Ron Garner apologized for rambling, but the past several days on his native Peninsula practically overwhelmed him.
As an assistant coach with national track and field power South Carolina, Garner reconnected with old friends and made recruiting contacts. He traipsed around his beloved alma mater, Christopher Newport, at a USA Track and Field regional junior Olympic meet. He visited family and scarcely believed his good fortune.
“I find myself at an age where I’m easily humbled. I’m walking around CNU looking at the facilities and the fact that they’re holding a big meet there and thinking, this is what Coach Brown and I imagined a long time ago,” Garner said, referring to his college coach, the Captains’ retired legend, Vince Brown. “When I look around and see (my) former athletes coaching and having success all over the country, I’m just humbled and so proud.”
One year ago, the 53-year-old Garner was in the midst of the third or fourth recalibration of a coaching career that’s spanned 30 years. He was waiting on callbacks related to a couple of high school athletic job openings here on the Peninsula.
Though he had coached dozens of college All-Americans at stops that included Clemson, Illinois, Virginia and James Madison, he would have been content relocating home and working with kids of all ages.
“It’s not about national championships or the caliber of talent you get to work with,” Garner said. “It’s about helping people reach their potential.”
While waiting for those local callbacks, Garner received a text from South Carolina coach Curtis Frye, a longtime friend and sometime competitor who had an opening on his staff.
“He doesn’t owe me anything,” Garner said, “but based on a relationship, he wanted to see me have an opportunity to coach again. That’s very gratifying. It’s been the easiest transition.”
Garner, Frye and Gamecocks’ recruiting coordinator Kevin Brown were in town for the USA Track and Field junior Olympic meet, an age-group competition that attracted well over 1,000 kids, and for a recruiting home visit. Garner stuck around an extra day for this week’s Virginia High School Coaches’ Association clinics.
It’s all part of the Gamecocks’ push to increase their visibility and to recruit more in Virginia. Garner and Brown, a Richmond native, are well aware of some of the state’s best young talent. Their approach, which meshes with that of Frye, is to connect with kids and coaches as early as possible.
“You’re not looking at them just for talent,” Garner said. “You’ve got to see people evolve. You can go to national championship meets and see a kid, but you don’t see who they are or where they come from. It’s important to get an idea of how a kid might fit into your program.”
Garner’s Peninsula visit brought back his coaching roots. After graduating from CNU in 1982, he was a young assistant on Brown’s staff, and in the summers he worked with the local Inside Track club, where long hours, lengthy van rides and fund-raisers were the norm.
He was appreciative of the attention that established track coaches paid him, so he tries to pay it forward when possible with the present crop of young and club coaches.
Garner said that he is blessed to have worked with college coaching luminaries such as Frye, Gary Winkler at Illinois and the late Bob Pollock at Clemson. But his time away made him appreciate the coaching talent in this area that shaped him, men such as Brown, Charlie Nuttycombe, Jimmy Johnson, Thad Madden, Jim Hubbard, Doug Dickinson, Raymond Pollard and Dennis Kozlowski.
Garner has plenty of opinions on present-day youth athletic culture. He encourages athletes to compete in multiple sports in order to broaden their skills and not burn them out. He believes that club and summer-league coaches should be more accountable for kids’ academic preparedness.
Many of his thoughts are products of his own experiences. He hasn’t followed the typical coaching career path. He dialed back a couple of times for family reasons. He left the women’s head coaching position at Clemson to join his wife, Disa, who was volleyball coach at Missouri, then at James Madison. He once worked at Lowe’s for an 18-month stretch when he was unable to find work in coaching or academic fields.
Garner landed what he believed was a dream job at the time when he was named head coach at Christopher Newport in 2005, replacing Brown. But he resigned after four months, following a misunderstanding with school president Paul Trible over remarks Garner made in a newspaper story.
Garner set aside the disappointment over the CNU situation as the couple remained in Harrisonburg. He ran study halls and did academic work at JMU. He helped Disa run successful volleyball camps. He dabbled in volunteer coaching and pursued several college jobs before the South Carolina opportunity came open.
Garner again is energized, working for a man he respects and admires at a school that he believes can compete for national championships. But more important is the path they travel to get there.
“Coach Frye always talks about building relationships,” Garner said. “You have to build relationships. That’s what sustains you during tough times, the relationships you build. That’s what we’re trying to do.”Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun