on my uniform in full combat dress and some guy read it and got in touch with me. He told me to get a copy of my military records, send them to him and he would get me my Purple Heart card."
This may have been the only time Warhurst has worn the uniform since returning from Vietnam in early 1970. He had been promoted to sergeant three weeks before his return and the stripes were still in his pocket.
"We wore our uniforms in order to get military standby on the planes, but once you got home, you took your uniform off and hid it because you were not readily accepted by society," he says. "Soldiers could come home from World War I and II and the Korean War, and they could hang out at bars wearing their uniforms while people treated them like heroes and bought them drinks. You were proud to be a soldier and they were proud of you. But for Vietnam veterans, it was not a comfortable situation for six or eight months after you got back.
"My best achievement was getting my butt back here in one piece. I was kind of a John Wayne guy. It (Vietnam) was exciting, like a game, which wasn't a very mature way to approach it. I was hanging out in the woods and sleeping in mud for two weeks. The only aspect I didn't like was the killing, but it became part of what you did. You had to learn to take the bad with the good."
After spending two years in military installations, Warhurst said he was in for a cultural shock.
"I came back and visited some friends who were teaching at a high school in Colorado," he says. "I couldn't believe guys in the school had facial hair the girls were wearing Levis. This wasn't allowed when I was in school."
After a month back home in New Jersey, Warhurst received a call from a friend attending graduate school at the University of Michigan and was encouraged to join him.
"By that time I was a hippie and I was doing everything the hippies did," Warhurst says. "I bought a car in June and drove up to Ann Arbor. The military was giving us $175 a month to go to school, so I enrolled in grad school and worked at the university as a computer preparation clerk."
Warhurst gave up grad school after earning 20 hours of credit, but he continued working his job and got involved in road racing. While working out, he ran into members of Michigan's cross country team, talked about his own training 10 years earlier and began running with them every Sunday.
When Jack Harvey was hired as head track coach in 1975, he had to find a distance and head cross country coach. Some of the Wolverines told him about their runs with Warhurst and an informal meeting was set up at the Delta Restaurant on the day after Memorial Day.
"I showed up with long hair and wearing Bermuda shorts and a T-shirt," Warhurst says. "I was still a wild rogue at the time. I talked with Jack and two of the runners for an hour. Two days later, I'm meeting with (athletic director) Don Canham and I was offered the job."
Under Warhurst's tutelage, Kevin Sullivan was a four-time All-American while Nate Brennan, John Scherer, Bill Donakowski ad Greg Meyer earned the honor three times. He has coached seven Olympians. Former Wolverine Brian Diemer won the bronze medal in the 3,000 steeplechase an the 1984 Olympics and Nick Willis took the bronze in the 1,500 at the 2008 Games while Meyer is the last American to win the Boston Marathon (in 1983).
"When you're part of it, it just seems natural," Warhurst says. "I don't feel like I'm anyone special. I just have this knack for getting guys to run around in circles faster than anyone else. I have coached 15 milers who have broke four minutes. Meyer was my first and it's real special as a coach every time that happens."
When Harvey retired in 1999, Warhurst took over the entire track program for nine years. The Wolverines captured both the indoor and outdoor Big Ten titles in 2008 and shortly after the season Warhurst decided it was time to just concentrate on the distance runners again.
"I had to make sure things were right financially and the right person (Fred LaPlante) was in place to run the track program," says Warhurst, who is now associate head coach for the track team. "Luke was 5 then and I needed to give him more attention.
"Basically, the only way it has reduced my workload is now Fred has to deal with the angry phone calls. No matter how much responsibility the head coach delegates, he is always the one who has to answer when a problem develops."
Warhurst simply shrugs it off when asked about his longevity at Michigan.
"Either I'm really good or I'm really stupid," he says with a laugh. "Maybe the truth is somewhere in between."