Track: ALL THE GREAT ONES HAVE SCARS

Long-time track coach, Kelly Simpson, hanging it up after three-decade long career in Jefferson
“We haven’t always had great sprinters, but the ability to take good sprinters and turn them into hurdlers, that was the difference. We’ve had years where we qualified in the shuttle hurdle but couldn’t make it in the 4x100-meter. Same four girls. Simpson added, “We run our race, we use the right technique, we’ll beat you and let them make the mistakes.” - Kelly Simpson discussing the success of the shuttle hurdle relay

By BRANDON HURLEY

Sports Editor

sports@beeherald.com

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There are scars, plenty of them.  

Some cut pretty darn deep while others signify the hard work from numerous titles, accolades and long-lasting relationships. 

The motto legendary Greene County track and field coach, Kelly Simpson has held on to for three decades is a fitting memento of his career, “All the great ones have scars.”

If you take time to sit down with the 32-year Jefferson coaching veteran and school teacher, you’d quickly realize what’s behind those lasting memories – a fierce loyalty to family and of course, the shuttle hurdle relay. 

Simpson has held the title as the Greene County girls’ head coach since 1996 but has engineered the girls’ shuttle hurdle relay team since he stepped foot in Jefferson back in the 80s. The long-time coach has decided to hang it up at the conclusion of track season in May, taking with him dozens of accolades, a deep family tree and a high standing in the community. 

Simpson graduated from Ogden High School in 1980 and earned a bachelor’s degree from Wayne State (Neb.) College in 1984 and coached a year in Manilla at what is now known as IKM-Manning, before making the jump to Jefferson-Scranton High School. Simpson arrived in Greene County 1985 and took over as head cross country coach a year later. He learned the track ropes under Dan Benitz and Mavis Sawhill for a decade, working mainly with the distance runners and hurdlers, both boys and girls, when an opening popped up. While Simpson was studying for his masters degree at the University of Iowa in 1995, Sawhill stepped down as the girls’ coach. The school came to Simpson and asked him to take over. After a bit of hesitation, Simpson took the position and began his duties that next spring. 

Nine conference titles and five district titles have come under Simpson’s watch, with four conference championships under his direct leadership as head coach. The Rams’ last conference championship came in 2006 but they captured a state qualifying meet title in 2014. Simpson is connected in one way or another with a majority of the Jefferson-Scranton and Greene County school records, with just five being set prior to his arrival in Jefferson back in 1985. 

A meticulous routine coupled with a soft heart has guided the father of three to great heights while also helping him push through a heart-breaking loss. 

Road to recovery

Simpson was ready to hang it all up after he lost his first wife in 2008.

Jan died from brain cancer in December during their daughter Kate’s senior year of high school. It was a loss that rocked the Simpson family – which was now dwindled to four, dad and their three kids, Kate, Kristin and Jacob.

Jan died a few months before the track season started and during the planning process of graduation. Simpson’s oldest daughter, Kristin, who was running track at Simpson College was coming off a leg injury as well. At that point, there was nothing for the Simpsons to do but buckle down and endure. 

“It was a hectic year. We all had to come together and take care of business in the household. Trying to survive,” Simpson said. 

Jan’s impact resonated throughout Jefferson, as they came to Kelly and his children’s aide. 

“The community was great. They gave us a lot of support, a lot of meals,” Simpson said. “Jan was special. It was a tough, tough year for us and a tough year after. 

All three of Simpson’s kids ran track at Jefferson-Scranton, with Kate and Kristin running for their father on the girls’ team while Jacob was a member of the boys’ team. 

Simpson has also been the boys’ and girls’ cross country coach for a number of years, so he did get to coach his son as well. He guided the Rams to seven total conference titles and eight state tournament appearances. 

Jan’s death, while devastating and extremely taxing on the entire Simpson family, actually allowed the father to transition into a perfect three-for-three in the child/coaching relationship. Back in 2009, Simpson was wavering back and forth whether he should give it all up when a conversation with his youngest, Jacob, ensued and changed the course of his career. 

“He lost his mom right before his freshman year and I remember going to the junior high track meet to watch him run,” Simpson said. “We were on our way home and at that time, I was just going to be dad. I was going to give up all the coaching.”

But then, Jacob pleaded with him to stay with it. 

“‘Dad, he said,” Simpson recalls. “‘I want you to stay coaching. I want to run cross country and I want run track and I want you to be my coach.’”

Simpson helped lead Kristin to the state all four years of her career while he returned to cross country after a short hiatus for Kate’s senior year after a bit of pleading from her as well, so it was only fair to see Jacob through. A little family pressure and it doesn’t take much for Simpson to commit. 

“It was great. I really enjoyed it,” the coach said about about being there for his children. “That was kinda special. I had my other daughter run hurdles and that was the event here, shuttle hurdles. So sending her to state four years was quite an achievement in that.” 

 Developing a reputation 

Greene County track and field and the shuttle hurdle relay go hand-in-hand. 

The history speaks for itself. 

Twenty-five female quartets have reached the state meet over the last 32 years, and that’s largely in part because of Simpson. 

The appeal of the shuttle hurdle is plentiful for him. Strategy and technique play significant roles – an athlete can’t just rely on pure speed. Technique is the number one selling point for the coach, if he can get a girl to leap over the hurdle at the right angle with the right pace and couple that with her speed, great things will come. 

It really boils down to plucking the talented athletes with a desire to succeed in hurdles, the coach said

“We haven’t always had great sprinters, but the ability to take good sprinters and turn them into hurdlers, that was the difference,” Simpson said. “We’ve had years where we qualified in the shuttle hurdle but couldn’t make it in the 4x100-meter. Same four girls. 

Simpson added, “We run our race, we use the right technique, we’ll beat you and let them make the mistakes.”

Practice and patience is what has led Simpson to incredible heights in the relay, even engineering a girls shuttle hurdle state title in 1989. The path toward greatness begins with the right mindset, he said. 

“You can’t be afraid of [the hurdles],” Simpson said. “You [need] the flexibility and the body awareness in the air to keep streamlined and focused to run a good race. Everyone does the arms and the legs the same, but you [need] to have a little bit of mental toughness. You are going to go down.”

The trial and error of the shuttle hurdle is where he coined his most infamous phrase, of scars and success. The ups and down in the race are what he finds most enticing, when taking it in as a spectator. 

“If you watch it, it’s really like NASCAR because there’s crashing and burning,” Simpson said. “There’s 44 things that go wrong in shuttle hurdle. Four starts and 40 hurdles. If you can beat them, you’ve got it. It’s an exciting race because you don’t know what’s going to happen in both directions.”

The shuttle hurdle has become synonymous with Greene County track over the years. They’ve been a force for over a quarter century and Simpson has played a key role, coaching every individual squad that’s qualified.

“That’s been the claim to fame here, you can almost count on it. Just not go to state but do well at state,” the coach said. “We’ve basically medaled in every position. We’ve medaled about half those times we’ve been down there. We’ve had a lot of success, a lot of good hurdlers have come through here.” 

The Jefferson-Scranton girls captured a team state title in1994, riding the wave of an extremely talented group of athletes. They won district titles in four consecutive years. 

The 2006 Raccoon River Conference championship sticks out in Simpson’s mind as well. The Jefferson-Scranton boys’ and girls’ track teams swept the meet, in the very first co-ed RRC competition in Jefferson. It was a family affair that still resonates a decade later. 

“I had my two daughters on the team at the time. The boys were favored, this was when they were starting to really get rolling,” Simpson said. “Carroll and Perry were our rivals. I told the kids, ‘I don’t care if you finish at the bottom, but you better beat the Carroll and Perry kid.’”

The girls weren’t expected to win, which made the victory even more sweeter. To top it off, Simpson was awarded for his efforts as well. 

“By golly, we stole it from them,” the coach said of beating Carroll and Perry. “At the end of the night, I won conference coach of the year and my daughters got to present it to me. That was a special, special moment. It’s always the teams that do something when you don’t expect it that you remember most.”

Simpson recalls a year when the state qualifying meet was held in Glenwood, but the team bus ran into some trouble. It broke down twice on their way, leaving the Rams well behind schedule. They arrived just in time for, you guessed it, the shuttle hurdle relay. And to everyone’s surprise but their coach, Jefferson-Scranton put together yet another spectacular performance and was on their way to another state meet. 

Simpson’s success in Jefferson has perhaps blossomed intense passion for the sport, always pushing himself and his athletes to the best of their abilities. 

In the bloodline

Running was injected into Simpson’s blood as a young adult. He was a fitness nut in Ogden, running track, playing football and swimming in his free time. He later parlayed those passions into a brief collegiate career and dozens of triathlons in his adult life. 

Simpson was a fan of the new 400-meter hurdles back in the 80s, and achieved solid success until his knee gave out in college. 

His passion for running never wavered despite his struggles in college as he took up competitive endurance events, mainly in the form of triathlons and marathons. 

He enjoyed running and was a strong swimmer, so it seemed like a natural fit to flip triathlons into a hobby, one that also kept him in shape. 

“I had the swimming and the running and all I had to do was get better at the bike,” Simpson said. “I’d come out of the water good, lose some time on the bike and catch up on the run.” 

The Simpsons made the triathlons a family ordeal, as Kelly often traveled the various competitive circuits around the midwest, even qualifying for nationals a handful of times. 

“I was having fun with it. We had a 24-foot camper and loaded everybody up,” Simpson said. “They were usually at a state park so we’d stay there. We made it a family trip out of it every time.”

Though he’s admittedly slowed down his training considerably over the last few years (hearty home cooked meals, a token of his own advice, have helped him pile on a few pounds), he’s motivated to get back into the swing of things in retirement. 

He hopes to take a hiking trip from rim-to-rim of the Grand Canyon as well as take a cruise up the Pacific coast line as well. After being involved in so many things for years, he knows he can’t just retire completely. He tossed out the idea of maybe picking up a part time job at a department store or even dabbling in the college coaching and teaching ranks. 

But for now, there’s some unfinished business he must attend to, leaving the Greene County track program in good shape, perhaps making one last run with a young, yet talented team. 

Jefferson, a tropical paradise

Simpson can’t exactly point to why he’s stayed in Jefferson so long as a science teacher and a coach, but it’s certainly a good, central location. He’s within a stone’s throw of Ogden and he’s also not too far from Des Moines or Ames. He’s planted roots in the community, a place where he’s watched his kids grow up and groomed hundreds of athletes to achieve immense success.

Simpson’s coach and life isms are plentiful and perhaps what makes him stand out among a pool of coaches looking to follow a specific plan to the top. Stop by a practice or a meet at the Linduska Field in Jefferson and you’re sure to hear him drop a few of his famous lines. 

When things go bad at the worst moment, Simpson steps in for a little pick-me-up. 

“I’d rather be in the hunt and fail then not in the hunt at all,”  I say that after we drop a baton in the relay,” the coach said. “Psychologically, let’s get up and get going.”

Of course, in track, the weather is often the toughest opponent. It can be 70 and sunny one minute and cold and snowy the next. Simpson likes to motivate his kids with one of his many catch phrases he’s coined over the years. 

“I’ll tell the kids, on a cold or rainy day ‘It’s balmy, it’s down right tropical. If I had a banana tree, it’d bear fruit today.’” Simpson said. 

Inclement weather has done little to deter the veteran coach, rain, sleet or snow, he’s getting his athletes out on that track. 

“If it’s safe, we are going outside,” Simpson said. “I’ll teasingly say, if there’s a thunderstorm, just run faster than the lightning.” 

His family values wrap nicely into his coaching philosophy as well. He even implements them into his simple, yet vital nutrition plan. There’s nothing fancy in Simpson’s regime, no kale, no flax seed, no quinoa, no organic salmon – just simplicity at it’s finest – grab some hearty comfort food at home. 

“You have to remember, these are high school kids. They need to eat normal. There’s nothing better than mom’s cooking,” the coach said. “Go home and eat mom’s cooking. The day of the meet, get a sandwich, that’s probably a good idea. I still think if we can get them home and sitting down with their family, that’s the best thing for them.”

Simpson’s ability to reach kids in ways that he otherwise couldn’t in the classroom is what has kept him coming back for more, year after year. The experience of a high school athlete combined with their limited knowledge of the sport allows him to call into his three decades as a coach. Simpson stays true to his old school principles, reverting back to what has always worked for him – the basics. 

“We have to realize at this level, we are doing more teaching than coaching,” the coach said. “The coaching comes when you start to add strategy. But if you don’t have the fundamentals down, you can coach all you want but won’t get anything done.”

Simpson is an old-school coach at it’s finest. Not so much with hard-nosed, in your face screaming but more so in a sense of keeping it simple, to the point where he does away with the fancy new age regimes. His practices are fairly stripped down, focused on the basics and proper technique. No outrageous weight-lifting programs for this coach. 

“We’ve got to be careful, we beat their legs up pretty bad during the season so if we do a lot of lifting and a lot of running, they are just going to break down,” the coach said. “We have to walk a fine line. We want to keep them light, you run faster if you don’t carry much weight. We don’t want too much muscle mass that they tighten up.”

All those practices, hearty nutrition plans and good ole coach speak is a build up for one thing, Drake Stadium. 

‘Getting blue on the shoe’

The pinnacle of any track season is the ‘blue oval’ at Drake Stadium in Des Moines for either the Drake Relays or the state meet. It’s what every coach, runner, thrower and high jumper dreams of. The magnitude of the moment even draws in the wily veterans. 

“We talk about ‘getting blue on your shoe’ because the old track would do that. The crowd and hearing your name over the PA while you’re running a race, that’s special,” Simpson said. “If you can get them to say “Greene County” or Jefferson-Scranton,” that’s special.”

When his teams arrive on the Drake Campus, the next step is to calm the nerves, which is when Simpson leans on his seniors. He looks to them to set the example, to keep everyone at ease. 

“There’s a lot of laughing and keep them loose. If their eyes start to get real big like a deer in the headlights, we are in trouble,” the coach said. “We’ve learned to keep it mellow and don’t make it a big production. We’ll go take care of business and celebrate after.”

Simpson realizes he plays a big role in his athletes ability to compose themselves as well. Of course, it’s not too hard to play it cool when he’s led 25 shuttle hurdle teams to state and experienced the glory of several state titles. 

“If the old coach is relaxed and having a good time, if he’s telling jokes and smiling, they can too. That’s the key,” the coach said. “Taking care of business, let’s make it look like we do this every day.”

With the current Greene County Rams nearing the meat of the track schedule and Simpson preparing for his final Ram Relays Monday with his last trips to Drake Stadium in his cross hairs, a state championship in the shuttle hurdle relay would be the perfect bow on top of a storied career, wouldn’t it? 

Only time will tell if Simpson goes out with another notch on his belt, but there’s no one he’d rather go out with, his track family and the shine of the shuttle hurdle relay.

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