May 23, 2014
By Lauren Chval
It has been only a few days since Joe Piane announced his upcoming retirement as the head coach of the University of Notre Dame’s men’s cross country and men’s and women’s track and field programs. In that time, as the phone calls and emails roll in, it has become apparent to Piane just how deep and lasting are so many of the relationships he has formed in nearly four decades at Notre Dame.
“It has been amazing to be part of a program that just feels like it has such a significant, expansive history, and Coach Piane has certainly contributed to that,” says junior distance runner Jake Kildoo.
For those, like Kildoo, who still call the two-time national cross country coach of the year “Coach,” Piane’s rich time with the Irish provides a tangible link to all the great runners who tread the track before they were even born.
“I feel like I couldn’t do him justice,” says sophomore distance runner Molly Seidel. “He’s an amazing coach. It’s really cool to get to work with someone who has been here for such a long time, and has so much Notre Dame track history. Especially talking with old alums who have graduated like 20 or 30 years ago, getting to bond over having such a great coach.”
To see that bond in action, one needs look no further than the Aragon family. Chuck Aragon came to run for Piane in 1977, and over the course of his collegiate career, Aragon earned eight monograms (four cross country, four track), ran the first sub-four minute mile in Notre Dame history and was a two-time All-American (’79, ’81). Three decades later, Aragon’s daughters, Alexa and Danielle, earned All-America recognition of their own while running for Piane.
“Joe took a chance on me,” Chuck Aragon says. “My athletic and academic credentials were not outstanding, but Joe saw potential in me that I may never have realized. Notre Dame was a struggle for me academically and athletically. My success did not come easily. Joe served as more then a coach to me-he was a mentor, a friend, a motivator, and believe it or not, he was even an academic advisor! The longevity of our relationship reflects the part he has played in many aspects of my life.”
Alexa explains that one of the most special things about having Piane as a coach is the close relationship they had already built over her life-her parents named Piane her godfather, and Chuck even brings up that Piane and his wife, Mimi, were the ones to bring Alexa to the hospital to meet Danielle after she was born.
“Now that is recruiting,” Chuck jokes.
Like their father, both Aragon sisters have seen their share of success under the tutelage of Piane as they helped the women’s distance medley relay team to a third-place finish at the NCAA Indoor Track and Field Championships this year.
Danielle, however, says what she will remember most about her coach is not the moments in which she succeeded, but what he said to help her when she failed.
“Coach Piane has always been pretty good about looking out for everybody,” she says. “Just this past year, I had a pretty bad meet, and he went out of his way to take me to Jimmy John’s and tell me, ‘Everybody has bad meets, but you’ve just got to keep kicking.'”
Senior Kelly Curran, who ran with the Aragons in the distance medley relay back in March, appreciates how Piane is always upfront with his runners. In all his years as a coach, he has never expected more than his team’s best.
“One thing I learned from Coach that really stuck out to me is that he always kept the integrity of the sport by always being honest about what we could run and what we had run in the past instead of trying to make the numbers seem better than what they are,” Curran says. “That was really impactful on my experience here.”
For those who worked with Piane on both the track and cross country teams, there are twice the amount of memories and lessons to cherish. Kildoo and graduate student J.P. Malette both cite an annual trip that the team takes to train during fall break as something they’ll miss the most.
“Although I enjoyed many experiences with Coach Piane in his natural element as a coach, it was always more fun to encounter him outside the track or office,” Malette explains. “For me, no times were more enjoyable than our time spent in Michigan over fall break. Even though the primary purpose of the trip was to train, most of our time was spent around the dinner table where we would have a wide range of enjoyable and memorable conversations.”
And perhaps it is this quality of Piane’s-his ability to create relationships that go far beyond the scope of coaching track and cross country-that has made him such a fixture of the University of Notre Dame.
“The single best lessen I learned from Joe was perseverance-in the classroom and in athletics,” Chuck Aragon says. “It was his belief in me and encouragement that made it hard to accept defeat in either. I was blessed when Joe took a chance on me and gave me Notre Dame. The blessings have continued and spilled over into another generation. Joe Piane is Notre Dame to many of us.”