Photos by J. Alan Paul Photography
After 34 years of service to North Dakota athletics, head cross country coach Dick Clay is set to retire at season’s end.
To say that Dick Clay has seen it all is cliché. It may also be redundant to say that Clay is one of the most legendary figures in UND athletics. While you have surely heard that statement before, it is by no means an exaggeration. This 2018-19 cross country and track season will mark 34 for years at the school for Clay. In that span, he has seen the school change levels of competition, adjust which conference they were a part of and revamped the UND brand. Through it all, Dick Clay has remained loyal to the university that took a chance on a coach who had only two years experience. The reason? For Clay, it’s the student-athletes over everything else. It goes beyond winning for Dick Clay, it transcends any accolades he has accrued at North Dakota. His one goal over the last 34 years has been to shape young people into exemplary humans.
We sat in Clay’s office in the Hyslop Sports Center and talked. Around us were several trophies, framed running jerseys and photos from the team’s gone by. At the center of all the memorabilia was perhaps the most beloved coach to set foot on North Dakota’s campus. Surely, Dick Clay has to have some sort of special affinity for the University of North Dakota, right? Otherwise, why would one spend 34 years teaching kids how to run? However, it is far more than running for Dick Clay, but he began speaking about the student-athletes he’s been able to coach.
“When you start thinking about how you’ve been somewhere for so long. For me, number one, the opportunity to work with the type of student-athletes that we get here is a whole different ball game compared to other places,” Clay said. “A lot of places you have to kind of search out the good students and here in the Upper Midwest, where we get them out of North Dakota, Minnesota, that’s our primary area, and you run into very few high school kids that aren’t good students. I think that is part of it, getting to work with that type of student-athlete. I’m fortunate enough to get some really good student-athletes to work with. I think that was a big part of it.”
Clay then explained how good he has had it over the course of his three decades in Grand Forks. Again, he immediately points to the university and not himself. “UND is a really easy school to recruit to. From the academic standpoint, it’s really easy to recruit to, it’s really easy to sell this university because it is such a strong academic university aside from the athletics,” he said. “If you’re a track or cross country athlete, that’s what you’re looking for. The first consideration is where they can get a degree and how they can use it for the rest of their life. Good people across campus that I’ve had the opportunity to work with. To be able to work with the people on the academic end of things was important, so not just athletics, but faculty too. That in the long run, all comes together and you just say ‘why not stay here?’.”
He then briefly referenced being approached with offers to leave UND. While it may seem tantalizing, Clay points to what he would think of when he was offered to leave for somewhere else. “You get an opportunity to go somewhere else, but you end up saying ‘I really like this group I have now at UND’.”
So why retire? Clay has loved every single group of student-athletes that have come into the cross country and track program. Like he said, why leave when you love the group you have now and the groups to come? “There just becomes a point in your life where you need to make a decision. I guess this was the right time for me. By announcing early too, it gives us that opportunity to get the next person in place to hopefully have a coach hired at the end of the track season,” he said. “That way that person can be on board relatively quickly, even as I’m finishing up my last month. That’s a big part of why I announced this now. It’s only fair to recruits too, saving this till the end of the season is unfair to them.”
While that seems like a logical decision for Clay, it goes far deeper. It showcases his commitment to the university. Rather than leave or retire at the end of the season, which many coaches do, he announced before the season began. Rather than leaving the athletic department to scramble for his replacement, he did what was fair. Now, the school can search for his replacement (a tough task indeed) and not rush a decision.
I could not get an answer out of Dick Clay that did not revolve around the student-athletes. When asked about his individual accolades as a coach which include winning the North Central Conference Cross Country Coach of the Year four times, Clay attributes it to his athletes.
“It doesn’t happen in a bubble. Without the student-athletes, without them making the commitment they made, none of those accolades would have happened,” he said. “I don’t look at it as a me thing, they are the people that gave me the opportunity. They did the work, and I just got the vans and drove them to where we needed to be. Without the student-athletes making the commitment that they did, I never would have gotten those awards. Those are team accolades, not individual accolades by any means. I didn’t go out and run 25 400s on the track, they did. They did what they did to get better and put the team in a situation to get those awards. I wouldn’t be given the opportunity to be successful without the support of the community and the alumni who are so loyal. I don’t have a job and there is no athletic department without the student-athletes and the support from the community and alums. I look back on all of that, it’s not just one person, it’s your team.”
That is as true of a statement as any, but at some point, I wanted to just say “Coach, I know you’re a selfless guy, more selfless than I will ever be. But can’t you brag a bit?”
However, that’s not Dick Clay, it never has been. He has devoted his life to the University of North Dakota and the cross country program. In a collegiate landscape where coaches and administration jump ship often (or when things go awry), Clay’s commitment and selfless behavior is a marvel in its own right. It is truly remarkable to see a coach with that level of care and love for his team.
“Without the student-athletes, without them making the commitment they made, none of those accolades would have happened.”
34 years has certainly brought Dick Clay plenty of fond memories. Along with that, he has seen the university and the athletic department change before his very eyes. From Division II to Division I. From the North Central Conference to the Great West to the Big Sky and now to the Summit League. He even saw the school change its entire image, all in his tenure. So, if he had to pick, what would that fondest memory be?
“I don’t think there’s any one single thing. From a team standpoint, I think after a couple of years where you can become recognized at the conference level,” he said. “We used to be a team that would walk into a conference or national meet and people would wonder who North Dakota was. The team’s that were willing to make that sacrifice and commitment, after about two or three years of being at a national meet and performing well, I’d sit down and people would be saying we are one of the team’s people are going after. To be able to do that from where you started is the best.
Take the above quote as the closest Dick Clay will ever come to bragging about himself or his team. Regardless of his past successes, what many may not realize is the fact that Clay still has a season to coach. Within the season is a move to a new conference, one Clay is incredibly excited about. As retirement approaches, it may be easy for Clay and his team to lose focus on the task at hand. It is not surprising to find that Clay is locked in for his final run as head coach.
“We want to do the best we can like we do every year. Whatever level you’re at, teams or individuals, you want to improve and get better. Hopefully, by the end of the year, you see a lot of new improvement,” he said. “As a team, going into the Summit League, we’re back to where we can set some more realistic team goals. The Big Sky and the distances were just ridiculous and so now we’re back where we can compete with teams that you’re familiar with. You look at our schedule, NDSU, SDSU and USD have identical schedules as ours. I don’t think we’ll approach it any differently.”
However, Clay has had a plan in place for when his retirement day came. It’s not shocking to learn that his plan is for the betterment of the university, team and athletic department. “One thing I always wanted to do, when I got to the point of wanting to retire, I wanted to leave something for the next person,” he said. “I think we got a really good group here now so when that next coach comes in, they’ll have a good group of people with good character, talented, willing to work hard and leaving with that fact is important. I wanted to leave something there for the next person. I think we got that.”
Perhaps the lone question remaining for Dick Clay is what he plans to do after his time is done at UND. While he does not have an answer, what he offered me left the door open for a multitude of possibilities. “I don’t know. I’ll be in Grand Forks for the time being and I really haven’t thought about it. I’ll just see what happens. To be able to have a little bit more flexibility in life, I guess I’ll come to that bridge when I get there,” he said. “There are certain things I want to do and hopefully I am healthy enough to get to do some of those things. Everyone who has ever retired and could have retired earlier says you should go earlier. I don’t feel that.”
Clay feels that way because he sees coaching as a profession in a league of its own. “It’s so unique coaching because if you’re working at a bank for example, and not trying to diss anyone in banking, but in a lot of professions you don’t have that same day to day contact with the same group of 30 people every day,” he said. “That’s where I think in a profession in any sport, you develop those relationships with student-athletes. The four or five years they’re here, you’re kind of the one that they see every day, for the most part. That one time a day where you see that same person and that coach sees you, that’s a different kind of relationship that develops. That’s probably the hardest thing when coaches leave or retire and it’ll be no different with me.”
At this point, Clay had to pause to catch his breath. His voice began to tremble slightly, no longer speaking in full stream of consciousness statements, he paused frequently. This is certainly not the first time he has thought about what it will be like after he’s done coaching, but it’s clear that it has not come full circle for him quite yet. Because of that, he was visibly emotional while speaking.
“Not having that contact, that day to day contact with the student-athletes that’s where this year will hopefully get me used to that,” he said. “It is a different perspective when you are in any profession with that day to day contact with an age group. It’s all new to these kids, and I think you’re that one person, a coach, that these kids can go to. Sometimes they go to you before they tell their parents something.”
Now Clay was on the verge of tears. It’s understandable, given what he has gone through with countless student-athletes over a 34- year career. He concluded our chat, tears welling up in his eyes, with a statement that is the summation of Dick Clay, his teams and his life’s work.
“Over the years, what a great group of people I’ve had. I get emotional sometimes, but they’ve just been really good people. Really good student-athletes.”
Dick Clay’s Tenure At UND
- 34 years as women’s cross country coach
- Nine years as men’s cross country coach
- 2000: NCAA DII Indoor Track and Field Coach of the Year
- 2000: NCAA North Central Region Indoor Track and Field Coach of the Year
- 1991, 1994 &1999: NCAA North Central Region Cross Country Coach of the Year
- 1988 & 2007: NCC Outdoor Track and Field Coach of the Year
- 2000: NCC Indoor Track and Field Coach of the Year
- 1992, 1994, 2001 & 2006: NCC Cross Country Coach of the Year
- 1978, 1979 & 1980: Graduate of St. Cloud State where he qualified for the Division II cross country championships
- Head coach at Central Missouri State for two seasons before coming to UND