Coach Joe Vigil believes people in small towns can do giant things.
Vigil has proved it by building a college sports dynasty in his depressed home town in the high desert of southern Colorado’s San Luis Valley.
“There are bigger schools and jobs where you can make more money, but this is what makes the man or the woman,” Vigil says, driving his pickup truck to one of his favorite watering holes for an iced tea following afternoon practice.
The wind had been blowing so hard off the San Juan Mountains that Vigil’s runners could barely hear his shouts. In the distance hung dust clouds as high as skyscrapers.
“Why go someplace else when you think you are in Utopia?” he asks.
Just staying home, Vigil has led Adams State College to 11 NAIA cross-country championships since 1971 and 20 Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference championships.
Only UCLA has amassed more national championships in any one sport--12 in volleyball. Iowa State has 11 national wrestling championships but under two coaches.
And Adams State, which doesn’t offer any full-ride athletic scholarships, has churned out 39 individual national track and field champions.
Vigil has been named NAIA Coach of the Year 13 times and coached distance runners in the 1988 Olympics. He resigned as Adams State track coach three years ago but stays on to work virtually every day, year-round, with the distance runners.
In March, he’ll coach the U.S. team at the World Cross Country Championships in France for the sixth time.
World-class runners frequently visit Alamosa to altitude-train with Vigil, and many of his student athletes stay on after graduation for the same reason. The combination of Alamosa’s 7,546-foot altitude and the flat terrain of the huge valley is a rare and powerful one for distance runners.
But when a group of Vigil’s runners at the school track are asked the secret of their success, they shake their heads as if it’s obvious.
In town, too, “Coach” means Vigil. (His mother, who works at a clothing store on Main Street and wears an Olympic button he brought her from Seoul, is affectionately and widely known as “Coach’s mom.”)
The homegrown dynasty is guided by what the coach calls “Vigilosophy” (pronounced “Vee-hilosophy”): a mix of his favorite qualities, discipline and commitment, with a large dose of compassion.
Vigil sends a copy of his six-page “Philosophical Dimension for Cross Country” to prospective Adams State runners, and any that want on the team can be on it.
“A kid’ll come in that’s very sub-par, and most programs wouldn’t even let them work out with the varsity team. We let them so they get motivated,” says Vigil.
“I’m not just concerned about the ones that I think are good. Do you know what it means to go away from home and go to school and then be cast out? It breaks their hearts, their spirits.”
Besides, Vigil has found that often it’s the runners who didn’t shine in high school that become champions under his training.
Take Rick Robirds, 22, a two-time national cross-country champion and the 1987 10,000-meter champion, who is running for Adams State this fall. In high school at Sterling, Robirds was sixth in Colorado in the 3,200-meter and “a lot of people thought I was really shooting in the dark as far as ASC and becoming a good runner.”
Vigil, says Robirds, “has an ability to take people like myself--the no names--and turn them into national champions.”
Or Pat Porter, a four-time national cross-country champion and two-time Olympian from Evergreen, who still lives in Alamosa and works with Vigil.
Porter was a modest success in high school and transferred to Adams State his sophomore year from Metropolitan State College in Denver because he wanted to be in the NAIA and had heard of Vigil.
Porter still insists he isn’t very talented, just a hard worker.
Says Vigil: “Running takes time, and eventually the motivated one is contributing to the team.”
He should know about motivation. Vigil is a workaholic who rises at 4 a.m. daily to have time to study and write.
He holds three master’s degrees, and a Ph.D. in exercise physiologyfrom the University of New Mexico --the only place he ever has lived outside of Alamosa.
Vigil, 59, grew up on the poor, Hispanic south side of Alamosa, the town at the heart of what traditionally has been Colorado’s poorest region, and was an all-RMAC football lineman for Adams State in 1952.
He got serious about exercise physiology when he was coaching at Alamosa High School in 1958 and a student shotputter asked how he could become better. Vigil didn’t know the answer, and has devoted himself since then to finding out.
“I went to school 13 straight summers after that,” he says.
Now Vigil uses computer models to track his athletes’ progress. His training method alternates aerobic and anaerobic days, but doesn’t allow for days off. His athletes generally run 70 to 80 miles a week, up and down the giant sand dunes at nearby Great Sand Dunes National Monument, through the mountains or along the straight, flat, seemingly endless roads on the valley floor.
“I hope they have the most adverse conditions that they possibly can find, because that carries over into life,” says Vigil.
“There are no excuses for not being successful in this country that has everything,” he says. “I try to set an example for them. . . . Somewhere or other I was taught discipline and commitment as I was growing up. I was an Eagle Scout.”
One chapter of his life Vigil doesn’t like talking about is the fall of 1987, when his Olympic appointment had to be reviewed after a magazine attributed discriminatory comments to him.
Vigil said San Francico-based City Sports Magazine misquoted him and took his comments out of context in its story about why there aren’t more minorities competing in long-distance running.
The magazine quoted Vigil as saying, among other things, “Minorities don’t want to pay the price to be long-distance runners. They’re not engrained with the work ethic it takes to be a long-distance runner. Being a sprinter is the easy way out.”
Vigil denied saying that, and hundreds of Alamosans and numerous track-and-field colleagues came to his defense. The national governing body for track and field--The Athletics Congress--took Vigil’s word over the magazine’s and gave him its full endorsement for the Olympic job.
“That ordeal was very hard on me,” he says now. “I’ve come out a lot stronger--people know who I am and they respect it.”
In his “Philosophical Dimension” mini-tract, Vigil tells his runners to take their time -- to train their will so its builds and doesn’t break them. He tells them to be arrogant on the track and quiet off of it.
Finally, he tells them to be “well rounded, sensitive, literate human being(s)” who keeps athletics “in its place, behind your family, your concern for the general welfare of the world, and your education.”
Vigil holds a half-hour team meeting daily, mainly to build camaraderie and motivation, his athletes say.
Robirds says Vigil knows how to talk to his runners and inspire them. “The stories he’ll tell -- his travels around the world. His little stories kind of get you pumped,” says Robirds.
“The reason I’m here is him, overall as a person,” says Marco Ochoa, 24, of Anaheim, an Adams State graduate now studying teaching to become a coach. He still trains at the track with Vigil.
“He helped me so much--I don’t think I’d be in school otherwise,” Ochoa said.
Ochoa says Vigil helped him through the administrative tangles of college, and personally paid his way to a track meet or two when Ochoa first arrived at Adams State.
“Other coaches tried to recruit me, offering me money. But they didn’t mention they’d help me in school,” Ochoa said.
Vigil has no regrets at giving gave up his full professorship three years ago to concentrate on long-distance running.
“I’m happy--I’m in charge of this little domain and I’ll try to handle it to the best of my ability,” he says. “I consider my job very, very important, and I’m just a coach. But you can influence a kid in so many ways as a coach.”
Vigil also sees coaching as a way of helping the community that has helped him. “People wherever they’re at should give something back to the place where they’re at.”
“I want to give track back so much for the wonderful experience I’ve had in it. I want to help make this institution the best institution in the world,” he says.
Being home means being free of “artificial stimuli.”
“All great work has been done in environments where you’re able to find peace of mind,” says Vigil.