Notre Dame track and field: For Piane, the smiles were ‘better than bucks’

South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — What better way to make a splash in a strong track and field conference than win the first indoor title?

Everybody figured Notre Dame would be a longshot to compete with the powers of the Atlantic Coast Conference, at least right away. Everybody, that is, except Joe Piane.

By the end of February, when the ACC indoor championships were staged, the veteran of 39 seasons at the Irish helm knew he was one-and-done in this new affiliation. He hadn’t announced his retirement yet, but the light at the end of the tunnel was bright — and getting closer by the day.

With one event — the 4 x 400-meter relay — to go, the 66-year-old Piane did the math. Win this event and he’d have a pretty impressive scalp to hang on his mantelpiece (if, in fact, his new home at Eagle Lake in Edwardsburg has a mantelpiece).

He started thinking, “Winning an ACC championship might be kinda nice,” Piane said.

Clay High grad Jarrod Buchanon, who received his Notre Dame degree a couple weeks ago, was running the second leg of the relay. The start was good. But then …

“Somebody knocked the stick out of (Buchanon’s) hand,” Piane said matter-of-factly. “Nothing about it was Jarrod’s fault.”

“A guy from North Carolina was trying to make a pass and he knocked the baton out of my hand,” Buchanon said. “Right then, I knew the race was over. I knew we weren’t going to win the championship.

“I was pretty livid. It was a blow. Coach Piane handled it a whole lot better than I did. He talked to me about letting it go: ‘You can’t grieve over it; it’s over.’”

Then again, Piane couldn’t resist …

“We were at dinner a few hours later, I can’t remember what I had, but I was carrying something. (Piane) looked at me with a straight face and said, ‘Don’t drop it,’” Buchanon said.

Classic Joe Piane.

A fixture with the Notre Dame men’s and women’s cross country and track programs for four decades, the tumblers fell in place to tell him now is the right time to pack it in. His wife Mimi is retiring as a teacher at Stanley Clark School, and his son Nick, a recent Howe Military grad, will start at Holy Cross College.

Next week’s NCAA Championships in Eugene, Ore., will be his last competition.

With five assistants under him, Piane is actually the CEO of six separate programs: Men’s cross country, women’s cross country, men’s indoor track, women’s indoor track, men’s outdoor track, and women’s outdoor track.

On July 1, athletic director Jack Swarbrick will have a heap of positions to fill.

“I never understood why people cried when they retired,” Piane said. “It’s something you’ve worked toward all your life. I was talking to my team about it and I got choked up. I went to my wife’s party and she was bawling like a baby.

“This is something we want to do. We want to travel. I guess it’s an identity thing. In the summers, I always came (to his office). I was always the track and cross country coach at Notre Dame. I won’t be that anymore. It will be strange.”

Positive impact

Bet the ranch ol’ Joe will handle the adjustment in a positive manner.

That’s how he always has dealt with everything.

“Anyone who has met Joe likes him,” said Chuck Aragon, the first Notre Dame miler to break four minutes (1981). “His personality is infectious; people gravitate to him.

“Whenever things were tough for him, he used the same philosophy that he’d use with his athletes: Do what’s right and be confident that things will turn around. Keep doing the right things and good things will happen.

“It’s just like training. Do the work and you’ll run good times. That’s the way life is.”

Aragon was one of Piane’s special projects. From the moment Aragon stepped on campus in 1977, Piane was convinced he could be a great miler. A New Mexico state champion in the 800, Aragon was stubborn about the half-mile being his best race.

“The light never went on,” said Piane.

Until the coach turned the switch. An injury before a meet against Iowa left a spot open in the mile. Aragon got the call to fill in and ran it in 4 minutes, 12 seconds — 15 seconds better than his previous best effort.

“Then Chuck came to me and said, ‘Do you really think I could run under four minutes?’” Piane said.

Six weeks later at the University of Illinois Aragon was clocked at 3:59.

“Belief in yourself comes from performance,” said Aragon. “But first, someone has to believe that you can perform at that level. Joe was that guy. Until you do something, someone has to believe in you. And, it can’t be false belief.

“(Piane) was the most influential person in my development. He believed in me more than I did in my own mind.”

Aragon, now an anesthesiologist in Montana, has developed a close relationship with Piane. His daughters Alexa (Piane is her godfather) and Danielle have run for the Irish. The families have even vacationed together (more on that later).

It’s not like Aragon was Piane’s only success story. Liz Grow, a sprinter from Texas who graduated in 2002, still feels his impact more than a decade after her career ended.

“We had a chance to win the Big East indoor championship, but we needed someone to run the 500,” Grow said. “Coach Piane came up to me and said, ‘You’re running the 500.’ I said, ‘What???’ I’d never run the 500 before. I said, ‘I can’t.’ He said, ‘You can, and you will.’

“I finished second or third, I can’t remember, but we got enough points to win. I still have the school record for the 500.”

Grow continues to laugh at Piane’s cattle call for his athletes.

“I still hear him saying, ‘OK sports fans, gather ’round,’” she said. “That’s the kind of guy he is: Authentic. He was true to who he is. You never wondered where you stood with him: Good or bad.

“There was nothing more valuable than a coach Piane pat on the back.”

“He still has the same attributes that he had when I was there,” Aragon said, getting the scoop from his daughters. “He’s easy to be around. He motivates in a positive way. It worked then and it works now. Sometimes you’ll need a swift kick, and he would do it. But it’d always turn out being positive.”

“If you yell every day, it gets to the point where it doesn’t mean a damn thing,” said Piane.

Not entitled

Times have changed. Piane has done his best to understand and adapt to evolving attitudes among college athletes.

Some, though, are easier than others.

“Kids today feel more entitled,” Piane said. “Isn’t that true with kids in general? ‘If I give you a scholarship, that’s real money. Something is expected of you.’ Some kids respond well. Some kids, ‘You owe it to me.’ I get that a lot.”

“I remember my first meeting with coach Piane was in the training room when I was on my visit,” said Grow, who chose an upstart Notre Dame program over established powers like Stanford and the University of Texas. “We sat on a training table. He said, ‘You’re a sprinter and it’s possible that you could get injured. If you do, we will not turn our back on you, like other universities might. You will graduate from this university. You are part of our family. You won’t get that from other universities.’”

Every track and cross country athlete — over the last 39 years — that finished his or her eligibility at Notre Dame has graduated.

“I’d like to be remembered as a guy who was honest,” said Piane. “If I said I’d do something, I’d do it. I never reneged on a scholarship or something I said. I could tell the parents I always treated their son or daughter in a straight-forward way.”

Choppy waters

The relationships formed between a coach and his athletes kept Piane in the business so long.

“What else would I do?” was the way he looked at his vocation. “When you see someone achieve the goal they’ve set, that smile is better than bucks.”

Besides Aragon, one of his success stories was Ryan Shay, a 2001 Notre Dame grad who tragically died of a massive heart attack in November, 2007, during the U.S. Olympic marathon trials.

“Ryan had a rocky start with us (as a freshman in 1997),” Piane said. “At that time, he was just wearing a jersey that happened to say ‘Notre Dame’ on it. As a senior, he had an unbelievable pride for being part of the university.”

The relationship evolved to a degree that Piane was one of three eulogy speakers at Shay’s funeral.

“That meant so much to me,” he said.

The success Aragon had at Notre Dame was the fertile ground that cultivated an enduring friendship between Piane’s family and Aragon’s.

It even endured a mutiny and shipwreck.

“Joe said he always dreamed of sailing around the Greek islands in a small sailboat,” Aragon said. “One year, we did it. When we got there, it was an old, decrepit boat with a captain who had never done it before. Nothing like we had imagined.

“It was fine going out. We were with the wind, smooth sailing. The way back, it was tough: Big seas, against the wind. One night, when we got into a port, he said he and Mimi had to take a break. They took all their possessions off the boat. They were going to stay an extra day on the island, take the ferry, and meet up with us. They left us on the boat.

“We stayed with it and (the next day) started taking on water. We had to be rescued. To this day, I’ve never forgiven him for leaving us on a sinking boat.”

“I’m not really sure why we decided to take all of our luggage,” Piane said, still laughing at his fortune. “We were going to meet up with them the next day. Oh well.”

This impending bailout might be a bit more graceful.

“Coach Piane has always given the paternal type of guidance,” Grow said. “Things I learned from him I still use today. Excuses didn’t fly with him. I don’t expect excuses from my family or my teammates at work. I have very high expectations for myself and others.”

“I was a sprinter and coach Piane was mainly a distance guy,” Buchanon said. “He still made the effort to get to know me and my parents. He easily could have ignored me, but thought it was important enough to know me as a person.”

And to ease the pain after dropping the baton.

Life lessons aren’t lost on Piane.

Even in defeat.

Notre Dame track and cross country coach Joe Piane is retiring after a 39-year run. (Photo provided)