Retiring King literally builds HU track, field program from ground up

Tom King, the longtime head coach of Huntington University’s track and cross country teams, sits in his office with an award recently given to him by the school thanking him for his 46 years of service. In March, King announced his retirement, which becomes effective at the end of May.
Tom King, the longtime head coach of Huntington University’s track and cross country teams, sits in his office with an award recently given to him by the school thanking him for his 46 years of service. In March, King announced his retirement, which becomes effective at the end of May. Photo by Steve Clark.

Originally published May 9, 2016.

Tom King remembers hauling railroad ties back to Huntington from Fort Wayne.

King, the head coach of the Huntington University track and field teams, made the trip with a few of his student-athletes and the ties became the perimeter for a makeshift track, the school’s first.

“That was sort of the first thing we did,” King recalls. “I don’t remember how many trips we made up there to get that stuff.”

Many coaches have built programs, but fewer can claim to have done so, literally. King is one of them. He came to Huntington in 1970 and proceeded to take the reins of the school’s fledgling track program, as well as establish its cross country program. For the majority of his 46 years at the school, he’s led both programs.

However, after watching a countless number of races during his time at Huntington, King’s own run at the school is coming to an end. The Foresters’ longtime authority on all things running retires at the end of May.

King will be leaving behind four teams — track and cross country each feature men’s and women’s squads — which is three more than the school had when he arrived. Track got its start at Huntington when, a few years before King arrived, some students petitioned the school to let them start a team.

“Basically, they wanted to run. They said, ‘Can we do this?’ And the athletic department was fine with it,” explains King.

A track and cross country runner at Ashland University in Ohio, King was hired by Huntington to be its dean of men, but his passion was running.

“When I came in, it was pretty much I asked, ‘Hey, do you mind if I do the track and get a cross country program going?’ It was a positive response, so that’s how I got involved,” he says.

As the ’70s progressed, King saw more and more students take up running. He served as just a volunteer coach during that time, but got more involved starting in 1980. While the track team may not have been short on participants, it was short on facilities.

“I can remember one of our young men that was, I think, eighth at nationals in javelin, we were just out in front in the parking lot of this facility,” says King, referring to the Merillat Complex, the school’s sports hub. “We painted a little ring in the parking lot when this building was first built and just sort of threw out into a field.”

It was around this time that King and his helpers made their trips up to Fort Wayne for railroad ties. Luckily, Huntington North High School made its track available to King and his teams whenever they hosted a meet. By the mid ’80s, Huntington had constructed a track of its own.

For a long time, the entire Huntington campus served as the cross country teams’ facility. They got a dedicated course in the late 1990s, off Gragg Street, not far from campus. The course is hilly and includes a wooded area where runners have to cross a creek.

“It’s sort of a throwback to how courses used to be,” observes King.

While the places his teams compete at may have changed, the challenges and rewards associated with coaching those teams have largely remained the same.

King says finding enough time to spend an equal amount with every athlete has been a test over the years. Additionally, coaching teams that are made up of athletes of vastly different talent levels has been a challenge, too.

“We’ve had some just outstanding athletes as far as athletic abilities and then we’ve had some that are not very gifted as far as with ability,” he says. “So, trying to work both ends of it a little bit.”

But King adds that one of his favorite things about coaching is seeing the athletes who aren’t as gifted as others accomplish their goals.

“I think some of the happiest people we’ve ever had on our team were ones maybe that weren’t as talented, but they set realistic goals and then when they made their goals, they were happy as if they had won at nationals,” he says. “I can give you a number of examples of that.”

What makes King proudest of all, though, is bearing witness to the camaraderie that develops between his athletes.

“Probably the most rewarding part of it is just to see how well they get along and the respect they have for each other,” he says. “‘I’m working hard, you’re working hard, and I might be a little better than you, but I’m no better than you because you’re taking the talent the Lord has given you and trying to develop it.’”

Of retirement, King says it had been on his mind for the past few years. In March, he decided to finally make this school year his last. The first person he told was his wife, Jan, followed by the school.

“Came in and talked to the athletic director and told the team that Sunday — so I wouldn’t change my mind,” he says, chuckling.

King’s coaching duties run through the end of the month, when he’ll have athletes competing in the track and field national championships in Gulf Shores, AL. After that, though, he intends to take a well-deserved break.

“I’m telling everybody I’m not doing anything for the next six months,” King says. “Because one of the things when you do cross country and track, you start in the middle of August, you get a couple weeks off for Christmas, and I’ll be at nationals … three and a half weeks from now while everybody else is on vacation

“In our sport, you’re always going. So, it’s just six days a week. So, when I say I don’t want to do anything, it’s really sort of true.”

With three children — all of whom attended Huntington — and six grandchildren, however, King knows he won’t be idle for long.

Aside from building the track and cross country programs at Huntington, King’s legacy at the school extends to its track and field stadium, which was renovated in 2012 and renamed in his honor.

It’s a far cry from the place he once lugged railroad ties to.

“Huntington University for me, my wife, my family … we’ve been blessed,” reflects King. “I don’t know what else we would have wished for.”