Legendary coach ends 'one hell of a run'

By Paul Mayne
November 07, 2013

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VigarsPhoto by Genevieve Moreau

Bob Vigars dropped an email to his Western women’s cross-country team earlier this week to give them the itinerary leading up to the Canadian Interuniversity Sport (CIS) National Championships this weekend in London. In the note, he laid out the basics – practice schedule, workout times, locations to meet and pick-up times.

But it was how he ended the email which sums up his more than four decades coaching at Western:

 “I have always believed in the strength and resolve that can come to one from a long and close association with the collective of a team who share in the highs, lows and everything in between. And remember, this that you do is a labour of love. You were born to run, you are very athletic, and pushing yourself to see how fast you can go – well, that's part of who you are – but of course, only part. Embrace it – there is nothing to fear.”

The 69-year-old Vigars usually prefers to remain outside the spotlight. However, that won’t be possible this week.

Just days before his coaching career’s final competition, Western’s longest-serving coach – ever – will be inducted into the London Sports Hall of Fame tonight (Thursday, Nov. 7). The accomplishments celebrated during the evening are many and unparalleled.

Vigars-coached teams won 11 track and field and 16 cross-country championships in Ontario university competitions. He claims 14 of Western’s 31 national championships (three women’s track and field titles, seven women’s and four men’s cross-country titles). He started the Western International Invitational cross-country meet (1977); designed a cross-country course on the Thames Valley Golf Course, which is still used today (1986); founded the London-Western Track and Field Club (1970) as well as both the Canadian University Coaching Associations for cross-country (1976) and track and field (1980).

Vigars is doing his best to prepare for the onslaught of praise and admiration.

“I’m certainly going to try and make it fun, because I’m afraid if I don’t, I’m going to fall apart,” said Vigars, who admitted his emotions would likely get the best of him. “I have to try and make this work because I don’t want to get the team emotional and get in their way. … I want to be able to say what I want to say to all the people. I’m just worried I’ll get too choked up and not be able to talk.

“I’m going to have a hard time holding it together.”

Born and raised in St. Thomas, Vigars attended Southern Illinois University, where he graduated in 1967 with a bachelor of science. The following year he received a master of arts in physical education from California State University.

At the peak of the Vietnam War, Vigars’ U.S. green card allowing him to start work in Los Angeles also meant he could be drafted and shipped overseas. His father encouraged him to look for work back home, so he returned to Canada.

“I stopped at Western and knocked on the door of the department chair (physical education) at the time – because we weren’t a faculty – and asked if they needed any part-time instructors,” Vigars said. “It was literally a cold call. These things don’t happen anymore.”

He was hired as a part-time instructor and coach of the men’s cross-country team, which he quickly led to the first Canadian Intercollegiate Athletic Union (CIAU) championship in 1970, the first national title for any Western team.

Within a few years, Vigars became an associate professor and “didn’t look back.”

Soon, he organized the women’s cross-country team at Western. And over the years, the accolades would continue.

Vigars was named CIS Coach of the Year 14 times, and Ontario University Athletics (OUA) Coach of the Year 28 times. He was the first recipient of the Distinguished Service Award for OUA Track and Field. Later, he was inducted into Western’s Cross-Country and Track and Field Wall of Fame (2000) and W Club Hall of Fame (2001);

“At the end of the day, I know I’m being recognized because I have won more championships than any coach at Western. But you know what, my teams that didn’t win championships had just as much fun,” Vigars said. “It’s just an absolute privilege to be a university professor and coach. It’s really a unique position. For me to have an academic mission and an athletic mission, I am just so grateful.”

While the cross-country aspect of his life will end this weekend, Vigars will continue teaching (sports biomechanics) before officially retiring in December.

“Last January, someone asked me when I was going to retire and I told them I didn’t see it yet, and that I may have another five years left in me,” he said. “But I think the fact I’m turning 70 (in February) just hit me like a brick wall. I said, ‘I’m old and I’ve been hanging around 18-21 year olds for all my life pretty well.’

“And if you think about, I never left school. I started Grade 1 and I’ve been here all my life.”

Admitting he had “one hell of a run,” Vigars and his wife plan to rent a house in the Barbados, taking off after the New Year. He felt if he stayed around over the winter months he would get depressed and “just get in the way.”

One thing likely get in the way over the next few days, however, will be his emotions. When asked what it was going to be like being referred to as a ‘legend at Western,’ Vigars became emotional and paused.

“This is the problem, I just feel so lucky, I don’t need them to say anything,” he said. “I don’t need that. I’m just so lucky to have been able to do what I have done all these years; nothing else needs to be said.”

Vigars2Photo by Genevieve Moreau


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