Have a seat, coach: Wilson honors longtime colleagues

by Ben Goessling

Tucked in the northeast corner of Drake Stadium last Saturday evening, Minnesota women’s track and field coach Gary Wilson hollered instructions to the members of his 4×400-meter relay as they raced past him in the track’s third turn.

Wilson then checked his team’s pace against his stopwatch and mumbled something to his wife, Suzy, just as he’s done for years.

Drake Stadium’s northeast corner has become something of a second home for Wilson, perhaps because in the little clearing off turn three, Minnesota’s coach has learned more about track and field than anywhere else.

In dozens of trips to Drake for track and cross country meets through his first 23 years in coaching, Wilson formed a friendship with Bulldogs coach Gary Osborn that went far deeper than a mutual respect between two fierce competitors.

It was a bond forged through scores of conversations in that northeast corner – “Oz’s corner,” as it is known to Drake fans – about split times, training routines, teaching, family and just about anything else you could dream up.

“We’d always hang out down here and banter back and forth,” Wilson said. “You become close with his wife, his family, and you realize how important those things are compared to whether you run well or not.”

Osborn, who served on Drake’s track and field coaching staff for 32 years, died of a heart attack on May 21, 2000, at the age of 56, stripping the track-crazy campus of its most beloved icon.

But Wilson wasn’t about to let his friend’s memory die.

Wilson, who also coached against Osborn in cross country, renamed the Minnesota Invitational cross country meet the Memorial “Oz” Run in honor of the coach.

Drake’s track and field team planted a chanticleer pear tree in the northeast corner of Drake Stadium in honor of Osborn in September 2000.

The tree blooms every spring just before the Drake Relays – the time of year where everything was new again for Osborn.

“Most of the time, the tree looks pretty bad,” said two-time Olympian Natasha Kaiser-Brown, who succeeded Osborn as Drake’s track and cross country coach in 2000. “But it always seems to look good for the Relays.”

And by the 2001 Drake Relays, Wilson added his own touch to the memorial.

He bought a chair from Baltimore’s Memorial Stadium, sanded it, had it painted blue and white (Drake’s colors), and scrawled “In memory of ‘Oz’ ” on the side.

The chair now sits under the pear tree, ensuring “Oz” a permanent spot in his corner.

“He was one of the good guys, and we really miss him,” Wilson said. “I wanted to make sure he always had a place to rest in the stadium.”

Nearly three years after Osborn’s death, Wilson sat in the stadium’s northeast corner Saturday afternoon, telling stories like he was sitting around a campfire, barely able to get through one without chuckling.

“We were standing down in the corner for a meet once, and some official, not knowing who he was, made him go sit in the stands,” Wilson said. “Well, the official knew me, so he let me stay. I just sat there watching the meet, waving at ‘Oz,’ laughing at him.”

A big grin still present on his face, Wilson spun another anecdote about Osborn.

But this time, Minnesota’s 18-year coaching veteran didn’t laugh all the way through it.

“We were down at Drake for the Jim Duncan Invitational in 2000, and I wanted to get Shani Marks in the triple jump during the meet,” Wilson said. “She wasn’t registered, so I called ‘Oz’ on a walkie-talkie.

“He starts cursing me out, but he let Shani in. After the meet, I went to thank him, but he sees me and starts running. I’m chasing after him, and here are these two old guys running down the straightaway at Drake Stadium.

“I caught him, gave him a hug, and he said, ‘I love you, you son of a bitch.’ I said, ‘I love you too,’ and that was the last thing I ever said to him.”

But Wilson knows as long as he is coaching at Drake Stadium, yelling instructions and checking times and mumbling to his wife, his old friend will be sitting in that blue and white chair, looking over Wilson’s shoulder and smiling.

Ben Goessling covers track and field and welcomes comments at [email protected]