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Jim Munn: Underdog Coach

by John Barbour
 
 
The
view across Gloucester’s Stage Fort Park
from its hilltop gazebo to the harbor beyond is spectacular from any
angle. Add over a thousand middle school runners on its 1.7-mile cross
country course on a clear, cool October day and the sight becomes
jaw-dropping. In a turbulent world, the thought arises: can anything,
anywhere, be better than this?

 

At
the gazebo’s edge sits host coach Jim
Munn
, smiling, cap pulled low against the slanting sun. Jim’s O’Maley
School boys will win their umpteenth conference title that day, but joy will be
muted, for 12 days earlier Coach Munn learned that he had terminal
cancer. The story of how Munn came to be there that day, and how all those
middle schoolers came to race at Stage Fort, is a longer tale then can be told
here. But here goes.

 

The
Munn coaching record with O’Maley cross country and Gloucester High track
speaks for itself, in a word: amazing. It was neither a life he trained
for nor one he’d planned, for in a time of specialization, Jim Munn is a
throwback, a renaissance individual, part-time ‘gentleman coach,’ house painter
by trade, writer; certified at little, experienced at almost everything. It
isn’t surprising that he came to coaching not by aspiration but by simply
trying to be a good father.

 

 “I came to Gloucester in 1973, and when
my oldest son Janda was eight we were walking downtown and saw a sign for the
Blackburn Mile. He said, “Dad, I’d like to run that.’ Being a typical
parent with too much knowledge I said, “Oh no, you have to train for it.’ Two
years later he said, “I really want
to run that.’ So he lines up in the 10-and-under division and finishes 19th,
his eyes big as saucers. He didn’t care if he was first or 98th, he was so
happy. Walking home he said, “Dad, what do you have to do to win?’ That’s
when we started to talk about training, and began to run together. It was a good lesson for me because I’d just quit smoking two packs a day. If was going to  give any good advice then I’d have to be a good example.”                                                                                                                                                                                     (Gloucester’s Good Harbor, Photo by FitzFoto)

 

After
starting middle school Janda came home to report that there was no cross
country team. “I thought they had one,” Jim says. “So I went to see
the principal. He said, “Jim, Gloucester’s a football town, you won’t have
any luck with cross country.’ To his credit, and I’m forever grateful to
him, he gave us a chance,” and the phrase Coach
Munn
was born.  “There was no budget, but they put up some signs and
made some announcements, and we started with five boys and one girl. The
boys went 5-2 and then went on this long winning streak.”

 

Born
in 1938, Munn harbored two of the era’s great dreams: one was to climb Mount
Everest, the other to run a 4-minute mile. He was fascinated by reports
that George Mallory may have reached Everest’s summit in 1924, and with
18-year-old Bob Mathias’ decathlon victory at the London Olympics in
1948. Both barriers were broken before Jim turned 16, but the running
ideal, and the image of reaching for the highest peak, would be lifelong companions
for the self-described underdog.

 

Underdog is Munn’s recurrent theme,
his identity. Despite a middle-class upbringing, fair running success, and
a scholarship in college, Jim developed a lifelong anti-authoritarian
streak. In first grade the left-handed Jimmy kept smearing the page with
ink from inkwells in desks made for righties; the teacher called him up and
told him to write an 8: “I want to show the class how a dummy makes an
eight.” By third grade he’d had it with school, threw his books in an icy
stream, and went home to bed. After moving to a new school and trying out
for basketball, Jim was the last cut, the survivor being a pudgy, uncoordinated
kid whose father was the town’s top lawyer. Hollins College never had an
all-conference cross country runner until Munn did it twice in two years, yet
he was never invited to join the Varsity Club, the exclusive reserve of
football, basketball, and baseball players.

 

 “I was an underachiever with no self
confidence, a classic underdog,” Munn says. But he remembers those who
believed in him: the military school coach who saw Jim jogging off his demerits
and first got him to come out for track; the athletic director at Hollins who,
impressed by Jim’s win in a hard-fought two-mile, called him into the office to
offer a tuition scholarship; even Beat poet Kenneth Rexroth, who invited Jim to
read his poetry at a San Francisco coffeehouse during a brief post-college,
pre-Army-draft adventure there.

 

And
he remembers sitting on a hill that first season telling those kids they should
dream of winning a state championship by the time they finished high
school‰ÛÓwhich they nearly did. And despite stylistic differences, Munn
knows that his teams’ successes fit hand-in-glove with those of Dave Dunsky,
the high school’s cross country coach whose teams won six straight state
championships. “The programs contribute to each other, and Dave’s made a
tremendous contribution to our success in track,” middle school feeding high
school cross, in turn feeding high school track.

 

The
greatest achievement of a Munn-coached team is also the best example of the underdog-antiauthoritarian persona, and
it nearly got him fired. “Leading up to the state outdoor meet in 1997 I
sensed that we could do something special” against favored Brockton and New
Bedford. “Then I saw that graduation was scheduled for the same day. So
I went to the AD, I went to the principal who was adamant about not changing, I
went through all the channels, I couldn’t get it changed. I was
fuming. I knew that if it had been football they’d have made any
accommodation. So I wrote a couple of newspaper columns and the heat
started to build. Then the school committee overruled the principal and
moved graduation to late afternoon. One day as I was headed out to practice the
principal grabs me by the shirt, pushes me against the wall, and says, “You’re
out of here.’

“Meet
day was incredible, I lost all sense of time. We had an upset win in the
hurdles, second in the 200 and mile, and the 4 x 800 team came from behind to win
and cinch the meet.” Both Brockton and New Bedford coaches offered their
congratulations.  “The New Bedford coach said, “This is the best thing
that could happen to the sport in this state.’ It was tremendous of him to
say that.

 

 “The seniors returned as soon as their
events were over, and the rest of us pulled in near the end of
graduation.  I’m stupid and naïve enough to carry this big trophy, and
there’s the superintendent and the principal, both looking at me.  I
probably shouldn’t have done this but I said, “I want to thank you gentlemen
for pushing graduation back a few hours and allowing our Gloucester track and
field team the opportunity to win its first-ever all-state championship.’ You
know what they did? They both turned around and walked away.”

 

Jim’s
grandmother once told him that he’d either be an artist or a minister, and in
some ways both came true. “I don’t believe in separation of the physical
and the intellectual, they’re integrated. Then there’s a whole other side,
the creative, that’s an avenue for the pursuit of excellence.  Once that
gun goes off, you’re free. This is our stage, daily practice is our sacred
space and sacred time. If you’re the type of coach who’s there to be a
servant in the truest sense, your ego begins to decline as you realize the
importance of what you might have to offer, and for a program to succeed you
have to have all the ingredients in harmony, with the sense that the coach is
not above anyone, but a servant.

 

Jim
Munn’s servanthood, which began with a half-dozen middle schoolers in 1987, now
includes the thousand-plus gathered at Stage Fort Park from all over the
region, not to mention the new all-state middle school meet, a direct outgrowth
of this one’s success. He has nurtured more champions and garnered more
championships than most coaches dare imagine, but to Munn it’s always been
about team: athletes and coaches
together, ordinary people working toward a higher goal. And as the sun
dips behind the trees and evening chill begins to close over Stage Fort, this
amateur coach and imperfect person thinks about the journey from underdog
dreamer to successful coach who just wanted to be a good dad.

Well
done, good and faithful servant.

 

Jim Munn – By the Numbers
While
wins and losses are probably the least favorite thing that  retiring Gloucester coach Jim Munn likes
to talk about, the numbers serve to show that building character and a winning
record go hand in hand. And, in the sport where he started coaching, fall cross
country, Munn  took the program at
Gloucester’s O’Maley Middle school from a six runner program to over 100 youth,
and amassed nearly 200 consecutive wins during the harrier season.


 Outdoor track
– 121-6 record
– 10 Northeastern Conference championships
– 1 MIAA all-state and two runner-up positions (despite not having
the opportunity of competing in the javelin and pole vault)
 
Indoor Track
– 136-4 record (2 losses in same year)
– 13 NEC titles
– One all-state championship, 4 runners-up, 6 State Class B Championships
– National High School Distance Medley Relay record, 2000
– dozens of Globe and Herald all-scholastics
 ‰ÛÓCompiled by Steve Vaitones

 


 

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