Anne Arundel County had captured just one state championship in cross country when Ed Purpura began coaching the sport.
Purpura wound up leading teams that claimed the second and fourth cross country state titles in Anne Arundel County history.
Purpura began his coaching career at Meade High as an assistant indoor and outdoor track and field coach under Jay Cuthbert. He was named head coach of cross country and led the Mustangs boys to a region championship.
After a two-year stint as head coach of cross country, indoor track and field and outdoor track and field at Glen Burnie High, Purpura moved to Broadneck High to lead all three sports.
Scott Baker and Keith Bigelow finished sixth and seventh to lead the way as the Broadneck boys captured the Class A state championship in 1984. It was the first cross country state crown for a county school since Brooklyn Park took home the title in 1966.
The Bruins placed five runners among the top 14 finishers at the state meet held on the grueling course at Hereford High and Purpura was rather nonchalant about the accomplishment.
“What bothers me is that now, all of a sudden, I get credit for being a great coach. I didn’t do anything special. We just had more talent than anyone else,” Purpura said afterward.
It was quite a different story in 1998, when Purpura directed the Severna Park girls to the fourth state championship in Anne Arundel County history. The Falcons had been runner-up at the state meet in Purpura’s second season at the helm (1989) and had been working hard to get atop the podium ever since.
Dulaney High was blocking the way, winning five state championships in six years. Severna Park had five returning All-County runners in 1998 and Purpura predicted the squad would challenge for state honors.
However, Dulaney remained formidable and the idea of snapping the Baltimore County school’s run of four straight state titles seemed daunting. Purpura realized the Falcons could dethrone the Lions when he counted five runners on the infamous Hereford High hill at the same time.
“I remember I broke down and cried right on that hill because I wanted this win so bad for those girls,” Purpura told The Capital recently.
Bonnie Sowa finished 11th to lead an incredibly tight pack of runners as Severna Park wound up beating Dulaney by 25 points. Liz Funk (14th), Jaimie Chase (19th), Becky Chwan (21st) and Jenna Nugent (25th) rounded out the scoring for the Falcons.
“We’ve been running into a wall against Dulaney, which has been so good for so long,” Purpura told the media afterward. “This time, we got to switch places with them at the awards ceremony.”
Purpura, who was named Capital Gazette Coach of the Year a total of 35 times, developed eight individual state champs and five relay state titlists. He was named Metro Coach of the Year by The Baltimore Sun five times and by The Washington Post twice.
“It was an absolute pleasure to work with these amazing, wonderful kids every day,” Purpura said. “I coached 107 seasons and it was always the interpersonal relationships with the athletes, assistant coaches and alumni that made it so rewarding.”
Hall of Fame career
Severna Park girls cross country would win three more state championships in 2005, 2006 and 2009, giving Purpura a total of five as a head coach. Those were the highlights of a remarkable 37-year career in which Purpura coached 107 seasons.
Purpura, who grew up in Millersville and later lived in Arnold, will become just the second track and field coach inducted into the Anne Arundel County Sports Hall of Fame next month. He joins legendary Old Mill mentor Ron Evans, who did not coach cross country.
“I’m very happy about this honor because I was told when I got the job at Severna Park that no coach who didn’t work in the building would ever win a state championship,” said Purpura, who decisively proved a high-ranking Anne Arundel County athletics administrator wrong on that point.
Purpura proved his ability to develop athletes during the four-year stint at Broadneck, which also secured a county championship along with two region crowns in boys cross country and two region titles on the girls’ side.
Purpura took over at Severna Park in 1988 and wound up staying for 28 years and 84 seasons before retiring in 2016. Severna Park girls cross country became a dynasty with streaks of 10 county championships and 13 region crowns in a row.
Severna Park cross country captured 33 county championships and 30 region championships under Purpura’s direction. The Falcons also claimed three county championships and four region titles in indoor track, along with two county championships and three region crowns in outdoor track.
From sprinter to distance standout
Purpura grew up in Arizona until the age of 10, then moved to Millersville when his father, a career Army man, was stationed at Fort Meade. He discovered track and field while in sixth grade when a physical education teacher at Benfield Elementary held a competition to determine which students would participate in a Kiwanis Youth Track Meet at Severna Park High.
A few years later, as an eighth grader at Severna Park Junior High, Purpura ran the 400-yard dash in 61 seconds to establish himself as a talented sprinter. He moved on to Severna Park High and was a member of the track and field team coached by Andy Borland and the cross country program led by longtime coach Jim Patton.
Borland, who served 25 seasons as varsity football coach at Severna Park, was the athletic director who brought Purpura back to his alma mater. The 1971 graduate replaced Patton as cross country coach.
As a competitor, Purpura evolved from a sprinter to a distance runner and was the county champion in the 2-mile run as a junior. He ran cross country and distance events in track and field at Anne Arundel Community College, University of Maryland and Towson State College.
Purpura returned to Anne Arundel County as a physical education teacher at Richard Henry Lee Elementary and remained there throughout his entire coaching career, which began in 1977 at Meade.
It was unique that Purpura enjoyed so much success coaching at schools in which he did not teach. For 28 years, he arrived at Severna Park High in the afternoon to gather the athletes and get organized for that day’s practice.
“I can’t tell you how many times teachers tried to stop me from going in the building because they didn’t know who I was,” Purpura said.
Praised by colleagues
Purpura’s reputation as a supportive coach who made the sport fun routinely drew high participation with more than 100 girls coming out for track and field.
There was one cross country season in which the Falcons had 60 girls on the team and their combined GPA was 4.1. “I coached athletes that were super motivated in the classroom and super-motivated on the course or track,” Purpura said.
Patton was only three years older than Purpura when he started coaching him in cross country. They were opponents when Purpura was at Meade, Glen Burnie and Broadneck, then worked together when Patton returned to Severna Park as an assistant.
“It was fun working with Ed because we had been friends for so long,” said Patton, now a professional musician living in Austin, Texas. “Coaching was Ed’s passion, and he was very dedicated.”
Borland, who was athletic director during Purpura’s early years at Severna Park, noted it is not easy to coach both boys and girls teams simultaneously. He remembers Purpura pushing hard for cross country/track and field to be treated the same as more mainstream sports.
“Ed made himself available equally to all the athletes and was really, really involved with their development,” Borland said. “He believed strongly in the importance of the sports he coached and fought for them.” Dana Dobbs served as an assistant to Purpura at Severna Park for a decade before becoming head coach of the cross country and track and field programs at Broadneck High. He was always impressed by Purpura’s ability to get athletes to believe in themselves
“Ed poured his heart and soul into coaching and was deeply reflective if things did not go well for the team or an individual athlete,” Dobbs said. “Absolutely everything Ed did was for his teams. He was the most selfless coach I’ve ever known.”
That commitment to the student-athletes earned their enduring respect and loyalty. Purpura estimated he has more than 100 Facebook friends who are former Severna Park cross country runners or track and field performers.
“I would describe Ed’s coaching style as structured and disciplined with a twist of ‘what you learn here can help you in life.’ Ed, as a person, is deeply philosophical and he brings that philosophic approach to his coaching,” Dobbs said.
Dobbs would enjoy tremendous success himself at Broadneck High, developing several future college standouts along with three-time Olympian Matthew Centrowitz. Having been a decathlete, Dobbs had special appreciation for the technical events and sprints.
As an assistant at Severna Park, Dobbs repeatedly questioned why Purpura initially put every runner into the 800-meter race. It wasn’t until years later, as a head coach, that Dobbs realized that event was a benchmark that foretold the versatility of an athlete in terms of whether they could move up or down in distance.
“Ed helped broaden my perspective for events beyond 400 meters. I learned how to structure workouts for distance runners. I learned out to structure the training season for peak performance at the right time,” Dobbs said. “After working with, watching and learning from Ed, I felt like I was ready when the time came to move on.”
Anne Arundel County Sports Hall of Fame
WHAT: 30th annual Anne Arundel County Sports Hall of Fame induction banquet
WHO: Todd Beckerman (Crofton, wrestling); Kyle Beckerman (Crofton, soccer); Ed Purpura (Millersville, cross country/track and field coach); George Spriggs (Tracy’s Landing, baseball), Clay White (Pasadena, lacrosse coach); Charles “Tut” O’Hara (Gambrills, Bernie Walter Memorial Service Award)
WHEN: Oct. 13. WHERE: La Fontaine Bleu, Glen Burnie
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TICKETS: $45 per person. Call Chris Smith (240-508-3568)