Men’s track coach looks back on career
Published: Tuesday, May 10, 2011
Updated: Tuesday, May 10, 2011 00:05
A warm sunset breeze rolls across Delaware Mini-Stadium Tuesday evening as runners gathered around men's track and field head coach Jim Fischer, awaiting his running sermon. The group of roughly 15 surrounding Fischer consists of men and women ranging from recent college graduates to people in their early 60s. Fischer runs a free running clinic every Tuesday night throughout the school year, open to anyone willing to attend.
Fischer's Tuesday night running sessions are emblematic of his coaching style, in that he works beyond scheduled practices to help runners. But after this spring, Tuesday nights will be different. The university will cut the men's track and field program, ending Fischer's 29-year men's track and cross country varsity coaching career at the university. He will continue on as women's cross country head coach for the fall season, but he would not comment further on whether his employment would continue beyond then.
Despite the controversy of the Title IX news, in which the university decided to cut the men's running teams, citing compliance with national standards for gender equality, the longest tenured head coach at the university maintains an invested focus on his runners.
"They want to compete at the varsity level at the University of Delaware," Fischer, 62, says. "Everyone knows how I feel. I'm coaching a great sport, and I'm coaching great kids at a great institution. And I don't want to stop."
Although he may appear to be the collateral in the university's decision, Fischer is reluctant to comment about the ongoing Title IX dispute. His lack of presence in the press is the action of a man who has called Newark home for more than a quarter century.
In his Asics shoes, lightweight black running pants and a sporty collared shirt, Fischer appears ready for practice at all times. His bald head complements his wise blue eyes that slightly slant at the corners and his low-toned voice, containing hints of his Minnesota past. Fischer's wiry legs meet a strong, bulky upper body, forming a middle-aged Ironman image.
"I love feeling fit," Fischer says.
Fisher has run 20 marathons, including New York, Boston, Minneapolis and Washington D.C., but he no longer runs competitively because of the toll running had on his knees. Nevertheless, he maintains an above average fitness level. He lifts weights and works out on the rowing machine, as well as on other cardio machines.
His passion for running stems from his upbringing in Buffalo Lake, Minn., located 78 miles west of Minneapolis. Growing up, Fischer played four sports, was in a band, sang in the school choir and was an active Boy Scout. After graduating from Augsberg College in Minneapolis in 1970, Fischer began to form the foundation of his track career.
Fischer spent 10 years coaching at the high school level before moving on to the college ranks, serving as an assistant track coach at the University of Minnesota, and later at Concordia College. In 1982, after two years at Concordia, the head track coaching position at the university opened up, and Fischer jumped at the opportunity.
"I wanted to work at a bigger college," Fischer says. "I enjoyed coaching on the high school level, but I really liked people who had some level of proficiency and wanted to get better."
Fischer wasted no time getting better at the university. In his first 17 years, either men's cross country, indoor track or outdoor track finished in the top three in the America East conference. Before Delaware joined the Colonial Athletic Association, Fischer won America East Coach of the Year award five times in the 1990s, twice for indoor track and three times for outdoor track. Between the three sports, Fischer has accumulated 252 wins and 130 losses. That's 122 wins above .500.
Over the years, Fisher has coached hundreds of runners. Many of his past team members stay in touch with him to this day.
"My dream was to run Division I track and cross-country, and he gave me a chance to fulfill that dream," says Jeff Pearlman, a 1994 university graduate who ran for one year under Fischer and currently writes for Sports Illustrated. "There's a lot of loyalty among former runners for that program. Whether you were a great runner or a mediocre runner like myself, there's a lot of loyalty. And its not about the university, it's about the coach."
Pearlman, a former editor in chief of The Review, still talks to Fischer on a regular basis about the running programs at Delaware, and sometimes solicits his running knowledge when he is writing a track or cross country story.
Senior thrower John Viotto will end his college career after season after an up-and-down four years. Viotto has won CAA Male Athlete of the Week and Academic Honor Roll accolades during his tenure. Last year though, Viotto tore ligaments in his ankle, underwent surgery and missed a significant portion of the season. It was an event that defined his relationship with Fischer, he says.
"A lot of times coaches might forget about you, but he always kept on me, sending me emails, asking me how I was doing, and I'd come down and see him on my crutches and talk to him," Viotto says. "When I told him I needed surgery, he told me it was a good idea and it was more important to have my ankle be okay for the rest of my life than trying to compete on it, and maybe hurting myself even worse."
Viotto attributes his maturation over the last four years to Fischer.
"He's almost like a father figure in a way," Viotto says. "He's a great motivator. I think that's definitely his number one quality. He knows how to get the best out of what he has."
Viotto and senior runner Steve Vincent believe Fischer promotes the concept of the student-athlete by having flexible practice schedules to work around classes and schoolwork. Men's cross country and track and field have some of the highest GPAs among varsity athletes with a combined GPA of 2.99.