WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. -- If the measure of a man is the amount of respect he has from his peers and rivals, then Wisconsin-La Crosse head coach Pat Healy is indeed a beloved man in NCAA Division III women’s track and field competition.
After clinching the indoor national championship here late Saturday afternoon, Healy seemed almost as if he didn’t know quite how to act. This was, after all, the first championship of his twenty-four year career with the Eagles.Nearly a quarter of a century later, next year is finally here. There was no letdown this year. No congratulating another coach on a job well done. Seven times between indoor and outdoor completion, he’d finished second in national meets. Last year, Wisconsin-La Crosse finished just two measly points out of first.
One by one, other coaches came to shake his hand this time around. One rival coach excitedly jumped up and down as if she had turned in the title-deciding performance herself, and then proceeded to give Healy the mother of all bear hugs.
The parade of coaches happy for this weekend’s victor was an awesome sight to see, and a series of moments Healy won’t likely soon forget. Good for him. From all appearances, he deserves it. Somebody mentions the other coaches, and for a split second, it seems as if Healy might somehow lose his composure.
“Yeah … that’s great,” he said with a relieved smile. “It makes you feel good that, hopefully, you’ve run your program right and that you’ve been a good person and not just a good coach. Hopefully, that’s the way people think about me. I don’t know … hard to tell.”
No, actually it’s not hard to tell. At least not on Saturday.
After Friday, a national championship might not have seemed likely. The Eagles scored just eight points on the first day of competition and appeared to be in no position to make a run for it. That’s not the way Healy does things and that’s not the way his charges operate, either. He sat them down Saturday morning for a little chat before things got under way. It worked.
“We ended up the day pretty much with the points we were supposed to get,” Healy said. “So we didn’t really move backward, but we didn’t really move forward, either. When you want to win a national title, you’ve got to make some gains.“We had a team meeting this morning and basically I told them that our mission had not changed even though yesterday wasn’t perfect. I told them, ‘We’re going back with one goal in mind and that’s to win this thing. We’re not going to be second.’ ”
The team responded by steadily rising up through the standings. At the end of the day, it was on top of the heap for the first time in school history.
“These kids all love each other,” Healy said. “They work hard to please each other and to help each other. That’s the way it’s been for several years. This group of seniors is special.”
The trophy -- the gold one, this time -- is coming home to La Crosse with Healy. It means a lot to him, of course, but he quickly returns to the theme of things done the right way. The Healy way.
“I hope that the success of a person and success of a program is not just built on trophies that we get,” he concluded. “It’s built on what kind of a program that we run and how people feel about your program.
“But, that said, we’ve worked hard for years and years and come close seven times with seven second places. To actually get over that hump and be able to present that first-place national trophy to my team is going to be one of the most wonderful things that I could think of.”
Healy has been at this game for a long, long time now -- thirty-nine years in all. He doesn’t know how much longer he’ll continue. As he walks back to his team, he smiles again and adds one last parting thought on the subject.
The mission has been accomplished.