One last race to the finish for beloved coaches
Coffee with coaches. I highly recommend it. Recently, I was able to spend some time with Jim Grealis and Michael Foley. They have been coaching rivals for nearly three decades and are both decided to retire from coaching at the end of the season. Here is the first of two articles celebrating these dedicated men. I need your help for the second which will be written after the conference meet. If you ran for either of these coaches or just admire them please contact me at email@example.com.
In the 1970s, two young teachers from completely different backgrounds each became a head coach. One in his chosen sport, the other because there was no one else to do it he took it because he had to wait his turn to coach the sport he wanted.
Now nearly 30 years later, Rocky River cross country coach Michael Foley and Fairview cross country coach Jim Grealis are pillars in the sport. For almost three decades, they were part of the finest cross country conference in the state. But each has decided that his first year in the new Westshore Conference will be his last as a coach. Both will continue teaching until they complete 35 years.
“It is too good of a deal,” said Grealis, a Fairview High School history teacher. “But for 25 years I coached three sports. I had no holidays, no breaks and no Saturdays. It is hard and you need a break.”
“My wife was a stay-at-home mom and she is ready to enter the work force,” said Foley, a Rocky River middle school math teacher. “My sons are in intermediate and middle school. It is time to quit coaching and spend more time with the family. It helps that I have a quality assistant who is ready to take over. It is up to the school board but I feel like I have done everything I can to make sure the program can stay on course or even go up to the next level.”
Recently a fellow teacher discovered that Foley was entering his 30th year as a coach.
“‘Who does that?’ the teacher wondered,” Foley said. “Most just coach for four or five years now.”
“Guys like us are dinosaurs,” Grealis said.
Grealis never intended to be a cross country coach. He was a wrestler at Fairview High School and he wrestled for Miami of Ohio.
“The cross country coach had left and they said you can do it,” Grealis said. “I had only run cross country one year in high school and that was to get in shape for wrestling. I wanted to be the wrestling coach at my alma mater. But my wrestling coach never retired for another twenty years.”
“I fell into cross country and I got very lucky. I started in 1977 and by 1981, we were fifth in the state. I thought this is easy, but I had an exceptional group of kids. I was really fortunate. The one thing I brought was that I made it into a family. I get very close to the kids.”
On the other hand, Foley had planned on coaching the sport for as long as he could but he almost lost the job after one year.
“I ran my junior and senior years at St. Edward’s,” Foley said. “Before that I played football, wrestled and skied. I found out I was a better runner. At St. Edward’s, I had four coaches in four years and only one - Ken Prince, who is in his 35th year at Villa Angela St. Joe, was any good. I still call him coach. I learned a lot of what not to do from those other coaches.
“I had a rough first year. I made some mistakes and the athletic director wanted me gone. But principal Marty Kane had my back. He said I was young and he liked my enthusiasm. He said give him one more year and see how he does. Well, it has been 30 years. My administration has always been very supportive. We were never on a level like Bay but we were continually successful.”
Like Grealis, success happened rather quick for Foley as well.
“The girls team which I also coached up until 1997 went to the first state meet in 1977 and were sixth,” Foley said. “In 1979, they were second in the state. My ears are still ringing from the screaming on the bus on the way home. Wadsworth was a heavy favorite that year and we upset them at regionals but they pulled it out at states. The girls were so happy and excited. It will always be a great memory.”
Grealis still sees himself as a wrestler. He knows his kids were loyal to him but he always wished he had Foley’s knowledge of the sport.
“Mike is a great role model and coach,” Jim said. “I have had great individual talent, but Mike is such a good coach; imagine if he had my kids what they would have done. My runners were always loyal to me, but I never had the knowledge that Mike had. Mike was one of the first coaches to run with his team and that made a huge difference. I could never run with my kids.
However Foley believes that Grealis is a good coach himself.
“Jim’s family approach helped so much,” Foley said. “We both did that. We worked to make it fun and have parties. It was a unique concept when we started. Not many were doing it where it is the norm now.”
The SWC has been an innovator in the sport, in addition to creating family-like traditions, they have modified the schedule continually to make it more helpful to the athletes. Through this commitment to the sport they have also produces some the top coaches and runners in the state.
“We fought to get rid of the dual meet as part of the conference title,” Grealis said. “You would kill kids on Tuesday. We put the emphasis on the last race.”
“We went to tri-meets and then quads,“ Foley added. “Finally in the SWC, we just did away with them. Running 5k twice a week is crazy. The kids are fried at the end of the year and have nothing left for the big meets.”
Both are quick to point out the SWC was loaded with great coaches such as Bay Village’s Dick Scott and Denny Shepard, North Olmsted’s Ken Neuzil and Westlake coach Gary Simpson.
“Dick Scott was a legend at Bay,” Grealis said. “He went 10 years without a loss. He had hundreds of runners.”
“We all scrambled to compete with them,” Foley said. “Denny Shepard continued on that success for the most part. Bay has such great tradition.”
Simpson has coached track and cross country for 34 years. He said that 2006 will be his final year. He thinks very highly of both Foley and Grealis.
“They were in it for the right reasons,” Simpson said. “They are excellent coaches and good friends. They are both good for kids and their athletes respect them so much. We took cross country very seriously in the SWC but we still found a way to become close.”
How good was the SWC?
“I have taken nine teams to states and have never won a conference title,” Grealis said. “That is how good the SWC is. One of my kids, Tom Knolmayer was fifth in the nation in AAU and could not win conference. It is a little depressing.”
Foley has had some outstanding individual success, but on the boys’ side, he never took a team to state. He did, however, get his moment in the sun.
“We won two SWC championships in 2001 and 2002,“ Foley said. “And for me that was bigger than winning districts. In our sport the low score wins and we set a record in 2001 with the highest winning score ever than broke our own record the next year.”
Another highlight for Foley was snapping Bay’s long winning streak, except even then his team did not win the race.
“In 1987, we had a good team,” Foley said. “First we broke Lakewood’s 77 meet winning streak. Then we were in a tri-meet with Westlake and Bay. Bay had won 99 in a row. They brought their cheerleaders, the band and a cake with a 100 on it. Both Westlake and us beat Bay that day. We lost to Westlake by one point and that cost us the race and the conference. I will never forget George Horrigan sprinting then looking up just in time to see a light pole. He would have hit it, but he had to slow and side-step it and that was the race.”
Both agree the best runner in SWC history was Rocky River’s Bob Mau.
“Bob Mau was a two-time state champion who earned a full ride to Northwestern,” Foley said. “He had unbelievable talent and a great work ethic. In the spring of ‘83, he made the junior national world cross country team which was 19 and under. Normally, it was college sophomore and freshman and he was a 17-year-old high school senior. He finished fifth in the qualifying race and was 31st at the worlds and the third American. His 14:58 is still the D-I state meet record. So our school record is the state meet record.”
Grealis once qualified for the state meet three years in a row, but it was the one that got away that still gnaws a little.
“This group made it as freshman, sophomore and juniors,” Grealis said. “As seniors they lost out by one point. I can still see that kid get passed that cost us the fourth trip.”
Both men are starting to feel their age. Grealis continued wrestling for a long time. His body is beat up and he walks with a cane. Foley was always an exceptional athlete as well. He was a cross country skiing state champion three times in the 1980s. But he has found he can’t run with the team every day now.
“Now I ride a bike which is one of the reasons I am giving it up,” Foley said. “It is not the way I want to coach from a bike, a chair or a car. It isn’t me.”
More than producing champions the two coaches have sent out into the world, society’s best.
“What makes me most proud is the type of kids cross country attracts,” Grealis said. “You get intelligent, hardworking kids. The list of graduates is like an honor list. We once had three valedictorians in a row.”
“And more doctors than you can shake a stick at,” Foley adds. “It is a privilege to coach such high-quality young people.”
One fringe benefit is being invited to weddings, baptisms and reunions.
“It’s always awesome to see alumni,” Foley said. “I went to the 1985 reunion recently where there were three or four guys from the team. I had a lot of laughs.”
“You get to go to weddings and be godfathers,” Grealis said. “It is always such an honor. So many are doctors and in the military. I am so proud of them. Those first kids are now in their 40s.”
“Imagine when we started we were 21 and 22 years olds coaching 18-year-old kids,” Foley said.
“They always call you coach and I always see them as a teenager rather than what they look like now,” Grealis said.
“I tell them you can call me Mike now, but I understand because still to this day I call Ken Prince ‘Coach’ and I always will,” Foley said.
Grealis and Foley have battled now for three decades. They were even Ohio’s two finalists for the Teacher Space program back in the 1980s that ultimately resulted in the Challenger explosion.
“Mike and I are both very competitive,” Grealis said. “You had to be on your toes. We didn’t like to lose. It has always been a good rivalry. where we scraped for every point. But we are now older and have mellowed out.”
Experiencing success like coaching a state champion is always put in perspective by tragedy. Foley has been to the sports’ highest summit and its lowest valley.
“September 12, 2001,” Foley said. “It was when Moriah Lydon died. It is every coach’s worst nightmare. I have had the high of a state champion and a the low of a death. It was very tough.”
“It was tough on all of us,” Grealis said. “I never had to deal with that first hand, but the whole community tried to rally and support them as best as we could.”
Now their final battle will be for the first ever WSC championship.
“This year it will be another dogfight like the old days with Bay, Fairview and River,” Grealis said.
“And you can throw Vermilion in there too,” Foley adds. “It should be a lot of fun.”
In a light moment, Grealis wondered what would have happened if the two schools had combined for one cross country team.
“We would have been awesome,” Grealis said.
“And I would have had the greatest assistant coach in the world,” Foley said with a laugh.
“I would have gladly done it,” Grealis said. “It would have been a honor.”