His name is “Coach.” That is all I have ever called him. In the 1970s, I had the great privilege of running for Coach Brent Haley at Largo High School. Brent Haley coached cross-country and track for 26 years at Largo and won 10 state championships and six state runner-ups. They have just renamed the Largo track in his honor. It is only fitting. He influenced countless young lives, mine included, and his enduring legacy continues to this day.
Coach Haley worked tirelessly to learn the best coaching techniques and to design tailored workouts for all of his runners. He had us running “1,000 mile” summers back in an era when running wasn’t as popular as it is today. I can remember running trails along Clearwater Beach with my teammates in the early ‘70s and people would stick their head out of the car and yell, “Where’s the fire?”
More than anything else, he wanted us to be a team. He taught us to run as a pack. To look out for one another. In cross-country, you score five people and the lowest cumulative score wins. So it doesn’t matter if you have a superstar who can win the race if the other four runners can’t also finish up in the mix. We wore blue shirts, and we ran together — a sea of blue jerseys. Opposing teams would often tell us they knew they were in trouble when the entire blue “pack” passed them.
His workouts were hard and demanding, more so as you got better and as the state championship meet approached. I remember writing a letter to Coach when I was the captain of a U.S. Navy warship in the Persian Gulf, during a particularly “busy” time. I said in the letter that, yes, the situation was demanding, but nothing like running “five in five, with five.” This was a workout Coach designed where he would time us as we ran five separate interval miles, in five minutes flat, with five minutes of rest between each mile.
Coach Haley didn’t just want us to win, which we did, he wanted us to have fun. I still laugh at all of Coach Haley’s funny sayings. We would be lining up for a race and he would say things like, “Stay on your race pace. Don’t go out too fast and have that bear jump on your back.”
Another time, Coach took us to dinner at a fancy restaurant in Miami to celebrate after the Junior Olympics. I ordered lemon meringue pie for dessert and butchered the pronunciation. While everybody at the table was laughing, Coach says, “That sounds good, I think I’ll have some of that ‘Lemon Ma-Ring-Gee’ pie as well.”
Coach Haley is an entirely unselfish human being. He would give everything to his runners: from his time, to his advice and sometimes when needed, his stern words or discipline. He was often shelling out his own money for the benefit of the team, and perhaps for some students who may have come from a more disadvantaged background. I remember him helping one runner with some better running shoes. Yes, they were expensive even back then. He would drive us to running meets across the state in his old station wagon, often with his wife, Linda, driving the trail car behind us.
Coach Haley led us to form lifelong friendships. Isn’t that really what it is all about? If you can count just one person in life as a true friend, that really is something to cherish. Bill Winters, now a prominent lawyer in Tampa, was my teammate for all four years at Largo. But he is much more than that. I knew him when we were both just 14 years old and riding our bikes to practice. I know him now, and all the good work that he has done, and still count him as my best friend. Besides, he was the main reason we won the state championship our senior year.
Spend your days with Hayes
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As a retired military officer, I am often thanked for my service. But aren’t we really all in service? It is high time that we thank our teachers for their selfless service. For teaching our children, for being guideposts for students to steer by as they journey through school and life. Alice Freeman Palmer, who was president of Wellesley College, once said, “It is people that count — you put yourself in people, they touch other people; these, others still, and so you go on working forever.” Coach Haley will go on working forever. Please join me in saluting this wonderful teacher, this prince of a man, my Coach whom I love.
William McQuilkin is a retired U.S. Navy rear admiral and grew up on the Gulf Coast of Florida.