TERRE HAUTE, Ind. (WTHI) — When it comes to influential Indiana State sports figures, Larry Bird is often the first to come to mind. But today, the Terre Haute community lost an incredible figure who, like Larry Legend, had an overwhelming effect on sports an Indiana State and beyond.
Legendary track and field and cross country coach John McNichols died Wednesday morning from complications from a stroke he suffered Sunday while attending a track and field conference in Orlando, Florida. He was 66 years old.
The loss hit the Indiana State sports community hard, especially John Sherman, Indiana State’s senior assistant athletic director who knew McNichols for years .
“I just hate it,” Sherman said while fighting back tears. “I texted somebody today saying heaven’s got a new coach. The big guy’s got the best damn coach.”
McNichols left quite a legacy with the Indiana State track and field and cross country programs. He put Terre Haute on the map as Cross Country Town, USA. McNichols designed the LaVern Gibson Cross Country Course, the nation’s premier destination for the sport. He also left a lasting mark with the new Gibson Track and Field Complex on 1st Street.
Sherman said that it’s easy to see McNichols’ legacy. “We witnessed it late November, his impact on this community, in a big way with the [NCAA cross country] national championship,” Sherman said. “National championships don’t come to Terre Haute, Indiana, without John McNichols.”
But more than the tangible impact he had on the community, McNichols’ biggest influence was on his athletes.
“He got the best out of everybody he coached,” said Ace Hunt, media relations director. “He was hard on them, but the kids didn’t know he was being hard on them. It was quite the gift.”
“He kept me afloat,” said John Mascari, former Indiana State All-American. “He never gave up on me. He never gave up on anybody. He treats everybody the same. He doesn’t put anyone on a pedestal. He knows exactly what he needs to be a good coach.”
To former athletes like Mascari, McNichols was more than just a coach. He was also an uplifting friend.
“He was never down, even in the darkest,” former Sycamore James Twitchell said. “Even when you had a bad race, he’d get on the bus and crack a joke. You felt OK with coach around.”
His style rubbed off on fellow coaches as well.
“There wasn’t a coach in our program that didn’t get touched by him and you can’t match that,” Sherman said.
McNichols knew the secret, his former players said. Coaching is about more than just running a race. It’s an approach that Terre Haute South cross country coach Jon Lee tries to apply to his own team.
“At the end of the day, it’s almost not even about the sport of cross country or track and field,” said Lee. “It’s about people. He just cared so much about people. And when you care about people, success comes from that.
McNichols was very successful in his sports. During his 34-year tenure, the longest in Indiana State athletics history, McNichols’ teams won 37 Missouri Valley Conference championships. He brought 12 NCAA championships to Terre Haute at the LaVern Gibson course.
McNichols chaired the NCAA track and field rules committee since 2012. He was head marshall at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta and served on four national coaching staffs.
Further, his work in the Terre Haute community helped develop the Heritage Trail and provided the people in the city a place to run by the river.
And despite all this success, there’s little doubt McNichols would define his success only by the lives and the people he touched.