Rio Grande HOF track coach Bob Willey to retire
Published 10:54 pm Friday, June 2, 2023
By RANDY PAYTON
Rio Grande Sports Information
RIO GRANDE, Ohio – Running has been an integral part of Bob Willey’s life for nearly all of his 72-plus years.
That said, there’s a great deal of irony in the fact that the process of walking – at least walking away – has been so difficult for the long-time head coach of the University of Rio Grande’s cross country and track & field programs.
Willey, who was inducted into the school’s Athletic Hall of Fame in 2016, is stepping aside – effective June 30 – for retirement purposes.
”I’ve spent most of my adult life here coaching. People who coach, on average, coach for three years. This year was my 50th,” Willey said. “There’s been a lot of really outstanding times and there have also been some low times. It’s been a lot of work and a lot of fun, but the one-on-one relationships that you build with your athletes is where it’s at. I remember one coach who said, ‘are you the kind of coach who, once your athletes leave, that they never want to see or speak to you again or are you the kind who gets invited to weddings?’ Fortunately, I’ve been invited to a lot of weddings and that makes me feel really good.”
Willey, who earned a Bachelor of Science degree in Health & Physical Education from Rio Grande College in 1973 before receiving his Masters in Health Education from Union College in 1975, began his current stint as the head coach of Rio’s head men’s and women’s Cross Country/Track & Field squads in 1986.
Willey’s first coaching assignment at Rio Grande College was from 1975-1979. He then left for a similar position at Morehead State University and was there from 1979-1985 before returning to Rio Grande.
Over the course of his two stints at Rio, Willey’s accomplishments are staggering.
He guided his teams to 25 conference championships, while winning 16 conference Coach of the Year awards, two District 22 Coach of the Year awards and one regional Coach of the Year honor.
Willey’s athletes have tallied 135 All-American finishes, including 10 national champions and nine who finished as a national runner-up. Twenty of the athletes he coached over the years are fellow members of the Rio Athletic Hall of Fame, including Matt Boyles, who won two silver medals in the Olympic trials.
”(Assistant) Coach (Glen) Queen asked me the other day, ‘Do you realize you averaged just over three All-Americans a year in your career?’ To be honest, I didn’t,” he said. “I know we’ve had over 200 Scholar-Athletes, which are juniors or older with a grade point average of 3.5 or better, over the years as well. At one point, our women’s cross country team was the national runner-up academically in the NAIA for two straight years – one year by .03 and one year by .01. Just this past year, both our men’s and women’s cross country teams were named Scholar Teams by the USTCA (United States Track Coaches Association). And a lot of years, we did it on only one scholarship. In our Monday team meetings, we always ask how many people had a personal-best and, this past year, nearly everybody did at some point. As a coach, you get excited about that because you can see them getting better. When they get better, the more they enjoy it, too.”
Rio Grande athletic director Jeff Lanham said that Willey, who in addition to his coaching duties, was an Assistant Professor in the Physical Education Department until 2021, has served the University with both dignity and integrity.
”It’s been an honor and a privilege to have worked with coach Willey all of these years,” said Lanham. “His kindness, expertise, intelligence, experience and depth of knowledge are second to none. Rio has been very lucky to have had a wonderful human being and master of his craft all these years. We thank him and wish the best for coach and his family in his retirement.”
Willey said that, after being informed of his retirement, his current athletes met the decision with mixed emotions.
”They were shocked because I’d showed no signs of retiring this year. Some were angry that I didn’t address it before they left for the summer. I’ve heard from a few parents who told me how sad that their son or daughter is,” he said. “It wasn’t a decision that was made to upset anybody, but there’s also never a good time to get it out there. I think about the song “Already Gone” that The Eagles sang which says late in the song, ‘often times it happens, we live our lives in chains and never even knew we had the key’. The first time when I listened and those words really sunk in I thought of Jesus Christ, our Savior, and how he’s our key to unlock the chains. So many times in life, we put on blinders and just keep doing the same thing over and over and over. I think this decision has allowed me to unlock those chains in the sense that I can actually do something else with my life.”
As to exactly what that something will be remains a mystery.
”I don’t have an answer for that right now. I have no hobbies. My life has been track & field and cross country. I’m going to have to figure that part of it out,” said Willey. “I’ve had several coaches – some of whom ran for me previously – contact me and say, ‘if you lived closer, I’d put you on my staff.’ That’s a compliment and I appreciate that. I’ve had other people who’ve said I need to give myself some time. I’ve got friends all over the United States from high school and college and colleagues from all the years of coaching whom I’d like to get out and visit and I’m not afraid to travel. I haven’t seen my youngest daughter in three or four years now. Where I’ve failed in life was probably as a husband and a father because I’ve put everything toward Rio Grande. Maybe now I can make some of that up to my children and grandchildren.”
Lanham added that the school is planning a Cross Country/Track & Field reunion in early August to honor Willey and that details – when finalized – will be posted on the school’s athletic website (www.rioredstorm.com
) and its social media platforms.
Willey, though, said he’s not sure that a gathering is necessary or even something he wants to participate in.
”I’ve heard they want to do something for me down the road for the simple fact that past athletes want to come back, but I don’t know,” he said. “I’m not saying this in a bad way but, in our society today, people are just so caught up in their own lives and so busy that the last thing they need to do is to come back to Rio Grande for me. I’m not looking for anything like that whatsoever.”
Rather, the veteran coach/educator appears to be content on letting his accomplishments and the impact that he’s had on others speak for itself.
”I will say that I’ve worked hard and that I’ve given my best. I don’t feel like I can walk away and hang my head and tell myself that I should’ve done more. You do the best you can with what you’ve got – at least that’s what you try to do – and you teach your students and your athletes to do the same,” Willey said. “I’ve always tried to outwork the other guy because a lot of them had far more resources than we did or were in an area of the state that was richer in talent with their surrounding high schools.
“I’ve loved what I’ve done. It’s been hard work, but it’s resulted in success,” he added. “There’s an old saying that says the only time success comes before work is in the dictionary. Our class motto in high school was ‘Forward Ever, Backwards Never’ and that’s what we tried to do here. It was all about developing young people in the classroom and developing young people on the cross country course or track by giving them the best opportunity that we could.”