June 14, 2013
• Nuttycombe Announces Retirement
BY MIKE LUCAS
fter accepting Dan McClimon’s offer to become a Wisconsin assistant coach, Ed Nuttycombe was not planning on making a career of it. He was most grateful for the opportunity to land a Big Ten job and learn from McClimon. But he wasn’t ready yet to think about putting down roots in the Midwest.
“My wife, Diane, is from New York and I’m from Virginia, so when we moved to Wisconsin, we said, ‘Let’s go for five years and then we’ll get a job back in the East somewhere closer to friends and family,’’’ Nuttycomb recalled of his mindset in 1980. “Well, five years turned into a lot more.’’
Five turned into 33, including the last 30 years as Wisconsin’s record-setting head coach -- and one Big Ten championship, his first in 1984, turned into 26. Nuttycombe has been named Big Ten Coach of the Year so many times -- 22 -- the conference should just rename the award after him when he retires.
The door has now been opened for just that.
“I don’t know if there’s ever really a good time, there’s just the time (to retire),’’ Nuttycombe said. “I’ve been thinking about it off and on, here and there, for probably a year. I don’t know that there was any point where it just struck me like a lightning bolt or something.
“It just kind of seemed like the right time.’’
|“I wanted to try and be in a position to go out on my own terms. I didn’t want to be one of those old coaches dragging themselves around the track looking old, tired and haggard.’’
Reiterating that he had been “pondering when it would be the right time’’ for about 12 months, he wasn’t ready to walk away in late February after the Badgers won the Big Ten indoor title. “I’m not quite sure I knew at that point,’’ he admitted. “But I knew that I was thinking strongly about it.’’
That led to some sleepless nights -- “I’d be foolish to say I didn’t have anxiety over it’’ -- and much soul-searching on his future. “But I don’t know there was anything that would have happened or not happened outdoors that would have influenced it (his decision) one way or another,’’ he said.
All along, he felt that when the time came, he would know if it was the right time. “It got to the point somewhere -- I don’t know exactly when or where -- when I realized that if you stay one more year,’’ he said, “it’s going to be the same feeling and angst a year from now and two years from now.’’
Thus, if he prolonged making the decision, he asked himself “What will have changed?’’
The answer? “Not a whole lot,’’ he said.
Not that Nuttycombe ever put down a number on how many years that he wanted to coach.
“I told myself many years ago -- and I told everyone that would listen -- I didn’t want to overstay my welcome,’’ he said. “I wanted to try and be in a position to go out on my own terms. I didn’t want to be one of those old coaches dragging themselves around the track looking old, tired and haggard.’’
Laughing, he added, “I hope I’ve accomplished all of that.’’
Throughout the decision-making process, Nuttycombe shared his thoughts with Diane. “I think it was a mutual thing,’’ he said. “When you’ve been married that long (34 years), there aren’t a whole lot of secrets. You bounce things back and forth (off each other).’’
When Nuttycombe proposed to Diane in 1979, did he bring up the fact that he was going to be a coach and her life would revolve around the profession? “Yes,’’ he said. “But the other part of the answer is, I’m not sure she understood what that meant. There would be no way of knowing then.’’
“Diane would always say to me, ‘Let me get this straight, you’re going to work seven days a week again this week?’’’ recounted Nuttycombe. “I didn’t know how to answer that. I would tell her, ‘I guess the answer is yes. Yeah, I guess I am.’’’
The kids are now grown. Carolyn is 32 and Kent is 29. There are three grandchildren and a fourth on the way. “You’re always feeling guilty that you missed their softball game or their play at school because you were out of town,’’ Nuttycombe said. “But that was just the way it was for them.’’
Everyone adjusted to the lifestyle.
“In all of our sports, to different degrees, families make sacrifices,’’ he said. “The year, meaning the track season, is long. You start traveling regularly in January and you’re still traveling in June. It’s not like you’re traveling during the week and you’re home on weekends. You’re gone every weekend.’’
Nuttycombe kept his dad, Charles, in the loop on his retirement plans. Charles Nuttycombe coached high school football and track for 34 years in Virginia. He mentored a young Al Toon at Menchville High, and Toon went on to become an All-American receiver at Wisconsin.
“My dad was always a mentor to me, even at this point in my career,’’ Nuttycombe acknowledged. “I talked to him about it (retiring) and he goes, ‘You’re going to miss it.’ I said, ‘I know, I know, but I think I’m comfortable with it.’ And he goes, ‘Well, that’s all that counts.’’’
Asked if he was raised to be a coach -- keeping in mind that Charles Nuttycombe was viewed as a pioneer and inducted into the U.S. Track & Field and Cross Country Coaches Association Hall of Fame -- Ed Nuttycombe hesitated and said, “I think I was. Yes, I felt that I was raised to be a coach.’’’
But it took a different turn while he was at student-athlete at Virginia Tech.
“I wanted to be a coach like my dad,’’ he said. “I wanted to do what my dad did because I had spent lots of time with him in that environment and I loved what he did. But when I was in college, it woke me up to coaching at a different level. I knew that I wanted to be a college coach.’’
As it played out, Virginia Tech track coach Marty Pushkin took over the Northern Illinois program during Nuttycombe’s senior year. “And when he left, he told me, ‘Ed, when you graduate next year, I want you to work with me and be my assistant,’’’ he recalled. “Quite honestly, I was flattered.’’
|“I’m proud of the fact that we did it right,’’ Nuttycombe stressed. “I tried to do it with class.’’
Nuttycombe took him up on the offer and assisted Pushkin for two years at Northern Illinois. But after completing his graduate studies in DeKalb, he and Diane wanted to go back East even if that meant transitioning from a college position to teaching at a high school. That’s when McClimon intervened.
“Dan called and asked me if I was interested in a job here (Wisconsin), he didn’t offer me anything, but he asked if I was interested,’’ he said. “I met him a few times and I guess he liked what he saw or heard about me or liked the athletes (Nuttycombe coached at NIU) and what they were doing.’’
Nuttycombe took the job as a UW assistant. Remember now, he was thinking that it was a five-year commitment, at most. Then, tragically, in 1983, McClimon was killed in a plane crash. On his 31st birthday, Nuttycombe took over as the interim coach to get the team through the spring. He was later named head coach.
“I really owe special thanks to the late Otto Breitenbach and Kit Saunders (UW administrators who factored into his hiring) for that opportunity,’’ he said. “They were either naïve enough or lucky enough or maybe wise enough, I don’t know which, to put a 31-year-old man in charge of the program.
“I hope I haven’t let them down. I don’t think I have.’’
So what’s next for the 61-year-old Nuttycombe?
“That’s a good question,’’ he said. “I want to stay involved with the (UW) program and help out. There are also some things that I have in my mind that I want to try and do in the next few years and we’ll see how that all plays out. I think I have some things lined up to keep me busy.’’
When he informed UW women’s coach Jim Stintzi that he was retiring, Stinzi suggested, “Maybe you can be a volunteer coach.’’ Nuttycombe confirmed that he was thinking about it and Stintzi replied, “Oh, my God, you’d be the most overqualified, awesome volunteer in the history of the sport.’’
On Thursday, Nuttycombe ran into two of his athletes, Japheth Cato and Zach Ziemek, and broke the news about his retirement. “It was a good conversation,’’ he said. “I’m going to miss the day-to-day contact with the guys. I hope to be able to continue some of it, but it won’t be exactly the same.’’
He also spoke Thursday with former assistant Jerry Schumacher, the coach of the 2005 national championship UW men’s cross country team. Schumacher was surprised. “I think his words were, “I’m really happy for you but I’m disappointed because it won’t be the same,’’’ Nuttycombe said.
Schumacher was spot-on with his comment. It won’t be the same without Ed Nuttycombe, the Big Ten’s winningest coach in any sport. Surely all of those victories and championships -- cross country and track, indoors and outdoors -- will be part of his legacy. But what else? How would he write it?
“Endured 30 years,’’ he joked. “Gosh, I don’t know.’’
Nuttycombe flourished more than endured. Like his dad, he was a pioneer, a Hall of Famer.
“I think my legacy would be that we always played by the rules,’’ he continued upon prodding. “Obviously we had some success and I was always on good terms with the administrators and athletic directors I’ve dealt with. As for the rest of it, I’ll have to let somebody else speak for that.’’
Nothing speaks more to his modesty than Nuttycombe innocently saying, “Obviously we had some success’’ in a program that was a model of success. But it really does go much deeper than the winning.
“I’m proud of the fact that we did it right,’’ Nuttycombe stressed. “I tried to do it with class.’’
That was accomplished by one of the most accomplished coaches in school history.
“I owe a lot of thanks to a lot of people who either worked with me or helped me along the way; none of these things are done by yourself,’’ he said. “It has been a crazy run. To now put it into words that it has come to an end is even sad for me. But I’m very excited about what the future brings and I’m certainly not disappearing from the scene.’’
The best news of all.