EUGENE, Ore. - Frank Gagliano was in his usual spot near the Bowerman curve on Thursday night for the finals of the women’s 3000 meter steeplechase.
Coach Gags, as his athletes and virtually everyone else calls him, was in the same spot for many of the most thrilling distance races at Hayward in recent years. He was there for the now-mythic men’s 800 meter final at the 2008 Olympic Trials, watching his OTC Elite runners Nick Symmonds and Christian Smith finish first and third, respectively.
He was there a year ago during the women’s 5000 meters at the U.S. National Championships when Nicole Tully pulled off an upset win in just her second-ever 5000 race.
But, if you take Gags at his word, the legendary 79-year-old won’t be trackside for the 2020 Olympic Trials in Eugene or wherever they might be held.
Now the coach of the New Jersey-New York Track Club, Gags has stated on several occasions that he is done with traveling to the national championship meets and plans to have a more limited role with his athletes in the future.
“I am going to step back from travel and the administrative obligations, but I will still go to the track and coach,” Gags said.
No one doubts that he will be a practices, stopwatch in hand, calling out splits and instructions. But some who know him well aren’t sure he will be able to stay away from the meets.
“I think track is who Gags is and he’s going to coach us next year,” Tully said. “I think he’s going to have a hard time staying away. And he is as young as ever.”
The man who brought Gags to Palo Alto in 2001 to coach the Nike Farm Team and to Eugene in 2005 to start the Oregon Track Club Elite also has his doubts.
“I think that he’ll have a hard time not showing up,” says Vin Lananna, who has known Gags for about 40 years. “But he is pretty stubborn, so if he says he’s not going to do something, . . . (but) he’s done such a great job and affected so many lives that I find it hard to believe he won’t be here next time around.”
Lananna is quick to give Gags a lot of credit for his role in revitalizing American distance running over the past couple of decades or more.
“If he didn’t start post-collegiate track and field, he certainly embraced it and reinvented it,” Lannana said. “Whether it was with the (Reebok) Enclave at Georgetown, the (Nike) Farm Team at Stanford and doing the OTC Elite here, and now doing the New Jersey/New York Track Club nobody has been more dedicated to, in particular, to American distance running than Gags.”
Gagliano left Eugene in 2009 to return to the East Coast with his wife Robbie because of an illness in the family. At age 72 he had no real plans to coach again, but then things happened.
2008 Olympian Erin Donohue heard from her agent that Gags would be coming back to New Jersey. Before too long he was coaching Donohue and a couple of other athletes.
“I thought I was done coaching,” Gags said. “Then Erin Donohue called me and said she was back in Jersey and would I coach her? It wasn’t my plan but once it happened I was in all the way.”
Donohue, who says she is now coached only “loosely” by Gags, is still training at the age of 33 and made the 1500 semis here. She marvels at what Gags has built on limited financial resources.
“He’s an amazing guy,” she said. “His personality is such that he just attracts people to him. He went from having me and two other guys to (building) a big team and having great success.
The success with distance runners has been a constant with Gags. Out of the 20 athletes on the NJ/NY Track Club, 16 qualified for the Trials. And a lot of his runners are young and developing. Gags said that only eight of his athletes have sponsorship contracts.
The secret of his success is a simple and old school philosophy of developing runners not just physically, but the whole person. Gags believes in training hard, competing hard, having fun, and living a balanced life.
“I not only have to get the athlete ready physically but also with the mind” he said. “It’s the mind and heart. The head and the heart are very important to put all this together and compete to the best of their ability.”
He also has a strong bond with his athletes.
“First, I always tell them that we are family. We have to stick together and believe in each other. We have to make sure we communicate very well. But the word is loyalty. You gotta be loyal. I gotta be loyal to them and they gotta be loyal to the coaching staff.”
Gags loves to talk about his athletes. Steepler Ashley Higginson, who placed ninth in the steeplechase final on Thursday, exemplifies what Gags loves to see in his athletes. For the past four years Higginson has trained with the NJ/NY club while going to law school.
“She is a story in herself. She wanted to run and she wanted to get her law degree. She passed the bar recently and she is one of the best steeplers in the country. This is the philosophy the club has. You just don’t sit around and look at the wall. You go to school, or you get a job for 20 hours a week, and you train.
“I believe in mileage, I believe in everything but I want them to continue with their mind.”
Back in 1961 no one could have predicted this kind of influential coaching career, now spanning nearly six decades, for Gags.
He had just returned from playing professional football in Canada and was looking for a job coaching football. Roselle Catholic High School in Roselle, New Jersey offered him a coaching job, but it was coaching track, not football.
“When I started the track team (at Roselle) I coached a lot of events, but I fell in love with the middle distance events,” Gags recalls. “I had success. In 1965 we won the double at the Penn Relays – the distance medley relay and the 2 mile relay. That set it off.
“Then I went to Manhattan College. I was with (head coach) Freddy Dwyer and we won the indoor national championship in 1972.”
After that Gags had a successful stint at Rutgers, before going to Georgetown in 1983 and building a powerhouse program that churned out top elite distance runners like Steve Holman and John Trautmann, who now coaches NJ/NY athletes with Gags.
His most accomplished runner, though, was Nick Symmonds. Gags was newly-arrived in Eugene when Symmonds graduated from Willamette University. Gags recruited Symmonds to the fledgling OTC group and the rest – including six straight national championships – is history.
“Nick? You had to give him a little bit. Once you let him go fishing for three or four days or go back home (to Boise) he would come back and train really well. He’s a fantastic competitor, and a very bright person. Great person. His heart and his head set him apart.”
Gags knows about greatness, and, at these Trials, another 800 meter runner caught Gags’ eye: Clayton Murphy.
“You saw a champion this year. What a runner. What a runner. Fantastic. He has the strength, he has the speed. He has a great coach (Lee LaBadie).
“I was at the start of the homestretch and he came by nine, ten meters behind. Then he hit another gear and it was over.”
Tully, the defending U.S. 5K champion who will be in the finals of that event on Sunday, says she wouldn’t have made it to this stage of her career without Gags. She had no sponsorship and no plans to continue running after her collegiate career at Villanova. His invitation to her to join the NJ/NY group changed that.
“He’s more than a coach,” Tully said. “He’s the kind of person you want to run well for because you don’t want to disappoint him. You want him to be proud of you. Even if you don’t run well, though, he’s the first person there to give you a hug and tell you there will be a next time.
“There’s a lot of amazing coaches in this country who produce phenomenal athletes. I think Gags produces phenomenal people. He coaches the entire person and wants you to develop both as an athlete and a human being and I wouldn’t want to go anywhere else.”