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Cross Country: Legendary coach leads Irish

Jay Fitzpatrick | Thursday, September 14, 2006

As the longest-tenured coach currently at Notre Dame, Joe Piane has had a lot of experience leading Irish runners – and a lot of success.

Piane began his coaching career in Morocco while in the Peace Corps. He immediately succeeded with cross country, sending three runners to the 1972 World Championships in Cambridge, England.

After returning to the United States in 1972, Piane took his first collegiate position as the head coach at Western Illinois for two years, in which time he earned a master’s degree in physical education.

Piane was then offered a one-year assistant coach position at Notre Dame in 1975. He was named the head cross country coach the following year, beginning a 32-year tenure with the university.

And his reign with the Irish won’t be ending anytime soon. Piane signed a multi-year contract extension this summer.

“They are trying to keep coaches and giving them long-term contracts,” he said. “They want to create stability in the athletic department and in doing that they are giving out long-term contracts.”

Piane has been the model of stability at Notre Dame, where his teams have always had consistent success – including 14 top-15 finishes in the NCAA Championships in the last 19 years.

It’s clear Piane’s runners have benefited immensely from his expertise. After all, 122 of his athletes – including 23 cross country runners – have won All-American citations.

Individually, Piane has been recognized many times, including two National Cross Country Coach of the Year awards and 23 league Coach of the Year awards for indoor track, outdoor track and cross country.

But in Piane eyes, those achievements testify to the quality of his athletes – not his abilities.

“I don’t think it matters how good a coach you are – if you don’t have good athletes, you’re not going to get any kind of rewards,” he said. “If you’ve got good athletes, if they are dedicated and try to work hard, if you’ve got good runners and sprinters and jumpers, then the awards are going to come.”

“I’ve been fortunate that for years I’ve been blessed with real good athletes and good people.”

One major result of this success is Piane’s creation of the National Catholic Championship, a tournament that takes place at Notre Dame this weekend.

The tournament consists entirely of Catholic universities and colleges from every NCAA division and the NAIA, including Notre Dame, Saint Mary’s and Holy Cross.

Piane’s brainchild grew out of his desire to have a tournament with a different connection between teams – a religious one, not the usual league or geographical bonds that tie teams together.

Piane’s successes have also allowed him to effectively build up the Notre Dame cross country and track programs to the premier teams that they are today. The teams’ accomplishments won him the ability to attract top recruits to Notre Dame.

“Kids are good consumers, and they’re going to go for a product that they think is really solid,” Piane said. “And they look at our academics and they look at our athletics and they look at how our facilities are improving and it makes our program a hard product to turn away from.”

This season, Piane hopes to be able to use his talented freshmen to have another top finish in the NCAA tournament – adding more prestige to his already exceptional Irish coaching career.