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Villanova Track Blast from the Past

February 23, 1999

VILLANOVA, Pa. - To hear Jim Tuppeny tell the story of his life, you would be tempted to think that most of his accomplishments were the result of someone else looking out for him. He is, after all, as liberal with the thank you's as he is with his own time and energy. But assuming that his credentials owe more to the kindness of others than to his own hard work and talent would be a mistake. And it would be an even bigger mistake to not recognize that, over the five decade span of his career, this legendary coach has affected and is still affecting the lives of more people than are seated in the stands on a Penn Relay's Saturday.

Tuppeny, or "Tupp" as many call him, first began coaching nearly 50 years ago, but his involvement with track and field dates back even before. Growing up in Sharon Hills, PA, he and his brother Chuck, later a respected track coach and member of the Christian Brothers religious order, would play track and field. Literally. While other kids in their neighborhood were playing baseball or football, the Tuppeny brothers were staging track meets along a nearby cinder road.

"We lived a block from the railroad tracks, which had a service road made of cinder along side it," said Tuppeny. "It was about 250 yards long and 15 feet wide. We measured off a quarter mile, and my dad built us these hurdles. Where he got the wood, I don't know and they were pretty flimsy, but we had them."

The homemade hurdles weren't the only creation of these inventive track fans.

"One time my parents were putting in a new bannister, so I used some of the wood to make a pole for the pole vault. My dad even built a little plant box (where) for the pole (went) when you vaulted," said Tuppeny. "And we did shot put with a great big rock we had found, and discus with this four-pound iron quoit my dad and his friends used. No javelin, though. We didn't try that."

So, long before his future high school and college opponents ever got near a real track, the young Tuppeny was already a proficient hurdler and pole vaulter.

"I was a little bit ahead," he admitted with characteristic understatement.

His parents sacrificed during the meagerness of the Depression Era to send their boys to Catholic schools, including West Catholic High School, which dominated Philadelphia area high school track and field then.

"We weren't competing for our athletes with all the other sports that you have now," said Tuppeny. "There was no baseball team at our school, probably because there just wasn't enough space. Consequently a lot of kids went out for track. We also had intramural track where each section of each class had a track team. My freshman class had eight sections, so we had eight teams and everybody did it."

Tuppeny recounted how invitational meets were staged nearly every weekend around the area, often by colleges like Villanova.

"In fact, Villanova still owes me some medals," Tuppeny said. "It was 1942 and because of the war, there just wasn't the metal to make them, so they send them to us when there was, but they never did!"

During his high school career, Tuppeny accrued Catholic and City League Championships in the pole vault, high jump and hurdles events, but his college career would be delayed three years. In 1943, Tuppeny enlisted in the Navy. Fresh out of high school and fresh into boot camp, he would have his first experience with looking out for the welfare of others, though he didn't exactly covet the responsibility.

"The one thing my father told me before I went off was to never volunteer," said Tuppeny. "But we got there, and they asked if anyone had any experience with marching and drilling. I had been involved with drum and bugle corps since fifth grade, so I said yes. Next thing I know I was in charge of 48 other men, some of them older than 40".

Tuppeny moved up rapidly in the ranks during his three-year tenure in the Navy. He saw action in the Pacific area, including the Invasion of Okinawa. Entering Japan through mine-strewn waters just after the war ended also remains fixed in his memories of the war, as does a tour through the Phillippines.

"We were walking around there one day, and suddenly we heard this music," said Tuppeny, who by then was a chief motor machinist with his unit. "We came around this corner and saw a partially bombed out shell of a church. There were 20 or 30 little girls, all in white veils and dresses, making their first holy Communion. It was just amazing that in the midst of all that, God still prevailed."

When Tuppeny returned home from the war, he entered LaSalle College (now University)in Philadelphia. Life became a bit of a roller coaster: Both his parents passed away during his sophomore year, but he also married his high-school sweetheart Kathleen, known to most as "Kass".

Again, he couldn't duck the mantle of leadership for long, becoming captain of the track team at LaSalle. The team won the Mid-Atlantic Championships during his time there, and Tuppeny was also undefeated in dual meet competition for the pole vault. Multiple conference and local AAU Championships also followed in the pole vault, high hurdles, and long jump.

Following his graduation from LaSalle in 1950, Tuppeny's talent for being in the right place at the right time really began to emerge. A one-time visit to speak with students at Malvern Prep about track yielded a job offer to teach social studies and start up a track team there.

"It was only supposed to be for a short while, but I liked it so much I stuck around," Tuppeny said. And he certainly left his mark on the place, most notably in the form of the outdoor athletic facilities, including a track, that he and two priests at the school built with their own hands.

In the winter of 1953, Tuppeny took a few of his athletes over to Villanova to train on the infamous "boards" there. Most indoor track meets then took place on the 10 or 11 lap to the mile banked wooden tracks, and for the training purposes, Villanova had one of them set up on the grounds. It was there that Tuppeny got to know Jumbo Elliott fairly well.

"Jumbo asked me if I would help coach his field event people, and I did," said Tuppeny. "After that first year, though, he extended a full time offer. I talked to the headmaster at Malvern Prep about letting me still teach there, and they got very upset. They didn't want me to. I thought it over and realized that I really enjoyed the Villanova people. Things were really just starting there, though, and they hadn't won any of the championships yet."

Knowing it was a gamble to place his eggs in the Villanova basket, Tuppeny nevertheless took the job there. To support himself and his growing family, which would eventually include Kass and their five daughters {two other girls died in infancy}, Tuppeny continued to teach high school, first at Haverford H.S. and then in the Philadelphia school system.

His impact at Villanova was pretty immediate. One of his pole vaulters, Phil Reavis, made the 1955 U.S. Olympic team and in the 1960, another vaulter, Don Bragg, brought home the gold medal for the U.S. During his 13 years with Villanova, Wildcat teams won a slew of honors, including fifteen IC4A Championships and the 1957 NCAA Outdoor team title.

In 1966, life lobbed another juicy pitch at Tuppeny: He was offered the head coaching position at the University of Pennsylvania.

"That was really something to get a job there," recounted Tuppeny. "The team wasn't very good at that point - they usually came in last in the Heptagonals (the Ivy League championships), but the athletic committee there, headed by Dr. Harry Fields, promised that they would make the resources available to improve things and they did."

Within three years, Penn had won its first Ivy League team title and, in thirteen years of coaching there, they won a total of 17 team titles. And in 1970 came an offer for Tuppeny to inextricably link himself with the event for which he is perhaps best known in track and field circles - the Penn Relays.

"That was just the ultimate," said Tuppeny. "I mean I first went to see the Relays as a kid in 1935, so when the former director retired and they said now you can be the director, it was just incredible. It was a lot of, lot of work, but it was well worth it."

Under his guidance, Penn's "track and field carnival," already a mainstay of the outdoor track season in America, became the most robust and well-run monument to organizational science that it remains today. Tuppeny added many innovations to the schedule of events like the marathon, decathlon, heptathlon and the Thursday night distance program which attracted world-class athletes, looking to kick off their outdoor seasons. Most famously though, in 1975 he added women athletes.

"Boy, the things people said when I did that," recalled Tuppeny. "They said women's track would never go anywhere, that it wouldn't last ... I don't want to toot my own horn or anything, but I think doing that probably did more for women's running in this country than just about anything else."

By then, such attention to both detail and the overall picture had become the Tuppeny trademark. He saw holes in the fabric where others saw only a finished tapestry. Sometimes the holes were glaring, as with the scarcity of athletic opportunities for women. At other times, they were small holes that nonetheless affected the quality of a coach's life. For example, when Penn hosted the NCAA Outdoor Championships in 1976, he and Kass put together a week's worth of activities for the other coaches' wives.

"We were always encouraging coaches to bring their wives to meets, so we figured we should provide something for them to do," said Tuppeny. "We organized fashion shows at Wannamaker's, a trip to Longwood Gardens, and cocktail parties where we brought in the Mummers to entertain."

Tuppeny soon after learned that when you put on a show like that. You'll eventually find your services are in high demand. And no demand was greater than the one he received in June 1980.

" I was out at the NCAA championships in Eugene (OR) when I got a call from Jimmy Carter," Tuppeny recalled. The U.S. President had recently ordered the U.S., led boycott of the Moscow Olympic Games and the athletes around the world were still reverberating from the affects.

"He told me that he understood I had an organization that could out on a meet instantly," said Tuppeny, "and he wanted to put on an international meet at Penn - ten days from then."

Even for a master of organization like |Tuppeny, that was a pretty tall order, but he quickly found that, with 45 assistants sent by the White House and a generous budget, he could indeed put on a world-class meet in ten days.

"Athletes from 44 countries ended up coming," he explained. "They were all pretty down in the dumps when we picked them up at the airports. But when we put them up in nice hotels and had a party just about every night. I got all kinds of gifts - from the Canadians, the Germans, the Chinese, and when it was all done, they were all asking if they could come back the next year for another meet."

"Frankly though," he laughed, "I think it was because they wanted to meet more coeds at Penn."

Tuppeny continued on as the Relays Director until 1987. He had already retired from the head coaching job at Penn in 1979. But retirement, as he has demonstrated for more than a decade now, is easier said than done in the Tuppeny scheme of things. From Penn he went to a three year stint as the founder and executive director of the Philadelphia Sports Congress, an organization that helped bring all levels of sports teams in the area together, from the schools up through the pro teams.

"We were very instrumental in bringing the World Cup Soccer tournament to the U.S., " he said. "We also brought the All-Star baseball and basketball games in, plus we were helpful in retaining the Army-Navy football game."

Tuppeny retired once more in 1990, only to creep back into coaching, this time at Haverford H.S. In a day and age when most people let alone most world-famous track coaches, will only pave their career paths with progressively bigger and better new jobs, Tuppeny's interest in returning to the high school scene is an absolute anomaly. It's also an absolute testament to his philosophy as a coach.

"Too many coaches these days are just collectors of athletes. The athletes come in, compete well enough for awhile, but they never get any better," he said. "What I get a thrill out of is seeing people improve. It's nice to win championships, but there is such a psychic return to seeing someone improve."

His return to high school coaching, however, didn't last very long. About a year later, Villanova head coach Marty Stern lured him back up Lancaster Ave., to help coach field event athletes there. And, as has happened so many other times, Tuppeny kept accepting more and more responsibilities, next during the head coaching tenure of John Marshall and now with Marcus O'Sullivan. As the associate head coach in 1999, he works with "quarter and half milers, and the cross-country teams . . . It works well because Marcus and I agreed at the beginning to disagree, and that's OK."

The athletes that Tuppeny has encountered in his five decades of coaching have, he feels, changed somewhat but not a lot. More often than not, it's the coaches who have changed.

"You have to be both flexible and also consistent," he explained. "You can't be joking around with your athletes one minute and then strict the next because they just don't know where you're coming from. Athletes today are maybe less team oriented than in the past. They don't like to double or triple and they're more interested in their personal goals, but . . . it still comes down to their ability to do what they're supposed to do when they're supposed to do it if they want to get the results they're seeking. And it always comes back to the coaches and how they handle things."

Tuppeny terms his coaching philosophy as "holistic": "The athletes have to think about the whole -- pay attention to their studies, be a good person, and take care of how they train off the track with what they're eating and how much they're sleeping. Running and competing are very important but all these other things affect performance, too, and can be a real energy drain if they're not handled right."

Tuppeny is intrigued by the development in women's running: "You go to a cross-country meet now and see how competitive things are on the women's side is really interesting. In a lot of cases. It's much more competitive than the men's side.'

At the same time. However, he is not pleased with the decline of managerial skills in the sport: "So few meets are run properly now. They're just too, too long. I took a lot of pride at the Penn Relays in meet schedule,

and I had to be able to say "no": when meet entries came in late. You can't run three or four two-mile relays in 15 minutes. That's just not possible, and you also don't want to run late and have people warming up three or four times. They'll just be leaving their races in the warmup when they have to do that . . . There ought to be classes or something for coaches and race directors, but not many people are willing to give that much back to the sport nowadays. "

What Tuppeny has given back and continues to give back to the sport clearly exceeds what it and others have given him, but you have a tough sell convincing him of that. He credits his parents and brother, his high school coach Jack Glascott, his college coach Frank Wetzler, the Augustinian order of Priests, and Villanova and Penn for the opportunities and successes that have come his way.

"At both those schools, they let you work as much as you want," he said with a chuckle, "but they also let you be as innovative as you want."

Now, in 1999, Tuppeny presses forward with a long list of things-to-do: Restoring the cross-country course at Belmont Plateau and agitating to get a world-class indoor track facility in the area are two projects near to his heart. He also has the attentions of his five daughters and nine grandchildren to enjoy. Kass passed away nine years ago, and his family remains important to him.

In some way, each daughter shows the influence of the father, particularly in their organizational talents. The eldest, Kathleen, has combined her nursing and computer skills to revolutionize the data-tracking capabilities at the University of South Carolina's hospital. Michelle was a national caliber swimmer at West Chester State College and now teaches physical education in Lake Zurich, IL. Diane has used sports and media contacts she made during her cheerleader career at Penn to shape a career in public and media affairs with the Philadelphia 76'ers and Comcast. Betty runs her own advertising and marketing firm, Domus Inc., in Philly, while Barbara, a graduate of the Wharton School of Business, is an insurance executive.

The list of honors that Tuppeny has collected over the past years is phenomenal: He has been president of the IC4A and the NCAA Coaches' Associations. He was founder and first vice-president of the Athletics Congress, and is a member of every Hall of Fame imaginable - LaSalle, Penn, the state of Pennsylvania, and Pennsylvania high school coaches. But as heartwarming as such recognition is, there is one form of recognition that Tuppeny still treasures most - knowing that he made a difference in a kid's life.

"The biggest kick I get out of coaching usually comes 15 years after the athlete graduated," said Tuppeny. "That's when I'll get a note in the mail. They've got families of their own by then, they have jobs and they're out there working hard . . . and they'll go on about how they realize the value of the things we taught them - how to speak correctly in public, and eat, and take care of themselves, and how it affects their lives even more now than it did then. They'll say something like "I used to think you were whacko, all the things you made us do, but now I understand.""

That's when a coach knows that his hard work with an athlete is finally done, and that is when Jim Tuppeny knows that even he can't give the credit for what he's accomplished to someone else.

Previous Blast from the Past Features

Carole Zajak
Dick Buerkle
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