Saturday, May 30, 2009

Catching up with Gunn HS coach Ernie Lee...

Today's interview is with the head coach of Gunn HS, Ernie Lee. Gunn finished in 2nd place as a team in the girl's competition just behind CCS Champions Leland HS. Besides his balanced girls' team that scored points in multiple events (running and field), Gunn also qualified boys in the 100/200, 3200 and high jump in the CCS Finals. Ernie has also coached several individual and team CCS champions in cross country. Ernie can be seen pictured to the left, closely trailing a teammate, competing during his high school years for the same team he now coaches.

1) How did you get started in the sports of track and field and cross country? What other sports did you do during your youth?
I started running track and cross country in middle school, but started out as a sprinter and a jumper. As I got older, I stopped getting faster so I just kept moving up in distance. I didn't do any other sports seriously, just a few years of Little League baseball.

2) When did you first realize that you might want to get into coaching?
By the end of high school, I thought that it would be fun to come back and coach, but I didn't consider it seriously until after college. Every year, Gunn has an Alumni cross country race and when I came back and ran in it my first year of grad school, Coach Hal Daner asked if I wanted to help out with the cross country team. It sounded like fun so I agreed to do it.

3) How long have you been at Gunn HS as an assistant and head coach?
I began as a volunteer assistant in the fall of 1994. I took over as head coach in 2001.

4) Hal Daner was the longtime head coach at Gunn HS and is currently the weight coach for your team. Tell us a little about his influence on the Gunn Hs track and cross country teams.
Hal Daner has been a tremendous influence on me both as a coach and as a person. He was the one who established the tone and the philosophy of the team, and I have just continued it. Simply put, everything we do is focused on providing a positive experience for every kid on the team.

5) Besides Hal, what other coaches have had an influence on your coaching and that you considered as role models?
Hank Lawson (the current Lynbrook coach) was my distance coach in high school and, for better or worse, his personality has definitely influenced mine. My college coach, Larry Ellis, showed me how running can teach life lessons and also how a coach should treat his athletes.

In terms of training, we basically follow a Jack Daniels-style approach (lots of pace work and tempos with almost everything based on current race paces). I also borrow a lot from Joe Rubio of the Asics Aggies, especially in terms of ramping up training after a break (returning from injury, for example).

I'm also a pretty big leech of ideas from other current coaches. I try to attend as many clinics as I can. I pick the brains and "talk shop" with everyone I can. I've gotten great advice from Paul Jones over at Paly in terms of managing over-committed Palo Alto overachievers. Willie Harmatz has been very generous in sharing workout ideas geared towards 800 runners. Discussions with Evan Smith from Mountain View have helped me plan out team-oriented goals. I've blatantly copied Aptos' Dan Gruber's approach to off-season training.

6) Describe some of your accomplishments as a cross country and track coach as well as some of your most memorable highlights.
I'm most proud of the fact that for many of my former athletes, running has remained a part of their lives. Although we haven't had a lot of kids competing in college, there have been a large number who have completed marathons or who continue to participate in road races. On our track staff this season, four of our coaches are Gunn alums and two were athletes that I had coached. Several other former athletes are coaching or have coached at other schools.

7) Gunn HS had over 200 track members this past season. What do you think are key reasons that attracted so many students to the track and field team?
Well, freshmen and sophomores can get out of PE by doing a sport and track is a non-cut sport. That said, we do focus on a "family" style social team that appeals to a lot of kids.

8) From your beginning as a new coach to now, in what areas do you feel like you have changed as a coach?
Over the years, I've pushed more and more responsibility onto the kids. They handle completely things like team t-shirts and pasta feeds. Invitational meets are all optional and they have to tell me if they want to compete in them. I've also stopped bringing extra uniforms to meets. So if a kid forgets their uniform, then they have to borrow one one their own or they don't compete. So basically, I've just gotten lazy in my old age.

9) You had numerous distance runners in the CCS finals. What do you think are the key reasons for the success of those athletes?
Far and away, the key reason for the success is the kids themselves. We are very lucky to have a large group of motivated and compassionate runners. The leaders on the team, particularly seniors Allegra Mayer and Tara Saxena, have created an atmosphere where the kids not only enjoy being on the team and hanging out together, but also want to push themselves and each other to be the best runners they can. During most hard workouts, many kids ask to run more and are disappointed when we cut them off.

Also important is the influence of our distance coach, Matt Tompkins. He devised all the workouts for the 1600-3200 runners and is particularly good at planning race strategy. He also relates very well to the kids (he's the young, crazy, emotional coach while I'm the old, serious, calm one).

10) Tell us a little about your involvement at the state level in both sports.
For several years, I was on the State Advisory Committee for cross country and track and field. That gave me an appreciation for the hard work and effort folks like Hal Harkness put forth for the betterment of the sport. It also showed me what it takes to get things changed (like at-large qualifying to the state meet in track) and understanding why certain processes must be followed.

11) What would be your best pieces of advice for a new coach?
Don't be afraid to show your enthusiasm. Maybe not right away, but the kids will respond.

Thank you very much for your time Ernie!  AJC

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