This Saturday, November 24, 2012 friends of Coach Bill Squires will gather at Boston College from noon till 3 pm for an 80th birthday celebration. From far out on the California coast, a toast and fond salute to the coach who famously led Boston State College and the Greater Boston Track Club during a career that carried many a runner and team to national and international titles, all with no budget or home track, while revolutionizing marathon training with athletes like Bill Rodgers, Alberto Salazar, Greg Meyer, Bob Hodge and Dick Beardsley.
But it wasn’t the Xs and Os of his training programs that made Coach Squires a New England running legend, or that earned him the Bill Bowerman Award from the National Distance Running Hall of Fame in 2002. It was much more than what he said.
How to best explain it?
Well, I guess I could go back to the early `80s and take you on the drive with the coach and New Zealand Olympian Kevin Ryan as we headed from Boston to New York for the Millrose Games, the drive that got the coach talking about his “date” with Hollywood starlet Natalie Wood – or as coach called her, “Natley”, in his clipped Arlington, Mass. born accent.
As the coach told it, the date had been arranged by Photo Play, or some such Hollywood magazine. Squires was a miler at Notre Dame at the time, and he and another athlete in L.A. for the NCAA Championships were to escort Ms. Wood and Annette Funicello, the ex-Mousketeer, on a date for publicity purposes.
I could go on and tell you about Coach’s reaction after Kevin Ryan caustically remarked from behind the wheel, “Huh. No way a beautiful woman like that would go out with an ugly prick like you,” said as he downed another Foster’s while zooming at 80+ down I-84, and yet uncannily knowing when to slow down for a soon passing state trooper.
“ME-E?!! ” exclaimed the coach riding shotgun, his voice rising two octaves, accent straining in startled indignation. “I was handsome : six feet tall, 160 pounds, blawnnd crew cut hayuh (sic), 100 push ups a day – I had definition in my bawdy! Are you kiddin’ me!!???”
I was left in a puddle of hysterics in the backseat.
Or, I could regale you with Coach’s story (again indignantly told on the same drive) about how he used to pee in his college dorm room sink in the dead of night, because he didn’t want to pad down the hall to the communal men’s room. And how after his roommate complained to the good fathers of Notre Dame about the coach’s indecorous behavior, how the coach proceeded to present a paper at his disciplinary hearing detailing the disinfectant properties of urine as utilized by soldiers in the Boer War as a weapon’s cleaner. And yet, notwithstanding this uncontested testimony, how the coach was firmly instructed never again to use his sink for anything beyond hands and face washing and tooth brushing, and that included no weapon’s cleaning.
Sure, I could do that, but why go back that far? Instead, I take you to the lobby of the Copley Plaza Hotel in Boston’s Back Bay this past April 13th, the weekend of the Boston Marathon. I was at my usual mid-lobby perch waiting for potential sources to come scuttling by. And there was the coach, and we got to chatting. His engines were already revving, his syntax waging battle with his fast-tripping thoughts as I engaged him on his now famous long-surge marathon technique, a method he perfected during his days with the Greater Boston Track Club in the 1970s and `80s. And this, by the way, is an exact transcription of the coach’s train of thought, a train that somehow stayed on its rails despite the snake pit of syntactical sidetracks, digressions, loops and spurs that the coach engineered.
“IT’S LIKE JELLYBEANS”
“Our numbers were between nine and 12,” began the coach, as always, in mid-thought. “I had Lydiard at my house one day, and he almost pissed his pants. They had, they could run, yours was going – hill training!”
(And he points at me, eyebrows raised to a meaningful height, as if that would somehow make this latest formulation clear. It was classic Squires. But after so many years I was adept at following through the circuitous journey).
“His thing was strength, strength, strength. The athletes he had were, in a way, all they were were strength, because all they were doing was speed away from him, because he didn’t know speed. He wasn’t a speed man. He was just strength. And, and, and I said, I said ‘you didn’t do enough flat, semi-flat work’. And he goes, ‘Is that what I was missing?’ Well, I said, ‘If so’. And he said, ‘I always wanted to be known as a marathon man, and everyone knows me as a ‘– “but he wasn’t a 5000-meter man!”
(Needless to say, I was concentrating as hard as I could to keep up. But maintaining my composure, I contributed.)
“And now everybody goes back and uses Lydiard’s program to prep for the marathon, because it’s a strength-based program.”
To which the coach quickly added: “And then you go from altitude to sea-level, and it’s like, like, like jellybeans.”
(It’s like what??)
“Oh, I can figure out anyone,” Coach instantly transitioned without prompting. “I figured out Shorter. I know your tendencies. I know what you do. And all you have to do is put it into reading, or whatever, and I can do – I can!”
“You can?” I asked, my brow knitting furiously. “So what did you find out about Frank Shorter?”
“Okay. Here’s what it was. His father was an army officer, and he moved to altitude when he was a junior in high school. (He did?) The guy – I knew the guy, a nice Irish guy who was uh, uh, his, uh, college coach – Giegengack. Who, out of the old things – and a nice man, great guy, nice guy – but he wasn’t a sophisticated guy to understand, you know, what Shorter couldn’t do, and know the tendencies of what people can and can’t do.
“So what it was was, Frank had the Ivy League – was the best situation anyone would want to do to be able to get altitude training.”
“You worked the summer, three and a half months. You got your cross country season, then the Ivy League. That’s almost four weeks – months – where the namby pambies go with Nanny and Daddy and they take – Okay? Longer than we had; two weeks we have around here (he meant months). So just as you’re coming off altitude ready for the outdoor season – and with outdoor season? Then you’re ready for partial of your indoor season. This was me! Nobody told me, but I had to figure it out.”
Figure what out?
“So what he was – and then for some damn reason he got in with those guys and his training and everything was shot, cause I asked him one day – I forget what I did – I said, ‘Your, your, uh, training hasn’t been too fit down in Florida,’ – and (Jack) Bachelor was a very good coach. I think he could’ve been one of America’s very best coaches. A very good runner, too, very strong guy – I mean, kinda awkwardly built, he was so tall. And then, ah, and then, then I go, ‘Well, Jesus, uh, you know.’ So he goes, ‘no’.
(As young Catholic students we were still taught to diagram sentences. But I challenge anyone to deconstruct that baby.)
“So he was the one who pushed him to Denver to get back to an altitude base. Then he moved from there to Albuquerque – No, not Albuquerque, Boulder.
“I’m tellin’ ya, I was a millionaire when I was 36 years-old. And nobody knew it. Cut the shit, will ya! I mean I’m goin’ down as the biggest wacko that you ever met, and you know what? I’m so friggin’, goddamn bright – Oh! Oh! And here’s the number one dingleheimer!”
Just then Bill Rodgers, Coach’s number one exemplar (or in this case, dingleheimer) comes walking up heading for the evening’s marathon function at the hotel.
“No, no,” pivoted Squires, “you don’t have to bend down and kiss the ring. You probably couldn’t get down there anymore, anyway. I’m giving the guppy here a load of the facts of life where Wacko doesn’t know. I’d eat you guys for freakin’ lunch. I used to sit there, and I’d laugh. And one person said, ‘Why don’t your guys do more work?’ I said, ‘I want more work, balls to the wall, in the effin’ race!’”
(Then, in a rising voice mimicking the person he remembers asking him the question, the audience grew with the arrival of another one of Coach’s former standouts, Freddie Doyle and his wife Joy.)
“…`Oh, we should be doin’ – and I won’t tell you who said it – but when he said it, I’m goin, ‘you’re so smaht (sic). You, you can go up a one-way street backwards’. “
By now I was reeling, Billy was appropriately spaced, and Freddie and Joy were just taking it all in with ‘glad-to-see-nothing’s-changed’ smiles.
Well, we all had this function to attend, so pretty soon we drifted off into the swelling crowd. But there you have it, a small sample of the ageless legend that is Coach Bill Squires.
The Wack, as we endearingly called him, had a way of expressing himself that might have left Strunk & White twisting in their Elements of Style graves, but somehow it never clouded his meaning to his athletes. But that’s the thing, you don’t explain magic, you simply enjoy the show.
And though we kidded him mercilessly – and they will again on Saturday at B.C. – his coaching was no trick. Results speak for themselves. No matter what assignment he took on, his athletes and programs thrived and won. As another legendary coach, Arthur Lydiard, wrote in a blurb for Squires’ book Speed With Endurance that Bill wrote with Bruce Lehane, “Coach Squires is undoubtedly one of the greatest marathon coaches the US has ever seen and indeed one of the best in the world.”
What’s more, Coach made it fun and memorable. And his runners – “guppies” and “sturdlies” alike- loved him for it, both at the time, and for the rest of their lives.
So Happy birthday, Coach. Heck of a legacy, any way you care to describe it.