MARSHALL - In 1978, a 30-year-old Mike Jacobs started jogging in an attempt get back down to his high school weight and reclaim his waistline because, as he puts it, "it had all kind of gone wacko."
Around that time there was a coaching shortage at Marshall High School, where Jacobs was an art teacher. Though he had never been much of a runner, a year of jogging made Jacobs the resident running expert and he was asked to be the Marshall assistant cross country coach in 1979. The team's head coach left at the end of the year, and in 1980, Jacobs took over the head-coaching position.
Twice as old as his athletes, Jacobs had about half as much running experience as some of them.
"I just kind of stumbled into it," Jacobs said. "As far as cross country, anything about the sport, I really basically knew nothing.
"Like anybody else, you go to a lot of clinics, read a lot of magazines and books and just kind of immerse yourself in that kind of information. It was a lot of trial and error."
Jacobs tried many different techniques to motivate and train his runners, including a lot of silly things he certainly didn't learn from any books or magazines. The funny thing was, a lot of them worked.
Jacobs, now 63, will enter his 33rd year as Marshall head cross country coach in the fall, though this will be the first time he will coach just the boys' team and not the girls. During his tenure, he's led the Tiger boys to 18 conference championships, five Class AA state appearances and two state titles (2003 and 2004). The team's winning score of 34 at the 2004 state meet was one of the lowest in state history. The girls have won 12 conference titles and made 10 state meet appearances, including seven straight from 1994-2000.
Not a bad rsum for a laid back, guitar-strumming art teacher who had never even considered coaching until he was approached to be Marshall's cross country assistant in 1979.
On Tuesday, Jacobs will be inducted into the Minnesota High School Cross Country Coaches Association Hall of Fame at the organization's annual clinic, which will be held at Champlin Park High School. His coaching methods likely differ from those of most other hall of fame inductees, but, as his former and current runners will attest to, he is no less effective in motivating his athletes and planting the seed for a love of distance running.
Nichole Porath, formerly Nichole Petersen, ran cross country for Marshall for six years until she graduated in 2001. The Tiger girls' team made the state meet every year she was out for the sport. She went on to become a standout distance runner for Gustavus Adolphus, and in January of this year she finished in 69th place at the U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials in Houston.
Porath has had a number of different coaches over the years who have helped her become the runner she is today, but it was Jacobs' unorthodox training drills and unique style that fostered her passion for running.
"One of the things I specifically remember that I've never had another coach come close to doing was these step things where you'd have to step in place as fast as you could," she explained, "so you were kind of running in place, and he would yell out a random 'Yep!' and you'd have to raise your right arm or raise your left arm.
"I don't know what that had to do with running, I'm sure there was a purpose, but we'd all just laugh about it. It was just random things that he threw into workouts that made it fun and adventurous and kept us all interested."
Cross country is a taxing sport for both the body and mind. Push a young athlete too hard, too early and there's a good chance he/she will give up and look for another activity to join.
For Jacobs, it's been hard enough trying to recruit athletes while going up against the popular fall sports of football and volleyball, along with the various other activities offered at the school. When he gets students to go out for cross country, he wants to make sure he keeps them out.
From the time he took over as head coach with very little experience, Jacobs already had a sense that he had to make cross country fun. His knowledge of distance running has grown immensely since those early days, but he said the way he coaches is still largely the same.
"Coaching style in cross country, I think, reflects an awful lot of the personality of the coach," Jacobs said. "I'm a little more laid back in terms of I like to keep it light, I like the relationships one is able to establish with an athlete. I don't so much want to be a dictator, never have. That's just not my personality.
"I'll try to sqeeze the most I can out of an athlete or a team, but if they're not having fun, then you have a problem. I think that's one of the things that my longevity, in terms of being able to stick around, is I do like to have more fun and try to keep it lighter."
Bart Johnson, a 2004 Marshall graduate, said his father urged him go out for cross country in junior high. He didn't like it at first because he said he wasn't in very good shape. As his fitness level improved, so did his attitude towards running. He went on to help the Tiger boys win the Class AA state championship in 2003, and later ran for Augustana College.
Johnson, who recently took 30th at Grandma's Marathon in Duluth, said he grew to love running because of Jacobs. Even when the coach made workouts hard on his runners, Johnson said Jacobs somehow still found a way to make them fun.
"He would have a drawing of himself with fire coming out of his nostrils, then on the other side of the poster it would say 'Finish Strong'," Johnson said. "If he flipped it to 'Finish Strong' we would finish that lap on the track, but if he flipped it to the other side, we'd have to do another half lap as hard as we could.
"It was a hard workout, but it was such a funny thing to see the drawing that you saw it more as a game than as punishment or something that was really difficult."
Jacobs, who retired from teaching in 2011, has always enjoyed letting his artistic side come through in his coaching. From designing team t-shirts, to putting together a yearly scrapbook that contains newspaper clippings, photos and drawings and has grown to 130 pages, his added flair has helped his runners believe they are truly part of something special.
Porath fought back tears as she recalled songs that Jacobs would perform for the team at the end-of-the-season banquet.
"He said that (getting to state) was something that was a very difficult achievement and everyone needed to step up, so he said he felt he needed to do something that was just as difficult for him," Porath said.
"He'd always say that if the team made it to state he would sing a song that he wrote himself at the banquet and that it would be very special to all the women, all the seniors, who made state. He'd get up with his guitar and just strum away. Those memories from the years he did that are very special to me."
In turn, the memories his athletes have produced have been special for Jacobs. Most recently, he saw seniors Grant VanKeulen and Chad DeAustin help lead the Marshall boys to state in the fall of 2011, the team's first appearance in seven years. He also coached an individual state champion, Yahya Iman, in 2004. Jacobs said it was an especially thrilling time when the Marshall boys claimed back-to-back team titles in 2003 and 2004.
"I was just along for the ride," Jacobs said. "I was going to enjoy them whether they made it to state or not, but it was their dream and they were living and breathing it. I think the most rewarding thing was just to see how happy they were and how accomplished they felt they were to get there and do well and to dominate as they did (in 2004)."
Quick to point out that he's had plenty of help along the way, Jacobs said his assistants have also played a major role in Marshall's cross country success. Marie Sample, an accomplished distance runner who has served as an assistant for the past 12 years, will take over the Tiger girls' team next season to lighten Jacobs' workload.
Jacobs, who has completed 10 marathons himself, used to help train his athletes by running along with them, but has had to cut back on that over the last three cross country seasons due to various medical ailments. Instead, he's been using a bike to lead the pack and set the pace, or fall back and encourage the slower runners.
Retired from teaching, Jacobs said he's not yet sure when he'll leave coaching. In the past he's told himself he'll leave once the program runs out of good runners, but the issue is, it never has. He said he's always looking forward to seeing what the younger kids can do.
"I think I see the light at the end of the tunnel," Jacobs said. "I'm not predicting when it's going to happen because, like in track, I've said I've been done coaching that for the last four years.
"(Marshall activities director Bruce) Remme's pretty shrewd. He knows I'm a procrastinator, always have been. He always says, 'Don't make up your mind yet. Sit back and think about it for a while.'"