WILLIAMSBURG — Dan Stimson sat in the motorized wheelchair that's his home for most of his waking hours these days and discussed coaching, his mountainous career at William and Mary and the reasons behind his pending retirement.
"The hardest part is," he said earnestly, "I can't do some of the legwork I used to do."
No pun intended. Stimson realized what he said, and out came that big, booming laugh that's echoed through William and Mary Hall and across Zable Stadium for almost three decades.
"Hey, I don't need a podiatrist any more," he said, a playful nod to the amputations below both knees. "My podiatrist called me in the hospital after the second surgery and said how sorry he was that I lost my foot. I told him, I don't think I need your services any more."
Stimson laughed again and you knew that it was good, that he was good. The common phrase about being "confined to a wheelchair" doesn't apply to him. Limited? Yeah. Confined? Never.
Not for someone who never made it about himself, who never lost sight of the reason he coached. A gregarious bear of a man, he rebuilt the Tribe track and field program practically from scratch through hard work, knowledge, force of personality and an unwavering commitment to the athletes who chose to cast their lot with him and his school.
Stimson, 65, leaves behind a program in far better shape than he found it. He and the remarkable staffs he assembled turned an underfunded program at a top-shelf academic institution into a state, a regional and even a national presence. He steps down officially — he will remain a volunteer coach with the program and help in any way possible — only because he can no longer travel easily and he refuses to shortchange the athletes.
"My appreciation grew dramatically when I got here, to see what he had to work with and how he did it and how he sustained it over the last 28 years," said Stephen Walsh, who succeeded Stimson as program director after stints at Providence and Penn. "I respected the guy for years before coming here — he was always friendly with me and we got along well — but when I got here and saw how he worked with the kids and how he ran the program, it was very eye-opening for me and what he'd done and what he's been able to accomplish over the last 28 years."
Longtime William and Mary track benefactor Randy Hawthorne said that if the CAA had a Dan Stimson University, it would rank third in the number of conference titles among all schools and all sports.
Indeed, only James Madison (71) and Old Dominion (51) have more total CAA titles than W&M track's 49 under Stimson's direction. Add the seven titles the Tribe has won since he stepped down as director three years ago and assumed a regular staff position, and Dan Stimson U. would be second overall.
"He's probably the most underrated coach in William and Mary history," said Hawthorne, a W&M graduate who has been affiliated with the school for 51 years.
William and Mary men's cross country qualified for 14 consecutive NCAA meets when Stimson was director, one of only five schools to do so during that period. The others: bigfoot programs Stanford, Arkansas, Wisconsin and Colorado. Imagine Davidson men's basketball reaching six or eight consecutive NCAA Sweet Sixteens. That's the kind of territory Tribe cross country reached.
Stimson came to William and Mary because the athletic director who recruited him, the late John Randolph, was himself a former track and field coach and appreciated the sport. He remained at William and Mary because of people such as Hawthorne, the longtime president of the Spiked Shoe Society who has helped raise millions for the program, and the parade of athletes that have come through the school.
Stimson coached Olympians, national champions and dozens of All-Americans in a career that, so far, spans 43 years. He coached athletes who barely scratched a scoresheet. He coached all of them with the same dedication, and he treated everyone with the same level of respect.
"I think athletics sometimes gets caught up in the idea that your value is determined by how well you're performing, and Dan was always able to divorce those two things," said George Mason track and field director Andy Gerard, who worked at W&M under Stimson from 1997-2003. "Dan didn't shy away from telling you when you didn't perform well, but he always made you feel — it's kind of a cliché — but he always made you feel loved."
Gerard said that Stimson turned William and Mary track into a family, not always an easy sell in a sport oriented toward individual performances. Gerard often marveled at the closeness within the program.
"The athletic results speak for themselves," Gerard said. "Those are things people see, people read. The names are known — they were all-Americans. Dan's bigger legacy really is that those kids, if they were the names you read in the paper, those kids were connected to William and Mary. If they were names you never read in the paper, they were connected to William and Mary. Dan was kind of the glue that connected them all. You were family. When you came to William and Mary, he really meant that you were family. That's probably the biggest thing that I took with me and I've tried to carry forward."
Stimson's aim all along, he said, was to create an environment in which young people could thrive. Athletics in general, and track and field in particular, simply provided a vehicle.
"We want kids that want to come to practice," he said. "We want them to want to get better and try to keep it as a sport. It's supposed to be fun. Sometimes in athletics, you get worried about how much you're winning. I think the main thing is that I want them to have fun trying to get better, they're going to strive to do that. They will have teammates that they like. They will be able to represent themselves, and their family and the college in a very positive way.
"You start out with a great product and good parenting and try to continue it. Hopefully, as they get older, you should be doing less and less for them because you want to create people that are going to be viable adults when they get out of here. … In the end, that's what we're paying all this money for, for education, to create better citizens."
Stimson said that if not for his health issues, he wouldn't retire. He is predisposed to blood clots in his legs and had his first serious bout after returning from the 2008 Olympic trials, when he spent seven hours on a plane. His right leg was amputated below the knee in August 2010, his left leg last June.
Wheelchair-bound or not, Stimson is one of the most respected throws and jumps coaches in the country. He was nurtured by people such as Hall of Fame track coach Stan Huntsman at Tennessee and his Miami of Ohio mentor, Chuck Zody. He came up in the era before specialization, when coaches had to be knowledgeable and fluent in many events.
"Despite the fact that Dan is missing, now, two legs, his best thing has always been his eyes," said Michigan men's cross country coach Alex Gibby, who ran the Tribe's men's track program from 2003-10. "He's able to track the technical movement of events and he's able to relate it to people that learn in really different manners. You can talk about left brain and right brain, the artists versus the engineers — or at William and Mary the physicists. Despite his limitations, that really hasn't changed his basic nature, his ability to interact with other human beings, as well as his coaching gifts."
Stimson's ability to identify and nurture coaches might be just as remarkable as the work he does with athletes. Former men's coach Walt Drenth left Wiliam and Mary to coach at Arizona State and now Michigan State. Gerard became national coach of the year at Stanford before coming back to the east coast and George Mason. Gibby aims to get Michigan's cross country program where W&M's is.
Gibby knows Stimson on three levels — as a former runner at W&M, an assistant coach, and then as head men's coach, before he went to Michigan in 2010. He admitted that he sometimes took Stimson for granted when he was an athlete, but said that his appreciation for his old coach and boss has grown as he's moved through the profession.
"He's a throws coach," Gibby said. "While we put some resources into the throws, Dan did a really good job of finding developmental athletes out of various areas of the state and country, that would come in and perform, that appreciated the William and Mary degree and were willing to come for practically just that.
"As such, you could extend resources into areas that weren't necessarily under his control. He understood that William and Mary's a very unique fit for distance runners. You could build an outstanding distance and middle-distance squad there, so he put the vast majority of resources not in his own back pocket, but in someone else's and a lot of times that someone else was less experienced and a lot younger than him. He did a great job of bringing that person along in coaching."
Stimson rarely micromanaged the coaches who worked for him. That's a product of his connections in the track and field world that help him identify those who fit at W&M, as well as his own security.
"He wanted to see what you could do," Gibby said. "He would correct, he would encourage, he would teach. He would share some of his own experiences, certainly, but you weren't afraid to fail with Dan. You weren't afraid to make a good-hearted mistake if you were acting in the program's and the student-athlete's best interest. That's unusual, as well."
Stimson has been honored and recognized by the school in several ways. The throwing facility, with an Olympic-style cage, circles for the shot put, discus and hammer, and a javelin runway, was named for him. He was named an honorary alumnus in 2011. He was inducted into the Tribe Athletic Hall of Fame earlier this spring.
He is grateful for the concessions and adjustments made at William and Mary Hall and around the athletic facilities that have allowed him easier navigation in his wheelchair. He hopes not to need the wheelchair so much in the coming months. He attends regular physical therapy sessions and will be fitted with prosthetic legs. He aims to walk with the aid of a walker, perhaps as early as the fall.
Stimson also must adjust to a life that doesn't revolve around coaching.
"I have 43 years of 'honey-do' lists I haven't done," he joked, "even though I'm going to yell, 'disability.'"
Disability is a word that's never been associated with Stimson, whose program at William and Mary has stronger legs than he could have imagined.
Fairbank can be reached by phone at 757-247-4637.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun