Watch it! Here comes that crazy coach again...
Heads turned as John Tansley drove his newly modified pickup truck onto the Glendale College track, leaving a mini-dust storm in his wake.
After experimenting with harnesses, ropes and straps, Tansley thought his latest innovation might work. He had just mounted a horizontal bar behind his truck and was eager to test its effectiveness.
"C'mon. Grab on to the bar and I'll give you a tow," Tansley said, motioning to a reluctant sprinter. "You'll run faster than you ever have before. Just make sure you hold on."
The coach's efforts back in the 1970s were aimed at perfecting a supplemental training system for his sprinters--tow training.
He reasoned that sprinters, especially in the 100 meters, are never able to train at speeds faster than race pace as other runners can. This was a way.
"There haven't been any long-term studies on it, we just know it works," said Tansley, 54, now head track and cross-country coach at Cal State Los Angeles, from where he plans to retire after this season, concluding a 30-year coaching career.
"Athletes were apprehensive at first when I started doing it (in 1974). The kids at Glendale were kind of my guinea pigs," he continued. "You just have to start them out slowly. I've towed people up to 27 miles per hour."
Initially, Tansley feared hamstring pulls or other muscle injuries, but the biggest problem he has encountered has been flimsy footwear.
"It really burns the shoes off the kids. We had some blisters and have torn the athlete right out of his shoes on occasion."
Recalled Glendale distance Coach Ed Lopez, who competed for Tansley in the late '70s: "All the guys were afraid to try it. Everybody just stared. They thought he was crazy. It was just one big dust cloud when he brought his little red truck to the track."
Tansley gradually refined his technique, and nowadays his runners use a "speed belt" instead of a truck; two runners don harnesses connected by a 50-foot elastic cord, and the lead runner tows the other. Tansley has distance runners and jumpers using the technique as well.
Previously, he said, a few people did "forward rolls" when they let go of the tow bar on the truck, but that happened only rarely.
"We didn't have the fastest kids at Glendale," Tansley said. "You can't make a racehorse out of a mule. You have to try to get the most of the mule if that's all you have to race with."
In 14 years as track and cross-country coach at Glendale, Tansley got results.
Tansley guided the Vaqueros to four state cross-country championships and one state title in track. Just as impressively, his track teams won 72 consecutive dual meets his last seven years at Glendale.
But in 1981, Tansley left to accept a job at Cal State Long Beach, where as an athlete he set a school record in the long jump and placed third in the 1958 NCAA meet in the javelin.
"I was bored," Tansley said of his decision to leave Glendale. "It gets boring. It really does. I had the longest win streak in community colleges and won eight (track) conference titles in a row. There wasn't much more to do. I needed a new challenge."
Two years later Tansley conquered another one, leading Long Beach to the Pacific Coast Athletic Assn. (now Big West) cross-country title. He was voted conference coach of the year.
In 1984, Tansley--who has worked with Dwight Stones, the former world record-holder in the high jump, and Jeff Nelson, the national high school two-mile record-holder, among others--moved on to Cal State L. A. to take over a track program that had only six athletes the previous year.
The Golden Eagles placed third in the California Collegiate Athletic Assn. in Tansley's inaugural season, but later reeled off four consecutive conference titles and will be going for their fifth at the CCAA championships at UC Riverside in May.
Tansley also coached the Cal State L. A. cross-country program to consecutive NCAA Division II Western Regional cross-country championships and came within two points of a third last fall.
"People thought I was crazy for taking the job at Cal State L. A.," Tansley said. "They had great facilities and I knew there was potential there. I knew it wouldn't take long to win the conference."
But win or lose in May, Tansley still plans to call it quits.
"People change their mind and say 'one more year' and I don't want to do that," said Tansley, who had coached at Glenn, Bellflower and Tustin highs before moving on to Glendale College. "I had planned that this season would be my last about 10 to 15 years ago. I had originally planned to stick around for 30 and that would be it."
But that's not to say retiring to his La Crescenta home will be easy.
"I'm gonna miss the whole works," Tansley said. "I'm gonna miss the athletes, the excitement and the travel."
Although he has no definite plans for next year, Tansley, who has lectured at clinics in Latin America, Asia and Europe, would like to write and pursue speaking opportunities.
"I may coach athletes at an individual level, but probably not at the head coach level," Tansley said. "It's a job just trying to keep on top of eligibility admissions. It's hard on you physically and mentally to stay at the top.
"I'd like to have more time to catch up on things that I have been putting off for the last several years."
Tansley was the U. S. Olympic high jump coach at the 1976 Montreal Games and his 1980 publication on the mechanics of high jumping, "The Flop Book," has sold close to 10,000 copies.
His articles, ranging from the sprint start to how to build a winning track program, have appeared in California Track and Running News, Track Technique and U. S. Coach's Quarterly.
"He's done a lot to promote track and he loves what he does," said Glendale Coach Tom McMurray, who served as an assistant under Tansley for five seasons. "I admire him. John's a winner. He has a lot of knowledge, he's a good motivator and a good technician. He doesn't like coaching teams, he likes coaching people."
Said Jesus Gutierrez, who last season earned All-American honors at Cal State L. A. in cross-country and track: "I was always getting hurt. (Tansley's) training is geared to keep you healthy. I'm running faster than I ever have before.
"Other programs seek immediate results, but he has your long-term progress in mind. Not just during college, but afterwards.
"Whatever he does, it works. He knows what he is doing."