FHSU News

Alex Francis legacy up front and center at new FHSU track and field facility

Ribbon Cutting

08/29/17
By Diane Gasper-O’Brien
University Relations and Marketing
HAYS, Kan. – Athletes from past decades stretching back to the 1950s – some who looked like they could still run a mile or two – gathered in the shade and reminisced about their college track and cross country coach and the old cinder track across campus.

A short time later, about 80 current Fort Hays State University student-athletes sat in the stands Saturday as a new track and field facility on the west edge of campus was dedicated in honor of the legendary coach who left his mark on FHSU decades ago.

“We are hearing from people that they are glad we are carrying the legacy from Lewis Field Stadium to our new facility,” FHSU Athletic Director Curtis Hammeke said as he stood on the all-weather, nine-lane track that bears the name of Alex Francis.

The young athletes sat and listened attentively, some probably thinking about carrying on that legacy.

Those who had the privilege of competing under Francis smiled with pride at their coach being honored. More than once they repeated Francis’ favorite phrase, “Go beat somebody.”

In Francis’ 34 years of coaching cross country and track – that spanned parts of five decades –139 athletes earned All-American honors. Four Francis-coached cross country teams won national championships, and five more finished as national runners-up. His impressive list of accomplishments included 27 conference titles as well.

Because of continued growth on the main campus in recent years, the area for throwing events adjacent to Lewis Field Stadium – home of Tiger football and the original Alex Francis Track – gave way to a residence hall and parking lots.

It was important, Hammeke said, to keep the field and running events in the same location, and thus began the planning for a new track and field complex.

Construction crews broke ground on the new facility near the FHSU soccer stadium in May 2016, and it was completed last December.

“And,” Hammeke said Saturday, “here we are.”

Dr. Andy Tompkins, FHSU interim president, spoke at the dedication ceremony, along with former Tiger track and field coach Dennis Weber and new head coach Jason McCullough. Weber retired from coaching after 21 years with the Tiger program.

The reins were passed to McCullough, who has coached at FHSU (head cross country and assistant track) for 13 years. During a successful running career as a Tiger from 1996-99, McCullough earned All-America status for his performance on the track and in the classroom.

Tompkins talked about FHSU’s mission to provide a positive experience for students in both those areas in which McCullough excelled.

“We often talk about them as student-athletes because we think of them as students first,” Tompkins said. “Part of this is not only to have a nice facility that is state-of-the-art and all in one place, but this is a commitment to our students for a facility that will help them be the best they can be as they represent our great university.”

National champions and All-American runners – past and present – gathered for the ceremony on a pleasant late-summer afternoon.

The most prominent one was John Mason from Phillipsburg, the most decorated runner in FHSU history who earned All-America honors 14 times during his running career as a Tiger and ran a sub-4-minute mile.

One of Mason’s college teammates, Roger Carlin, made the four and a half-hour trip from Iola. He stood visiting with his former high school coach at Bucklin, Gary Schultz, a standout high hurdler for the Tigers from 1959-62.

Also in the crowd was Dean Cronin, a current FHSU senior from Ireland who won the 800-meter run at last spring’s NCAA Division II National Outdoor Championships.

Cronin credited part of his success to training on the new track, as did Kelly Wycoff, a senior from Scott City who spoke at the ceremony.

“This is a monumental step for Fort Hays State University track and field,” said Wycoff, who earned All-America honors in the 400-meter dash this past spring. “Being among the first athletes to be able to train and compete here, it’s our responsibility to set the expectation. So we will appreciate this track, and we will take care of it, and we will take pride in it.”

Francis probably would have marveled at the new spongy surface. During his coaching days, Francis’ athletes ran on a cinder track.

A 1935 graduate of then Fort Hays Kansas State College, Francis taught and coached in high school and served in the U.S. Army Air Forces after graduation. He then returned to his college alma mater in 1946 as the head track and field coach and assistant football coach.

Following his coaching career, Francis retired in 1980 and remained living in Hays until his death in 2001 at the age of 91.

After a new track was installed at Lewis Field in 1993, it was named the Alex Francis Track. When the track and field facilities were moved to the new complex this year, it was an easy decision to take Francis’ name – and his legacy – along with them.

“I was thrilled that Fort Hays decided to carry over the Alex Francis Track here to the new facility,” said Garry Sigle, a distance standout who ran for Fort Hays State in the mid- to late-1970s. “I think that was an important decision. I think it’s good for the athletes now and those in the future to learn about the legacy that Alex left.”

Athletes who competed for Francis cannot seem to put a finger on any one characteristic that made him so special.

He just had that “it.”

“I think Alex’s secret might have been that he talked to each one of his athletes every day,” said Schultz, a long-time high school teacher and coach who is now retired and living in Overland Park.

“He was just an athlete’s coach,” Sigle agreed.

An athlete never had to wonder what Francis was thinking, Carlin said. "You always knew he expected you to try your hardest. He never put on any kind of air."

“He was jovial, but at the same time, serious,” added Sigle, who came from Manhattan Saturday for the facility’s dedication. “He was just the type of guy you wanted to do well for.”

Sigle definitely did well during his FHSU career.

After state championship performances in the mile and 2-mile races his senior year at Osborne High School, Sigle came to run for Francis at Fort Hays State, where both his parents attended college.

“I don’t know that I knew the legacy of Fort Hays State and Alex when I came to college, but I certainly learned about it once I got there,” he said.

“It didn’t take long to learn what was going on,” Sigle added.

It didn’t take the small-town youngster long to begin starting a legacy of his own.

After finishing as the Tigers’ top runner at nationals his freshman year, Sigle earned All-America honors numerous times en route to two national runner-up finishes during his career.

After graduating from FHSU in 1978, Sigle went on to coach for 33 years at Riley County High School, where his two oldest sons carried on the running tradition. Both went on to compete at the NCAA Division I level.

“I took the running program that we had under Alex and measured it down a bit at Riley County,” said Sigle, now director of the Kansas Association of American Educators. “We had a lot of success with his training program.”

Student-athletes and fans will be able to learn a little more about Coach Francis from a tribute on a large kiosk just north of the stands that will hold up to 500 people. Names of track and field record holders at Fort Hays State are also featured on the kiosk.

A memorial stand nearby pays tribute to Zach Kindler, a four-time All-American javelin thrower at FHSU who died at the age of 35 in 2014, in the midst of a successful coaching career at Baker University in Baldwin City.

More naming options will be available at the facility as the university continues to work on the finishing touches to the complex.

More about the dedication and the track and field facility can be found at fhsuathletics.com.

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