Oct. 3, 2014
By Pete LaFleur
Many towns in middle America are fondly known as “flyover cities.” Visitors and newcomers often are only passing through, whether it is for vacation or short-term employment.
In the state of Indiana – known as “The Crossroads of America” – the University of Notre Dame has earned a nationwide reputation for all-around excellence. Some individuals are fortunate to arrive at the University employed in upper-level, established positions. Others gradually work their way up the ranks. For a third group, Notre Dame becomes a proving ground that helps open the door to a higher position elsewhere.
Joe Piane qualifies as part of that third group.
Or so he thought.
Back in 1974, Piane accepted an offer from Notre Dame track and field/cross country coach Don Faley to be his assistant. Faley had been Piane’s own coach at Loras College, in Dubuque, Iowa.
“I thought I’d be at Notre Dame a couple years and would then have the opportunity to direct my own program somewhere else,” Piane says.
A couple years? Not even close.
Forty years later, Piane was still at Notre Dame, after being elevated to head coach in 1975 until his retirement in June 2014.
“As a Catholic kid from Chicago, I admired Notre Dame but never dreamed it would become such a big part of my life,” Piane says. “I’ve encountered so many amazing people through Notre Dame. It’s an astounding, deep network of relationships.
“I’ve remained in awe of the student-athletes, year after year. Beyond their achievements, simply getting to know them and watching the incredible impact they had on this place – truly remarkable.
“I am a lucky man. A grateful man.”
Notre Dame expresses its own gratitude this weekend, as Piane is honored for decades of service as the highlight of an Irish cross country/track and field reunion. No doubt, the veteran coach will be spouting a few of his trademark one-liners.
The first 125 years (1890-2014) of Notre Dame track and field featured only seven head coaches – including the likes of football icon Knute Rockne; innovative John Nicholson, inventor of the starting blocks; and Alex Wilson, who also starred for the Irish and was a two-time Olympian. Piane’s retirement ended the second-longest head coaching tenure, 39 years, in Notre Dame athletics history, behind baseball coach Jake Kline’s 42 seasons (1934-75).
Former assistant Alan Turner, hired by Piane in 2010 to tutor sprinters and hurdlers, is Notre Dame’s new head coach. “One key thing I learned from Joe is where to push certain buttons – when to be the disciplinarian, and when to be that comforting hand,” says Turner, a three-time All-American at Indiana University in the early 1990s while excelling in the long jump and 400 meters.
Piane strived to coach on an individual level, “adjusting to each situation, evolving as needed.” The two-time national coach of the year also resisted any urges to micro-manage. Instead, he empowered each assistant to be “head coach” of his own respective area.
Piane’s greatest enjoyment: “seeing the elation when someone set a record or personal best.” Two landmark moments certainly produced such elation: Chuck Aragon’s sub-4:00 mile and Ryan Shay’s 10,000-meter NCAA title.
A converted half-miler, Aragon earned legendary status in a 1981 meet at Illinois, becoming Notre Dame’s first runner to break the four-minute barrier (3:59). Piane and Aragon remain close friends – in fact, Joe and wife Mimi are godparents to Aragon’s daughter Alexa, a 2014 graduate and former cross country and track and field standout (alongside younger sister Danielle). Chuck Aragon credits Piane for being a tremendous mentor and motivator who maximized the potential of his student-athletes. “He taught me perseverance in the classroom and athletics, making it hard to accept defeat in either,” Aragon says.
Six years after winning the 2001 NCAA 10K, Shay died unexpectedly while competing at the U.S. Olympic marathon trials. Days earlier, the recently wed Shay and wife Alicia had been relaxing at Piane’s lakeside cottage.
“It was like losing a family member,” Piane says. “Ryan was a great leader and a tremendous student. He had the whole package. The hardest thing was to hold Ryan back.”
Prior to Shay, it had been 45 years – when Aubrey Lewis won the 400-meter hurdles, in ’56 – since Notre Dame’s previous NCAA outdoor champion. Sprinter Liz Grow often accompanied Shay and Piane to select invitationals, a priceless opportunity to learn from her teammate and from her coach.
“I feel so lucky to have witnessed that relationship,” says Grow. “It was pure trust, mutual respect. They were like co-conspirators. Ryan became unstoppable, and Coach Piane was there every step of the way.”
If opposites attract, then the converse applied to the early Shay-Piane dynamic. “Ryan and Coach Piane were very driven and quite stubborn at times – their personalities were so similar,” Grow says. “What came out of that initial head-butting was a deep trust. They just got each other.
“Coach Piane always had our backs. Ryan really appreciated that.” Grow and Shay rank among the most accomplished classmates in Notre Dame track history. Piane dubs Grow “one of the most amazing athletes ever at Notre Dame, from any sport.”
At the 2002 BIG EAST Conference Outdoor Championships, BIG EAST coaches marveled at Grow’s performance at that meet: the key second leg on the victorious 4×100 relay (meet record); repeat 400-meter champion (meet record); 20 minutes later, competing in the 200; and finally running on the fourth-place 4×400 relay.
It was an earlier conference championship – at an unfamiliar distance – when Grow etched a more unique chapter into her legacy, with an assist from Piane. At Syracuse for the 2002 BIG EAST indoor meet, Piane was crunching the numbers, seeking the formula to deliver the conference title. The solution/secret weapon: Liz Grow would run the 500.
One slight problem: Grow had never run more than 400 meters. And the coaches figured she would need to finish fifth or higher to give Notre Dame a shot at the title.
“I thought it was just a suggestion, so I laughed,” says Grow, laughing again at the memory. “I told Coach Piane there was no way and that I had never run the 500. He replied, `Congratulations, you’re already entered in the 500.'”
You’re probably guessing how it played out. Grow buckled down, and placed third. She set the Notre Dame 500-meter record in the preliminaries and in the final (1:11.65) – a mark that still stands.
As for the team competition? The Notre Dame women ultimately edged Georgetown 112-110 to win the 2002 BIG EAST indoor title
“That day, I learned how I really needed to trust my coaches,” Grow says. “Coach Piane was a wizard at finding ways to pull off a championship and knew how to get me fired up. I was a bit defiant, but I channeled that. I surprised myself, but it shows the type of great coach he was.”
Although Piane primarily coached distance runners, he had a unique way of impacting all members of the team – ranging from sprinters to pole vaulters, hurdlers to javelin throwers.
“Coach Piane was like the ring-leader of the circus,” says Grow, who also still holds the school 400-meter record (52.05). Her old 200 record (24.00) has been bested by only two Notre Dame runners.
“You had so many different acts, but he had such a commanding presence that when he was spending time with your act, he was on top of it all. He was omnipresent.” Piane seemed destined for Notre Dame. His elementary school, Divine Infant, had the colors blue and gold. Loras College was “a little Notre Dame, it even has its own Grotto,” says Piane.
Part of his path to Notre Dame was unconventional, as Piane spent three years in the Peace Corps – first in Peru helping manage agriculture co-operatives; then in Morocco, working with distance runners through the Ministry of Youth and Sports. Piane introduced interval training and other key concepts, with three of his Moroccan runners later competing in the Olympic Games.
Piane then served as a graduate assistant at Western Illinois – before accepting Faley’s life-changing offer at Notre Dame.
Piane forged deep, lasting friendships with former head coaches Rich O’Leary (lacrosse) and Larry Gallo (baseball), athletic trainer Skip Meyer and sports information director John Heisler. The five, and their spouses, regularly have vacationed together over the years.
The group suffered a tremendous loss in 2009, when O’Leary passed away. “That was traumatic for all of us,” says Piane. “Richie was a great friend, and always the life of the party.”
Piane met his future wife at the 1982 NCAA Championships in Utah, a fortuitous encounter as Mimi is far from a track fan and knew little about Notre Dame. Her parents were close friends of former Western Michigan track coach George Dale. Mimi just so happened to be tagging along to that fateful meet.
Joe, Mimi and son Nick – a freshman at nearby Holy Cross College – are worldwide travelers. Highlights include Amazon and Nile cruises, visiting the Galapagos Islands, and attending Olympics in Athens and Beijing.
“Becoming a parent helped me be more sensitive as a coach, and more attuned to interacting with parents,” Piane says.
Adds Grow: “When Nick was little, he had his dad’s number. Coach Piane couldn’t be Mr. Tough Guy and would just become a puddle around Nick. It was cool seeing your coach in that different role.”
A couple years earlier, on her recruiting trip, Grow gained a similar insight about her future coach.
“Coach Piane told me that if I went to certain big state schools and got injured, I would be gone, disposable,” Grow says.
“But at Notre Dame, he told me they commit to you for four years. That made a huge impact. No other school told me that. It was a big dose of reality.” Joe and Mimi Piane, a former librarian and teacher at South Bend’s Stanley Clark School, retired side by side. They moved full-time to their Eagle Lake home in Edwardsburg, Mich., and are basking in life’s simpler pleasures, whether it be relaxing with coffee and bagels on the dock, or marveling at a sandhill crane gingerly strutting across the lawn.
The couple soon will be visiting Italy, followed by a Mediterranean cruise. Potential future destinations: Turkey, a desire boosted by Piane’s affinity for Dan Brown’s novel Inferno, and a cruise to New Zealand or Australia. Back at Notre Dame, there is a new leader of track and field for the first time since the mid-1970s.
“The thought of Notre Dame track without Coach Piane, that’s hard for me to wrap my mind around,” Grow says.
Forty years ago, it was hard for Piane to envision being at Notre Dame for more than a couple years.
Sometimes, those flyover destinations end up being pretty good resting places.