University of Kansas

Bob Timmons, who led KU track and field program to national prominence, dies at 91

Former KU track and field coach Bob Timmons, right, challenged Jim Ryun to set records, both as his high school track coach and then later as his college coach at KU. With Timmons as his coach, Ryun ran the first sub-4-minute high school mile.
Former KU track and field coach Bob Timmons, right, challenged Jim Ryun to set records, both as his high school track coach and then later as his college coach at KU. With Timmons as his coach, Ryun ran the first sub-4-minute high school mile. The Kansas City Star

Bob Timmons, the legendary Kansas track and field coach and mentor to Olympian Jim Ryun, died on Tuesday.

Timmons, who guided KU to four NCAA championships and 27 Big Eight titles, was 91.

Known as an inspiring motivator and beloved head coach, Timmons coached the Kansas program from 1966-88, developing a slew of All-Americans and future Olympians. He was perhaps best known for his relationships with Ryun, who ran for Timmons at Wichita East in the early 1960s and later followed his coach to KU.

“He gave each athlete a different challenge,” Ryun said in an interview last year. “He took such a personal interest in everyone around him. He would consistently ask athletes how their grades were or how they were doing outside of school. He was just that kind of guy that truly cared for everyone.”

Timmons — who was affectionately known as “Timmie” to his athletes — was also a pioneer in his advocacy for student athletes. He developed a “bill of rights” for student athletes in an era when the subject of student athlete welfare was not as popular as it is today.

Former KU associate athletic director Richard Konzem worked as a student manager for Timmons in the late 1970s and remembers a coach who treated his athletes like his own children. In one instance, Konzem recalls, Timmons fought vigorously against the NCAA when standout Clifford Wiley was faced with losing his Pell Grant money.

“What has happened today with student athlete welfare and all that, and what he called the ‘student athlete bill of rights,’ and now the stuff happening today, this was all stuff Timmie was lobbying for then,” Konzem said.

Timmons, who attended KU and was a track teammate of future Kansas senator and presidential candidate Bob Dole, began his coaching career at Caldwell High School in 1950. A World War II veteran, Timmons was known as a demanding coach who ran grueling practices, but also as a mentor who often helped his athletes with career advice and guidance.

In his early days at Wichita East, Timmons took an interest in a skinny kid with some promise on the track. It was Ryun, who became the first high school runner to run a sub four-minute mile.

The story is part of Timmons and Kansas lore. In the spring of 1963, Ryun was a sophomore at Wichita East when the team was returning by bus from the Washington Relays in Kansas City, Kan. Ryun 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.”

“Timmie got you to thinking the impossible as being possible,” Ryun said in a 2001 interview. “He got you thinking outside your box.”

On Wednesday, as the news rippled around the KU community, hundreds of other former KU track athletes had similar stories.

“KU has lost a true treasure,” Kansas athletic director Sheahon Zenger said. “Coach Timmons was one of the all-time greats. His legacy, though, does not end with championships and medals. His real legacy is how much he cared about his student-athletes and the University of Kansas.”

One of those athletes was Wichita State track and field coach Steve Rainbolt, who competed in the high jump and decathlon at Kansas from 1975-80. He remembers Timmons as a big thinker who grabbed and fostered such projects such as the Kansas Relays and the creation of Rim Rock Farm north of Lawrence, which has become one of the top cross-country courses in the country.

As a senior, Rainbolt’s 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 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.”

Timmons, who grew up in Pittsburg, Kan., 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 Wichita East.

Among his most prominent pupils: Former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, who served as a team manager for Timmons during his high school days at Wichita East.

In 2010, when Gates was honored as the Kansan of the Year, he recalled the lessons he learned from Timmons.

“No amount of screaming was as effective a motivator as Bob Timmons putting his arm around a student’s shoulder and quietly saying, ‘I’m disappointed you didn’t give your best effort, your all,’” Gates said.

“I carry Bob Timmons’ life lessons in leadership, integrity, discipline, motivating people and treating all of them respectfully to work with me every day.”

Contributing: Wichita Eagle staff reports

To reach Rustin Dodd, call 816-234-4937 or send email to rdodd@kcstar.com. Follow him on Twitter: @rustindodd.

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