By Jim Henry
Globe Sports Editor
Patty Vavra knows it’s going to happen at some point during the next school year.
Vavra, the women’s cross country and track and field coach at Missouri Southern, will look around and wonder, where’s Tom Rutledge?
“I’ve never been here without him,” she said. “There are certain things that Tom Rutledge does that none of the rest of us do. So I’m sure there will be many moments where he’s going to get a phone call and we say ‘Where is this? What is it you’re supposed to do here?’ ”
Rutledge’s 24 years as the Lions’ track and field coach comes to an end this week in Pueblo, Colo., during the NCAA Division II Outdoor Track and Field Championships. The Lions have six men who have qualified in a total of nine events.
Last November the Lions finished eighth in the men’s cross country national meet on the MSSU course that Rutledge designed. A few days later, he announced he would retire from coaching after this school year.
“The thing I’m going to miss is those knuckleheads,” Rutledge said, looking toward some of his athletes. “I’m going to be teaching next semester some. It’s just I can’t do some of the (other) things. ... You ask your kids to give 100 percent, and if I can’t give 100 percent, I don’t need to be there. And they need younger blood.
“Some coaches hang on too long. They don’t need to be there. They need to get out of it and let some new blood come in. It’s his (new coach Bryan Schiding’s) job now. It will be fine. New legacy.”
Rutledge, who coached successful programs at Arkansas Tech and Adams State before coming to MSSU, directed the Lions to 10 MIAA championships — eight in cross country and two in indoor track and field.
“The first seven years it was tough just to keep people out,” Rutledge said. “I wasn’t going to lower my standards either. A lot of people were saying you’re too hard, you’re too hard.
“But then I started getting kids who did what they were told. They worked hard, and we started having success. It took me six or seven years to get those kids. Jason Riddle was a good one, but I needed people around him. Guys started coming in and doing what we do, working hard and understanding it was a serious business and not high school anymore. NCAA stands for no cowards are allowed, that’s what it really stands for, and they have to understand that.”
Rutledge’s final home meet was on May 10, and Pittsburg State was one of the teams who brought athletes to this last-chance meet.
“I am going to miss Tom Rutledge. No question about that,” Gorillas coach Russ Jewett said. “I’ll see him around, but it’s not going to be the same seeing him in a social setting or seeing him up in the bleachers as looking him in the eye and let’s go at it on the track. He is an awfully intense competitor. He brought out the best in me as a coach, and his teams brought out the best in us as a team, no question about it.
“I know in certain ways he has made me a better coach. He kicks our butt sometimes, and you don’t want to get your butt kicked, so you just try harder. You have a team you’re recruiting against and competing against 30 miles away, and that’s with you day in and day out.”
Rutledge never considered the Gorillas a rival — “They are another team I have to beat,” was his standard line.
But this year the Gorillas’ assistant coach was Kyle Rutledge, Tom and Karen’s son and a former All-American pole vaulter for the Lions.
“I’ve been here a few times,’’ Kyle said with a laugh during the last-chance meet. “He’s done a great job in 24 years, building a program from ground zero. I feel very proud and fortunate to be (1) his son, but also be a part of (the track program), too. I’m very thankful to be his son and be able to compete for him as well. It’s something special that I’ll take with me the rest of my life.”
“Those two guys are so much like one another,” Jewett said. “One of them has probably mellowed a little more ... believe it or not, that’s Tom. I guarantee you there is a deep, abiding affection there. It’s like competing against your best friend, and it’s hard to beat your best friend.”
One thing Rutledge will do during retirement is spend more time with his granddaughter Emery, now 15 months old.
“It’s going to be kind of different not having him around the track,” Kyle said. “ He’ll be here, but in a different form. It’s going to be tough not to see him on the track.”
“What a legacy he’s left,” Vavra said. “At the same time, I know he’s going to have a great time with his retirement. And I’m sure we’ll still see him. I sure hope we do. He’s made a giant impact on our track and field teams here.
“It will be a strange Stampede meet, I know. It will be strange not having him here doing only what Tom Rutledge can do.”