Longtime Coach Lober Steps Away from XC

August 18, 2017

By Dennis Chase
Special for Second Half

TRAVERSE CITY – When the Traverse City Central boys cross country team opened practice last Wednesday, the gregarious John Lober was nowhere in sight.

Instead, the Michigan Interscholastic Track Coaches Association Hall of Fame coach was teeing it up on a golf course in Kalkaska County.

Lober, the driving force behind Traverse City Central boys running, stepped down as cross country coach after 28 years. He’ll continue as the track & field coach in the spring - his 49th year at Central and 54th season of coaching overall.

“I’m definitely going to miss it, but I’m lucky to say that a lot of these kids (in cross country) run track so I’ll still have an association with them,” Lober said. “It’s always about the kids and that association.”

Bryan Burns, who coached the Maple City Glen Lake girls to the Lower Peninsula Division 4 cross country title in 2000, is succeeding Lober.

“He’s a legend,” Central athletic director/assistant principal Mark Mattson said of Lober. “The guy’s put nearly 50 years into his craft at our school. That’s unprecedented. Fortunately, we get to keep him for track.”

Lober turned 75 in March.

“He’s 75 going on 35,” Mattson added. “He has such energy and passion. He’s everywhere - all the time.”

Still, Lober thought the time was right to make a change.

“I think it was my daughter who said something about me being in the fourth quarter,” he recalled. “Well, the greatest things happen in the fourth quarter. That’s when everything is on the line. Subconsciously, I’m thinking, ‘What are you going to do in the fourth quarter? How is this going to play out?’”

Lober experienced a taste of life without cross country last season – albeit for just two weeks – when he and his partner of 11 years, Margo Million, took a September vacation to New England.

And, as for any withdrawal symptoms in the last month, Lober’s been too busy for that to happen. He took in eight Traverse City Film Festival movies in late July and then the following week played 18 holes of golf four consecutive days with his visiting grandson and a friend.

“It’s been pretty Lober silent around (school), and I know that’s by John’s choice to stay out of the way and let Bryan Burns and his staff have that program be theirs,” Mattson said. “I’m sure that’s not easy for John because I know how much he cares for kids and how much pride he takes in our school and community. He paved the way for so many years. Nonetheless, he has the utmost respect for Bryan, who he helped put in place, and for what they want to do with the program going forward.”

Lober, and coaching companion Don Lukens, took over the Central cross country program in 1989 and turned it into one of the state’s best. According to statistics compiled by michtrack.org, Central had the fourth best program in the state in the 1990s – based on MHSAA Finals finishes – despite the fact the school was split (with West opening) in 1997. The Trojans were 12th from 2000-2009 and 11th from 2010-2016.

“Excellence is typified by a high achievement level over many years,” Lober said, “and I feel we’ve been an excellent program over the last 28 years.

“The system we established that first year (based on principles popularized by notable New Zealand runner and coach Arthur Lydiard) has proven to be a successful system. Little did Don and I know when we started working together that our talents would dovetail and create such a strong situation.”

Since 1989, Central has won 86 invitationals, eight Big North Conference titles and eight Regionals. The Trojans were runners-up in nine Regionals. Central finished second in Class A in 1996, five points behind White Lake Lakeland.

Central qualified for the MHSAA Finals the first 16 years under Lober and Lukens. That streak was snapped in 2005, but it led to one of the most satisfying seasons in 2006.

“Those kids on the 2005 team were the first not to go to states, and they banded together and came back and took third (in Division 1) the next year,” Lober said. “They were awesome. That was a special team.”

The Finals runner-up team in 1996 was special, too. In fact, Lober is reminded of it every day. That squad, after its successful season, planted a tree in Lober’s front yard. Today, it towers over the front of his property.

Lukens, also in the MITCA Hall of Fame, built his legacy as a cross country and track coach at Kalamazoo Loy Norrix before retiring at 55 and moving north. He had 32 years of service in, but his move was hastened after he accidentally “chemically poisoned” himself.

“I was staining my place and I dumped the bucket all over the front of me,” he said. “But I wanted to finish because I had company coming from Pennsylvania. The next day my knees and elbows were so swollen – you talk about pain.”

Lukens originally was told he had lupus, but a trip to the Mayo Clinic revealed it was chemical poisoning.

He was told his condition would improve as time passed, but it would be advantageous if he could retire.

“They said, ‘Remember, stress is a factor. If you don’t retire, don’t plan much until after age 60,’” Lukens recalled. “Well, that scared the dickens out of me.”

Lukens, now 83, was serving as interim athletic director at the time. In the meantime, he and his wife had fallen in love with northern Michigan and purchased property along the Platte River in Benzie County. Lukens started building their house right before the move.

“Every morning I get up, sit on the porch and look at the river,” he said. “You talk about being blessed.”

His coaching days were not over, however. Benzie Central track coach Pete Moss asked if Lukens could work with the team’s pole vaulter in that spring of 1989. In late May, at the Traverse City Record-Eagle Honor Roll track meet, Lober approached Lukens about becoming his distance coach in track. When the cross country job opened, Lober and Lukens took on that responsibility as well.

It’s a union that still exists. Lukens is assisting Burns in cross country and Lober in track.

“I think my wife is happy I’m not in her hair all the time,” Lukens said. “I enjoy working with the kids. They keep me young.”

Lober, whose track team won the Class A title in 1992, feels the same. He retired from teaching during spring break in 2000 when his wife Julie’s cancer returned. She passed in August of that year. It was in those moments afterwards, seeing the support he had from his teams, that it hit him.

“I need them more than they need me,” he said.

Now that he’s not a part of the cross country program, Lober said he’ll miss the dynamics of team building and team bonding. He’ll miss watching raw athletes develop skills they didn’t realize they had. But he won’t be out of sight totally. He’ll be there for meets, just like he’s at other school sporting events during the year. After all, Traverse City Central has been his home away from home for 49 years.

“When we named Travis Schuba our new boys basketball coach last week, John was the first one looking for contact information to congratulate him and welcome him to our staff,” Mattson said. “That’s John Lober. Traverse City Central is family for John.”

And just how long will he coach track?

“I want to coach track a couple more years because I love it,” he said. “Last year was as much fun as I’ve ever had coaching track. Plus, I want to put 50 (years) in. If I’m lucky enough to do that, I’d love it.”

Dennis Chase worked 32 years as a sportswriter at the Traverse City Record-Eagle, including as sports editor from 2000-14. He can be reached at [email protected] with story ideas for Manistee, Wexford, Missaukee, Roscommon, Ogemaw, Iosco, Alcona, Oscoda, Crawford, Kalkaska, Grand Traverse, Benzie, Leelanau, Antrim, Otsego, Montmorency, Alpena, Presque Isle, Cheboygan, Charlevoix and Emmet counties.

PHOTOS: (Top) Traverse City Central coach John Lober offers direction at a meet during his half-century career. (Middle) Central assistant Don Lukens, left, with Lober. (Photos courtesy of John Lober.)

Hastings Relays Reigns as State's Oldest Continuous Track & Field Meet

By Steve Vedder
Special for MHSAA.com

April 10, 2024

Bob Branch remembers dabbling in other sports, but his first love was always running.

Mid-MichiganThe Hastings High School graduate admits he could never hit a baseball, football didn't especially appeal to him and basketball was just another way to spend time with friends. But for Branch, now 93, there was always track. That's the sport where his fondest and sharpest memories remain. And if you're talking track, many of his favorite memories come from participation in the state's oldest continuous track meet, the Hastings Relays.

Always held in early April, the meet dates back to 1937 – a bygone time that saw the first hostilities of World War II, gas at 20 cents a gallon and a loaf of bread selling for a dime.

And at a dusty old track surrounding the county fairgrounds in Hastings, a small relay event that included a scattering of participants from a dozen high schools was taking its first tentative steps.

Branch recalls a time when kids would run home after track practice because there were no buses, inexperienced young coaches had little actual knowledge of running fundamentals, and athletes looked at the sport as an afterthought after spending most of their high school days playing football and basketball.

The author wrote on the 50th anniversary of the Relays for the Hastings Banner nearly 40 years ago.For Branch, the relays were the ideal way to ease into the track season.

"I just liked to run," said Branch. "I remember I anchored a relay with my brother, and it always seemed cold when we had that meet. I remember teams would come from all over and you saw a lot of good athletes. Everybody seemed to have someone who was really good. Track wasn't very popular at that time, but I have a lot of good memories from running."

The Hastings Relays, which has changed formats and even names during its nearly nine-decade history, would traditionally kick off the track season. The meet was originally held at a makeshift quarter-mile track which surrounded the town's fairgrounds and was part of the city's annual Hastings Carnival – the track would become the midway during fair time.

The meet eventually moved to Johnson Field when the football field was dedicated in 1949 and ballooned to as many as 50 teams at its peak in 1957. For more than seven decades it was known as the Hastings Relays and then the Hastings Co-Ed relays before becoming the current Hastings Invitational, with the latest edition scheduled for Friday.

Johnson Field had a cinder track before it became an all-weather surface in the 1980s. During a time long before computers would be used to organize meet heats in mere minutes, Hastings coaches of all sports – defined as "volunteers" by the athletic department – would meet on the Friday before competition to hash out events.

People associated with the meet still recall the camaraderie built on those long Friday nights, followed by working what would often become 10-hour meets. Steve Hoke has been involved since watching his father, Jack, who coached teams at 15 of the meets beginning in 1951 and also had run in the first Hastings Relays. Steve Hoke later competed in the Relays as well during the early 1970s before becoming an assistant track coach, later the Hastings athletic director and now a volunteer worker.

"It was always a huge deal," said Hoke, who said the meet began as a pure relay event before transitioning to its current team format in the 1990s. "I remember we'd line the track the night before, and all the coaches would come to the house to organize everything. There was a brotherhood.”

Past athlete, coach and athletic director Steve Hoke shows some of the Relays awards from the 1930s.If you quiz many of the fleet of volunteers who've worked the relays over the years, each has a different memory from the meet. While Hoke describes the brotherhood and Branch the outstanding competition, others remember weather and the time a thunderstorm wiped out the line markings on the cinder track, or waking up to find three inches of snow that caused a rare cancellation of the meet. Others recall the shock of moving from the cinder to all-weather track or using the meet as an early measuring stick of what it would take to qualify for the state meet. The real old-timers remember the meet disappearing for three years during World War II.

Hastings native and Western Michigan grad Tom Duits was the state’s first collegian to break the four-minute mile when he ran a 3:59.2 at a meet in Philadelphia in 1978. Duits, who ran in three Hastings Relays, was in line to join the U.S. Olympic team in 1980 before the United States pulled out of the games due to tension with Russia.

Duits has his own memories of the meet and the competition he faced there.

"I remember sunshine and being excited to be competing again. There were all these athletes swarming around; it was an awesome display of talent," he said. "It was always one of the best meets we'd be in. You could pretty much see the level of runners who would be at state, which made it a big deal. It was always early, but you could tell where you stood. It was great exposure."

Hastings track star Wayne Oom competed in four Hastings Relays from 1984-87. One of his sharpest memories was the difference between running on a raw cinder track versus the far more comfortable all-weather surface.

"Those cinders would grind into your skin," said Oom, part of the Hastings school record in the two-mile relay. "But I think it helped us because when we'd go to other tracks, it seemed we would run faster. I remember how competitive it was, especially in the distances. There were some great runners."

While participants have their unique memories, so do coaches. Former Saxons coach Paul Fulmer remembers 2008 when his team finished first on the boys side of the meet while his wife, Grand Haven coach Katie Kowalczyk-Fulmer, saw her girls team win the championship.

Tom Duits was one of the state’s biggest track stars of the 1970s and ran in three Hastings Relays."I knew we were one of the favorites to win because we were usually near the top of our conference and Regional," he said. "But then Katie's team was pretty good, and it was cool for them to win too."

Fulmer, who coached Hastings from 1978-81 and then 1985-2010, said at least part of the meet's popularity was derived from a unique way of scoring. Instead of individuals earning points solo, participants worked in pairs. For instance, two athletes would combine their shot put or long jump scores. New events such as the 1,500 relay and sprint medley were added.

"We had a tradition of being the state's oldest meet, and that was a big deal," Fulmer said. "And we ran a good relay; that attracted teams too. We took a lot of pride in that.

"And we'd get quite a lot of people to come to the meet. We'd set up until like 9 or 10 p.m., and then we'd have a party with all the coaches on Friday night."

While the meet has stretched 87 years, Branch said early participants and current runners have one thing in common: a drive to win. Branch ran in an era when the popularity of high school track was in its infancy. Today some of the best all-around athletes at a school are involved in the track program. The relays span the nearly nine decades in between.

"The quality of teams has gotten better and better," said Branch, the 1947 Lower Peninsula Class B Finals champ in the 220. "And this has made for a better meet. We would get guys who played football or baseball kind of drift into track, and that made the sport better. I think people began to appreciate track because we'd get teams from all over.

"We went from not really knowing what we were doing to track being a good sport. Even then, I'm not sure we appreciated what we had. We really liked the Hastings Relays and always wanted to do well there. It became popular and quite an honor to do well. Those are the kind of things I remember."

PHOTOS (Top) Racers run at the Hastings Relays, with several more awaiting their turns to compete at the longtime meet. (2) The author wrote on the 50th anniversary of the Relays for the Hastings Banner nearly 40 years ago. (3) Past athlete, coach and athletic director Steve Hoke shows some of the Relays awards from the 1930s. (4) Tom Duits was one of the state’s biggest track stars of the 1970s and ran in three Hastings Relays. (Top photo by Dan Goggins, Hoke photo provided by Steve Hoke and Duits photos provided by Tom Duits.)