March 3, 2015

Note: This is the fourth in a series of five features profiling the assistant coaches of the University of Notre Dame track & field program.

Fans of University of Notre Dame athletics teams can be forgiven for their single-mindedness when it comes to their rooting interests. They are a loud and loyal bunch, widespread in their legion.

But just as the Fighting Irish attract a boisterous following, they just as often encounter an opposing viewpoint. The haters are out there, and Notre Dame track & field jumps and multi-events coach Jim Garnham used to be one of them.

Garnham grew up as a University of Nebraska fan, and the Fighting Irish were always a threat to his Cornhuskers. But after year one of coaching in South Bend, Garnham fell in love with his new team.

“It completely transformed my idea of Notre Dame,” Garnham said. “I didn’t realize the tradition, the history, everything that makes this place special. It’s not just about football — what you see on TV all the time. It’s the other stuff.”

He’s even persuaded a couple of his Michigan Wolverine-loving cousins after experiencing the atmosphere.

And so far through his six years with the program, Garnham has helped coach Olympic Trials participants, All-Americans and all-BIG EAST performers — Irish, all.

Among the standouts include six-time BIG EAST pole vault champion Kevin Schipper, three-time BIG EAST pole vault champion Matt Schipper and All-Americans Maddie Buttinger, Carly Loeffel and Mary Saxer,

“It’s a special feeling knowing you’ve helped someone achieve something, like Maddie Buttinger, who competes for Canada now, who was in third place at the NCAAs and Kevin Shifford who was fourth place at the NCAAs or Mary Saxer who was an alternate at the Olympic Trials,” Garnham said. “I don’t ever take the credit for [their accomplishments]. I’m just there helping to provide a path.”

He also has a power of motivation that pushes his athletes to their potential, reacting differently to each situation, finding each of his student-athletes’ motivation and works within it.

Take for example, Saxer, who reached a point where she struggled and wanted to quit her senior year, the same year Garnham was hired onto the Irish staff in 2008-09. He knew of Saxer because they are both from Buffalo, N.Y., and Garnham tried to recruit her to the University of Buffalo when she was a senior in high school.

When Garnham got to Notre Dame, he asked her, “What do you want out of this?” Saxer replied that she wanted to be an All-American. She earned her All-American accolade during the indoor season so her next goal was winning the national championship. She tied for second.

“It was her motivation of saying this is what I want to do and me saying I will get you there,” Garnham said.

Garnham persuaded Saxer to continue pole vaulting after college and was right there crying with her family when she vaulted into fourth place at the 2012 Olympic Trials.

To him, though, one of his greatest accomplishments is in the progress of two-time Academic All-American Logan Renwick. He came out of high school jumping 22 feet in the long jump and jumped over 25 feet for Garnham and Notre Dame. Academically, Renwick was in one of the toughest majors Notre Dame: chemical engineering, graduating with a 3.9 GPA.

“And here he is on the track just killing it, winning conference titles for us in the triple jump and jumping over 25 feet [in the long jump] his junior year,” Garnham said. “I mean people may get mad me [for choosing Renwick] because Kevin Schipper came in as a 17-foot [pole vaulter] and jumped 17-10, which is a huge jump for a pole vaulter when you are at that level. I don’t know, I still think Logan is one of my biggest coaching accomplishments because he improved so much in a short period of time.”

Another one of Garnham’s pride and joys is Eric Quick, who was the first Notre Dame triple jumper ever to go to the NCAA Championships.

Coaching was in Garnham’s blood. His father is Jim Garnham, Sr., one of the top throws coach in the United States and currently in his 13th season at the University of Buffalo.

Garnham, Jr., was a decathlete himself, and after graduating from Kent State University, he served five years as an assistant track & field coach at the University at Buffalo and three years as the field events coach at the University of Tulsa.

In 2008, even though he liked the family atmosphere of Tulsa, Garnham felt he needed a change. He told himself that he would commit three years and if something comes up, he’d apply.

Notre Dame came up.

With no ties to Notre Dame, Garnham sent a resume with all of his accomplishments he had at the two major universities. Irish coach Joe Piane called and asked if Garnham wanted to come in for an interview. With a laissez-faire attitude, Garnham interviewed and got the job, and has been a full-fledged Irishman ever since.

“Coaching was just one of those things that just clicked with me,” he said. “I’ve loved all 15 years of coaching I’ve done so far. It’s been an awesome ride.”

“I’ve seen first hand the great work Garnham has done,” Notre Dame head coach Alan Turner said. “Finding someone with all his skill sets is hard to do. Anyone who has a pole vault coach who is pretty good, you want to keep that person.”

Garnham also has delved into the recruitment of his jumpers, stating that recruiting athletes is difficult due to the school’s high academic standards.

“The lure of Notre Dame is already there. You can get any kid to Notre Dame, but is that kid academically sound to come to Notre Dame?” he said. “I’m not always going after the No. 1 jumper in the country because I’m going for the kids who best fit with me and with the group that I work with.”

Garnham said recruiting at Notre Dame can be especially difficult when some of the nation’s best jumpers choose programs in warmer places like California and Texas.

“You think you have a really great recruiting class, but then the phone calls start coming in saying they’ve chosen a school in a warm place,” Garnham said. “Warm weather is by biggest foe.”

Nevertheless, Garnham filled the holes from last year and his freshmen group started the 2014-15 season with a bang and the team has been consistent as a whole. Garnham is waiting for the big jump to happen, though, particularly by seniors Keith Mesidor and Mary Esther Gourdin as the season transitions outdoors.

“Coach Turner has a vision of getting to the NCAA meet as a team, scoring well and contending for a national title,” Garnham said. “My vision is getting to a point where we are competitive across the board in track & field and cross country. We are putting the emphasis on the NCAA meet whereas in the past, it was the conference level and getting to the NCAA meet was a bonus.

“Notre Dame is one of the top ten teams in the country, but as a staff, we want championships, we want NCAA titles, individual and national titles and team honors.”

By Staci Gasser