Former track coach Griak’s accolades span four decades

by Lou Raguse

Earlier this week, in the wake of the fire that took the lives of three University students, Roy Griak told his track and field class to think of something beautiful they saw on their way to school.

The tragedy was an unnerving reminder of the fragility of life, and Griak – the seemingly immortal coaching legend – hopes his students get more than sports knowledge out of his lectures.

“You are put on this earth to strive, to love and to learn,” Griak said. “Those are very important facets in life, and if you do those three things, I think you’ll be a happy camper.”

This weekend, friends, family and former players will gather to celebrate Griak’s 80th birthday.

Saturday is the annual Roy Griak Invitational cross-country meet in St. Paul.

In 1997, Minnesota’s women’s cross-country coach Gary Wilson renamed the Minnesota Invitational the Roy Griak Invitational to honor Griak’s 33 years as men’s cross-country coach.

“It was much to his chagrin; he didn’t want that,” Wilson said. “I told him that he didn’t get a vote. He’s not showy, he’s not flashy, he’s just, ‘I’m going to get this job done.’ “

After graduating from Minnesota in 1949, Griak came back in 1963 to take over as men’s track and field and cross-country coach.

Current men’s coach Steve Plasencia took the cross-country reins in 1996, but Griak still continues to teach track and field class in his 40th year at the University.

Plasencia was one of Griak’s best runners, competing from 1974-78 and setting several Gophers records that still stand today.

“Roy is a legend,” Plasencia said. “Those first couple years he was invaluable in helping me make the transition here. He has shaped the way I coach quite a bit, and he still continues to.”

Griak is still involved with the track and cross-country teams in administrative roles. And every new season, he still gets the competitive itch.

“When I see the cross-country runners out there, I get goosebumps,” Griak said. “When there’s a kid down on the track, I still get just as excited now as I did years ago.”

In the last 40 years, Griak was involved with many changes in the sport of cross-country, both at Minnesota and nationwide. His early teams were made up entirely of walk-on athletes without the luxury of full scholarships.

“I still think that any youngster who wants to participate, the University should furnish that opportunity,” Griak said.

Griak said Minnesota has always taken cross-country seriously, partly because the sport was a good developmental program for track and field. However, it did have to cut a few corners.

“We used to travel with the football team,” Griak said. “They’d reserve eight seats on the plane, and we’d fly to Purdue or Michigan State with the football players for our meets.”

One thing that has not changed over the years, according to Griak, is the athletes. And the low profile that runners carry is part of what he still loves about the sport.

“There are no cheerleaders, there’s no band. Maybe ma and pa care a little bit, but that’s about it,” Griak said. “So (cross-country) is really what amateur sports are all about.”

Not many years ago, one leaving the Bierman athletic complex early in the evening would see Griak on the bleachers by the outdoor track, running up and down the steps.

Today, Griak conditions his slender frame, which still resembles a distance runner’s, three to four days a week with weight lifting and light cardiovascular training. In addition, he pumps out 300 to 400 sit-ups during any given workout.

“I’m not out there trying to set any world records,” Griak said. “I just try to maintain what I am.”

As long as his health is good, Griak said that he hopes to keep teaching and helping athletes for years to come.

But he reminds his class just how abruptly it all can end.

“So you better strive, you better love and you better learn, while you still have the opportunity,” he said.