Bob Timmons, who set the foundation for championship cross country and track programs at Wichita’s East High and the University of Kansas, died Tuesday in Lawrence. He was 91.
Former KU athletics administrator Richard Konzem, Timmons’ student manager in the late 1970s, told friends of Timmons’ death Wednesday.
Timmons coached track and cross country at Kansas for 23 years, leading Jayhawk teams to four national titles and 25 conference championships. He coached 11 individual NCAA champions from 1966 to 1988.
Wichita State track and field coach Steve Rainbolt competed in the high jump and decathlon at Kansas from 1975-80. He remembers Timmons as a big thinker who grabbed projects such as the Kansas Relays, Rim Rock Farm and a bill of rights for student-athletes and pushed to get the best. As a senior, his team had its traditional season-ending chili feed at Rim Rock, when it was just starting to take shape as an elite cross country course. It has hosted large-class high school state championships north of Lawrence since the 1980s.
“He was just an incredibly special guy,” Rainbolt said. “He was full of energy and passionate about the pursuit of excellence. At KU, we knew that we wanted to explore track and field excellence and there was an atmosphere around that track and field program that Timmie brought it to that was all about achievement.”
In Jim Ryun’s book, he describes Timmons encouraging him to think about breaking the four-minute barrier early in his high school career. To some, that time was unthinkable. It was Timmons’ way, Rainbolt said, to see beyond those kind of obstacles.
“I think of myself as an encourager and a guy who wants to have a positive impact on the daily routine of the athletes,” Rainbolt said. “A lot of that was molded and shaped because of Coach Timmons.”
Timmons coached Wichita high school teams to 18 state championships in swimming, cross country and track and field before becoming KU’s coach. All but one of those titles was at East High.
Timmons grew up in Pittsburg, then enrolled at KU in the early 1940s. He was initially turned down for entry to Marine officer candidate school because he was six inches too short for the 5-foot-6 minimum. But in 1943, he joined as an enlisted man and fought in the Okinawa campaign. He was a sergeant when he was discharged in 1946.
’’I’m really lucky for whatever reason,’’ Timmons told The Eagle in 2001. “Failure doesn’t bother me. I’m a risk taker.’’
In Wichita, Timmons founded the Wichita Swim Club – which continues operating in east Wichita – and the Wichita Track Club in the 1950s. He knew little about swimming back then, but the swim club became a Midwest AAU power and his East teams won six state championships.
“If he would have kept with it, he would have been a world-renowned coach, which he ended up being in track,’’ said Jeff Farrell in 2001. Farrell won two swimming gold medals in the 1960 Olympics after competing for Timmons at East.
In the spring of 1963, Ryun was a sophomore at East when the team was returning by bus from the Kansas City Washington Relays.
He had been showing remarkable progress since running his first mile in 5 minutes, 38 seconds that fall and had just won the Washington Relays mile in 4:21.
On the bus ride home, Timmons asked Ryun to sit down beside him.
“Congratulations, Jim,’’ said Timmons, “but I think you can run faster.’’
“A 4:18?’’ wondered Ryun.
“No, much faster, Jim,’’ said Timmons. “I’m thinking national record. Not only that, I’m thinking you can do what no other high school boy has done and that’s to run under four minutes.’’
Ryun returned to the back of the bus in a daze.
“I was trying to sort it all out,’’ Ryun said. “I don’t think even Coach Timmons understood. It meant training twice a day. But he would do those kinds of things. He would plant a seed and, much like a mustard seed, it would start to grow.’’
A little more than a year later, in the first meet in which both Timmons and Ryun actually set a goal of breaking four minutes, Ryun ran a 3:59.
It was an eerie replay of when Archie San Romani Jr., another former East miler under Timmons, broke 4:10 in the late 1950s in his first attempt after setting the exact goal.
“My philosophy in coaching was always to just have the athletes improve on their previous best,’’ Timmons said. “If a guy got dead last and had a personal best, I was thrilled to death for them because that was the best he’d ever done.
“You get goals deeply etched in a young person’s mind and they can do wonderful things.’’
In 2002, Timmons published a “bill of rights” for NCAA student-athletes. After four decades of watching athletes pay the price for mistakes made by coaches and universities – such as common-sense errors that led to overly-harsh NCAA punishments – Timmons sent 2,700 copies to university presidents and media.