SUNY Geneseo coaching legend set to retire

Jim Mandelaro, Staff writer Democrat and Chronicle EST November 19, 2014

He has coached 51 runners to 124 All-America honors and 51 teams to SUNYAC championships. One squad captured a national title.

And he has been honored 28 times as conference coach of the year.

But the number SUNY Geneseo cross country coach Mike Woods is most proud of? Well, that occurred to him two weeks ago.

"My assistants and I went to the state high school championships in Canton (earlier this month)," he says from a small office covered top to bottom in photos, awards and memories. "And 20 of the coaches were my former runners. I mean, 20, wow."

That's what it has always been about for Woods: Coaching. And teaching.

The man synonymous with Geneseo running is nearing the finish line of his illustrious career. His 23-year reign as cross country coach ends Saturday at the NCAA Division III Championships in Mason, Ohio. And in the spring, he'll wrap up his track career 13 years as head coach and the last 10 as an assistant.

"It's time," says Woods, 67. "I have three grandkids I want to visit (two in Buffalo, one newborn in California). They moan and cry when I leave. They want me to stay, and I want to stay."

Forgive Geneseo runners past and present if they also want the man known as "Woodsie" to stay.

"Coach Woods saw beyond an average high school runner and developed talents that led me to become a top competitor on the national stage," says Ted Turner, who finished fourth at the 2003 NCAA championships and fifth in 2004. "Just as important was the close bond off the track. He has always supported me in my endeavors with sage advice, wit and wisdom."

Ditto, says Liz Montgomery-Chichester, who was second in the 2007 women's cross-country nationals and third in 2008.

"I'm so thankful for Coach Woods and everything he gave us," she says. "He wanted cross country to be fun and Geneseo to be the best team we could be. He got us believing in our team and believing in ourselves. The biggest thing Woodsie did for me was caring about me as a person above everything else."

Woods grew up in Oneonta and was an avid sports fan who visited Yankee Stadium several times to cheer on his beloved Yankees in the days of Mickey Mantle, Yogi Berra and Whitey Ford. He ran cross country for a man named Gene Long, a World War II veteran who had been handed the program.

"I would've run through a wall for him," Woods says, "but we did the same thing every day in practice."

One day in his junior year, Woods was walking downtown when he stopped in a bookstore.

"I saw a runner on the cover of one book, and it was just 10 cents," he says. "I still have the book."

It proved to be a life-changing experience. Woods went home and "devoured" that how-to book in one afternoon. Then he passed it around his friends.

"That's when I realized there was more to coaching cross country than what we had been doing at Oneonta," he says. "We knew we weren't doing enough. That year, we won sectionals."

He received his undergraduate degree in secondary English from Geneseo, then completed his master's degree in English there. He began teaching English at nearby York Central in 1969, and for 15 years he also taught English to prisoners at Groveland Correctional Facility.

"I used to get a lump in my throat when I went into the prison and that big iron gate closed behind me," he says. "I would also have nightmares about not being allowed back out. Other than that, it was a rewarding experience for me. I learned a lot about myself and how fortunate I was to have parents who made me tow the mark."

He helped out on the tennis team and asked York's athletic director if he could start up a cross country team. The AD gave the green light. Woods' first team included only six boys, but by the time he left 21 years later he had compiled a dual-meet record of 219-24 in cross country and 208-36 in track and field.

Woods stepped down so that he could watch his teenage son and daughter swim competitively. But he was out of coaching for only one year. In 1992, he was at a party when good friend Marilyn Moore, who would go on to become his boss as Geneseo's AD, mentioned that the husband-and-wife team that coached cross country at SUNY Geneseo had left. Would he be interested?

"I had always expressed an interest in coaching in college to see if I could transfer what I taught to that level," he says. "But I wanted to watch my kids."

He went home that night and told them about the offer.

"They said, 'Dad, you've got to take this,' " he recalls. "They said, 'This is your opportunity. You shouldn't be done coaching.' "

He took the job and built a dynasty, with the men and women about to make their record 12th straight NCAA Division III Championship appearance (2003-2014). The women have won 14 SUNYAC titles and a national championship in 2005, producing 36 SUNYAC Hall of Famers.

The men have captured 12 conference titles and finished in the national top 10 six times, including fourth in 2011, with another 31 SUNYAC Hall of Famers.

Woods has a method to his madness.

"You have to be able to be flexible with their mileage," he says. "The modern distance theory tells you, the more mileage an athlete runs, the fitter they're going to be and the better they're going to race. But some mileage is a double-edged sword. You've got to be careful with where you are with mileage. Some kids are fragile and can't handle as much mileage as someone else."

He mentions one standout Geneseo runner, Jeff Beck of Fairport, who ran 100-plus miles per week. His buddy, Turner, couldn't go a step over 60 miles without starting to break down.

Both were All-Americans.

Perhaps his greatest female runner, Naples graduate Melissa White, wasn't a runner at all when she came to the Livingston County campus. She had competed in soccer, basketball and softball, but Naples didn't have a running program.

"Her dad called me in the summer and said she wanted to join the cross country team," Woods remembers. "I already had my team set up, so I told him, 'Put her in a 5K road race to see how she does.' Well she ran it so well, I called her dad back and said, 'We've got a spot for her. Bring her in.' And the rest is history."

White would cross the finish line fourth at the 2001 cross country national championships and third in 2002. And she won the 5,000 meters at the 2003 NCAA Division III indoor track and field championships.

She was inducted into the Geneseo Sports Hall of Fame in 2008.

Woods also served as head track coach from 1992-2005, when he started focusing solely on distance runners as assistant coach. As head man, he led the Knights to seven SUNYAC indoor titles and four outdoor championships.

Through it all, he has focused his recruiting primarily on New York state.

"That's the demographics of the school," he says. "About 80-85 percent of the kids here are from New York."

And his, ahem, "track" record on graduation is phenomenal. Only one runner has failed to earn his diploma in his tenure. "I'm 99 and 9/10th's percent," he says with a laugh.

As he winds toward retirement, Woods has no shortage of plans. First, there's the grandkids. But also plenty of time to read, work in the garden and around the house he lives five minutes from campus and play golf (he's a 14 handicap and plays every day in the summer).

He's also been part of a rock band for 50 years since he was 17.

"A lot of classic rock like Clapton, Dylan, The Dead, the Doobie Brothers, The Band and The Stones," he says. "People liked us because we never played a song the same way twice in a row."

You can take Woods out of coaching, but you can't take coaching out of Woods. His replacement hasn't been named, but he's hoping he can help out on a volunteer basis. Still coaching. Still teaching.

"All I want to do is hold a stopwatch and watch kids try to beat their times," he says. "Really, that's all I need."

JMAND@DemocratandChronicle.com

Twitter.com/jmand1

By the numbers

SUNY Geneseo legend Mike Woods will coach his last cross-country meet Saturday at the NCAA Division III Championships in Mason, Ohio.

Here's a by-the-numbers look at his career:

1 NCAA title, by the women's cross country team in 2005.

12 Straight appearances in the cross country nationals by the men's and women's team, an active Division III record.

13 Top 10 finishes at NCAAs (7 women, 6 men).

28 Times Woods has been named SUNYAC Coach of the Year, most in history of any SUNYAC coach in any sport.

51 Individuals who have captured All-America honors.

124 Number of All-America certificates by those 51.