By Jim Henry
Globe Sports Editor
Coach Tom Rutledge cares about his athletes from the day they step onto the Missouri Southern campus.
“One day, one of the first days of indoor track and field, the girls team was walking by and we didn’t know who they were,” Alex Mason said. “My teammate Jake Benton got caught looking at one of them by our coach. So he grabbed Jake by the hand and calls the entire girls team over and asks Jake to pick out which one he wanted to date.
“He didn’t get a date, but he got his foot in the door. That’s how much Tom cares ... and wants us to be successful in every aspect.”
“I was definitely embarrassed,” Benton said. “You just don’t expect that kind of thing. Like (Mason) said, it was one of the first times that we had been here. It was kind of a shock. That would be my way to describe Tom Rutledge — pretty shocking.”
Rutledge is completing his 24th and final season as cross country and track and field coach for the Lions.
His final home meet in on Friday when a “twilight meet” — giving athletes one more attempt to earn a spot in the national championships — is held at Fred G. Hughes Stadium.
Some of the Lions reflected on their careers under Rutledge after Tuesday night’s student-athlete award ceremony.
“The first thing that comes to my mind about Coach Rutledge: hard-nosed, I guess,” said John Lowe. “From the first time I came here, he was very upfront and straight-forward about what was going to be going on and how he was going to coach the team. He’s not the most pleasant guy to be around when he’s upset, but he gets the job done.”
“I think of a role model who’s always there,” Colton Wooldridge said. “He’s going to make you a fighter, and he’s going to make you a person that others want to be around and lean on you, too, just like we lean on him.
“I’ll never forget him. That’s just how his personality is.”
Benton, one of the Lions’ all-region cross country selections last fall, told another tale about his coach looking out for him.
“It’s winter, and the cross country team ... Tom usually drives behind us in his truck to make sure that we’re safe,” Benton said. “It’s winter, and it’s in the morning, and we’re probably on an 18-mile run, and we’re freezing. It’s cold, it’s completely flat, the wind is blowing everywhere, and people have icicles hanging from their hair and their eyelashes.
“Tom is in his truck drinking coffee. He stops, rolls his window down and goes ‘It’s a good day to run, isn’t it boys.’ And he rolls his window right back up.”