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Harty: Departing Hawkeye track coach Wieczorek a class act

[ 0 ] June 5, 2014 |

The world would be a better place if more people took Larry Wieczorek’s approach to living in it.

You’ll never hear anyone say anything bad about Wieczorek, who will retire as the University of Iowa director of track and field/cross country after this season, because there isn’t anything bad to say.

In more than two decades covering University of Iowa athletics, Wieczorek stands out as one of the kindest and most genuine people on the beat.

The 67-year old Wieczorek is a grin and a friendly comment waiting to happen. You enjoy talking to him because he makes you feel comfortable and because he always seems interested in what you have to say.

Of course, he appreciates the media coverage, especially as a head coach for a non-revenue sport where exposure isn’t taken for granted. But that’s not the only reason Wieczorek embraces the media. He does so just because that’s who he is as a person.

Being nice doesn’t make you a winner, but it makes a lasting impression. We’re taught early in life to treat people the way you want to be a treated. Wieczorek has followed that lesson as well as anybody I know.

“I don’t know, maybe some of it comes naturally,” Wieczorek said Thursday afternoon when told how I perceive him. “But I truly appreciate you saying that. That is certainly a nice compliment and the way I’d like to be thought of for sure.

“I’m just kind of overwhelmed that you’re saying these things actually. I do feel very good that I come across that way. I think it’s huge. I think it’s very important how you treat people and how they’re going to treat you. Maybe that’s just the way I was raised by my family.”

I didn’t mean to put Wieczorek on the spot, but he handled my praise as expected. He was appreciative, sincere and humble.

“Certainly, at the end of your career, that’s a nice way to be thought of and nice that you come across that way,” Wieczorek said. “And it is sincere. That part I’m not faking. I like to think that I have treated people with respect and do respect people.”

Wieczorek didn’t turn Iowa into a track and field power by any means. But the situation is better now compared to when Wieczorek was promoted to head coach in 1997.

At the time, the program was a Big Ten bottom feeder and desperately needed a spark.

You could say that former Iowa Athletics Director Bob Bowlsby took a chance by promoting Wieczorek from assistant coach to head coach because Wieczorek was a long-time member of a staff that was struggling. It would’ve made sense to hire somebody from outside the program to get a fresh start and a new vibe.

But Iowa gave Wieczorek a chance, and for the most part, the move has paid dividends. Iowa knew what it was getting in terms of the person, but Wieczorek the coach has been pretty good, too.

In addition to winning the Big Ten outdoor title in 2011, the Hawkeyes have produced 79 Big Ten champions, 53 all-Americans and a 167 academic all-Big Ten performers.

Wieczorek also was the driving force behind the Musco Twilight Meet, which is a now a spring tradition in Iowa City. He saw it as a way to showcase track and field in this area and provided his own twist by staging the meet in the early evening.

The way Wieczorek describes it is he hasn’t worked a day in his life since becoming a track and field coach. It’s hard for him to call something that he truly loves as being work.

“I’m just so lucky to do something that I love and that my passion grew for,” Wieczorek said. “Maybe my passion grew for coaching more than my compassion for competing and running.

“In many ways I never felt, (‘Thank God it’s Friday’). It’s never been counting down the days until the week ended.”

I waited until the end to bring up Wieczorek’s exploits as a UI distance runner, which included being a six-time Big Ten champion and a four-time all-American, because that’s probably how he would prefer it. I once reminded Wieczorek that he still holds the school record for the indoor two-mile race and he quickly shifted the attention back to his student-athletes, almost as if to say, this is their time to shine. I had my time.

Wieczorek has the spent the past 30 years dedicating his life to UI student-athletes and would prefer the spotlight to shine on them.

But he wonders sometimes how different his life would be if he hadn’t decided to try out for his high school cross country team as a sophomore. Wieczorek grew up near Chicago, but he hadn’t stepped foot in Iowa until he started being recruited in high school.

“In all ways, I’m a pretty average guy,” Wieczorek said. “I came to Iowa as a pretty average student out of high school. I certainly did have success in high school as a runner.

“But what if I don’t stumble out for cross country my sophomore year of high school? How would my life have been different? What would I have done?”

I feel safe in saying that no matter what career path Wieczorek would’ve chosen, he would’ve traveled down it with class, dignity and a smile.

My wish now is that he and his wife, Jackie, have a long and healthy retirement together. They plan to stay in the Iowa City area.

“My wife is a Chicago girl,” Wieczorek said. “She went to Southern Illinois University. She had no Iowa connection. But she says, ‘Hey, this is our home. There is no going back to where we’re from.’ ”

Their friends in Iowa City are fortunate for that.

Reach Pat Harty at 339-7370 or pharty@press-citizen.com.

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Category: Hawkeye news

About Pat Harty: Columnist Pat Harty has been covering the Iowa Hawkeyes for the Press-Citizen since 1991. Originally from Des Moines, he currently writes columns and covers Hawkeye men's basketball for Hawk Central. View author profile.

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