Adventurer of the Week: South Sound running icon Pat Tyson says he’ll never retire

Northwest running legend Pat Tyson graduated from Tacoma’s Lincoln High before running at Oregon. He is now the coach at Gonzaga. At 66, he says he has no plans to retire.
Northwest running legend Pat Tyson graduated from Tacoma’s Lincoln High before running at Oregon. He is now the coach at Gonzaga. At 66, he says he has no plans to retire. Courtesy

As a kid growing up in Tacoma in the late 1960s, Pat Tyson put cardboard in his shoes to make them last longer.

He had no idea he’d spend the rest of his life as a key figure in Northwest distance running.

After graduating from Lincoln High, he ran track and cross country at Oregon, where he once again found himself wearing experimental shoes. His coach, Bill Bowerman, paid Tyson $5 per week to test his homemade shoes.

That fledgling shoe company is now known as Nike.

At Oregon in the early ’70s, Tyson was a roommate with Steve Prefontaine, arguably America’s most famous distance runner. They helped the Ducks win the 1971 cross-country national title (Prefontaine was first, Tyson was 31st).

Shortly after Prefontaine’s death in 1975, Tyson came home and won the Sound to Narrows in his friend’s honor.

After a decade coaching junior high runners in the Shoreline School District, Tyson started coaching in high school and won 14 team state titles (two at Shorecrest and 12 at Spokane’s Mead High).

As Bill Bowerman would always tell us, ‘A great teacher is a great coach. A great coach is a great teacher.’

Pat Tyson, Tacoma native and Gonzaga’s director of cross country and track and field.

In 2006, he took a year off to coach distance runners at the University of Oregon before taking a similar job at Kentucky. He worked with U.S. Olympic team in 2008. Now 66, Tyson has spent the last eight years coaching at Gonzaga University.

“I know some people who retired and then they passed away,” Tyson said. “So, I don’t think I’ll ever retire.”

We caught up with Tyson as he prepared for a weekend in which his employer and alma mater played in the college basketball Final Four. He told us, “Gonzaga No. 1, Oregon No. 2.” Then he fielded a few questions about his running life.

Q: How early did you know you wanted to be a coach?

A: I always liked kids. When I was a kid, I was a leader in the neighborhood in connecting with the neighbors, playing sandlot baseball and football. I was a little bad guy, too. I got caught once stealing candy from the grocery store. But I was bringing it back like Robin Hood for my buddies in the neighborhood.

As I started to build momentum with running so I could go to college, I knew coaching was going to be a part of my future. As Bill Bowerman would always tell us, “A great teacher is a great coach. A great coach is a great teacher.”

Q: It would seem that after 10 years as a junior high coach, your career path would be set. Did you ever envision you’d end up a college coach?

A: I had some opportunities. Colorado State University offered me a job when I was coaching junior high. But I loved coaching junior high. I always embraced the now in what I was doing. I looked at what I was doing there as if I was at Kentucky or Oregon. Even today, I look back and think I had as much fun taking the junior high kids to Farrell’s Ice Cream Parlour as I do taking my kids today down to UCLA.

Q: Early on, what was your relationship like with original Sound to Narrows champ and Wilson High coach Sam Ring?

A: He was two years older and the king of running in Tacoma. Everybody worshiped him. He was James Dean without a car.

My coach, Dan Watson, would always say, “You need to go run with Sam. He will make you better.” I never wanted to because Sam made me better by making me run very fast. Every run was punishing. It wasn’t fun, but it made me good.

Q: You finished ahead of him at the Sound to Narrows a few times. When did you become faster?

A: He went to Central Washington University and had a good coach. I went to Oregon, where there was a herd of guys that were as good as or better than Sam. I started shadowing those guys, and they gave me the edge. But it would still be a duke out when I ran with Sam.

Q: I hear you don’t have as many scholarships as other Division I programs. Is that true?

A: That is very true. Men can have a maximum of 12.6 and women can have 18.0 (for 72 combined athletes). We have roughly three scholarships for each. Going against other universities it is very challenging. Portland has more and BYU has the maximum.

At the same time, a few years ago (Gig Harbor High and Pacific Lutheran University graduate and Zags women’s coach) Patty Ley’s ladies won the West Coast Conference championship. They beat those schools. Our men are always in there, and we are one of the top 10 teams in the West. We’ve beaten Arizona and we are sniffing the Huskies and sniffing the Cougs.

We have limitations, but we have a lot of heart. We have the energy of Gonzaga. We have beautiful trails. And with the basketball team, wherever we go people say “We love the Zags. We love the Zags.” I don’t know if they do that for a lot of other schools. Success breeds success.

Q: What’s the trick to getting people to reach their potential?

A: You have to light them up so they think whatever you are doing is cool. No matter what it is.

You have to take them to Point Defiance. We used to take kids to Star Track at Lincoln Bowl to watch (world junior record holder) Darrell Robinson (of Wilson High) run the 400. And they would go, “Oh. My. God.” Or we’d take them down to Hayward Field (at the University of Oregon) and show them a runner like (Olympic medalist) Galen Rupp. “Oh. My. God.” That’s how you capture them.

Then you get a bunch of kids and you’re bound to have some good ones. But you help them all to become the best they can be. When they buy in, they’ll do just about anything to be the best they can be.

Q: So you still run every day. Do you still race?

A: Well, I got run over (by a car) when I was at Kentucky. I was on a morning run and somebody didn’t see me in the crosswalk. I went through an operation that destroyed the use of my calves. I have no power. I have to dig deep just to go up the stairs.

Every time I walk it’s an effort, but you wouldn’t know it unless you saw me run. “He’s going really slow.” Thank God Sam runs slow now.

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