Dan Stimson was so big at age 12 that he carried his birth certificate to Little League baseball games to prove he was eligible. Larger still was his personality, which bonds hundreds of William and Mary track and field athletes graced by his coaching, counsel and friendship.
“I’ve never seen a coach where as many athletes loved him,” said Randy Hawthorne, a decades-long W&M track benefactor. “He took such an interest in them. He was like a giant teddy bear, and he was always so jovial and happy and willing to help out.”
Stimson, 68, died last month of natural causes, six-plus years after retiring as the Tribe’s director of track and cross country. The outpouring from his extended family hasn’t stopped since and will peak Sunday with a 2 p.m., memorial service at Williamsburg United Methodist Church.
With technical expertise and a knack for grooming coaches, Stimson built a powerhouse program at W&M. In 25 years as director, his teams, men’s and women’s, won 49 Colonial Athletic Association championships and earned 64 individual All-American awards.
How best to put those numbers in context? Well, his four teams — men’s and women’s cross country, and men’s and women’s outdoor track — averaged two conference titles a year for a generation.
How many coaches, in any sport, in any league, would like to win their conference, on average, twice every four years? That’s a stampede you hear.
Most staggering: If Stimson’s teams were a school unto themselves, they would be tied for third overall in CAA championships behind only James Madison (64) and the rest of W&M’s teams (53).
But as with all treasured coaches, the relentless success — Tribe men’s cross country once qualified for 14 consecutive NCAA championships under Stimson — is transcended by relationships.
With a booming voice, infectious laugh and gentle soul, the 300-plus-pound Stimson created a track family, and it was that family, as well as his wife, children and grandchildren, that sustained him as his health declined.
“It was always more than track with him,” said Alex Heacock, W&M’s track director and a former javelin thrower at the school, “and sometimes it’s important for me to look at, like hey, obviously we want people to throw far and run fast … but in the grand scheme of things, what are we trying to prepare people for? We’re trying to prepare them for success in life, whatever that looks like. …
“He was always more excited about graduate-school placements and jobs that people got and meeting the children of his former athletes.”
And, oh, how those athletes loved him for that approach and support.
Three months ago, Hawthorne circulated the news that Stimson’s health, compromised by diabetes and amputations of both legs below the knee, was failing. More than 200 former athletes and coaches from across the country traveled to Williamsburg to visit, Stimson holding court for hours on end.
“We want kids that want to come to practice,” Stimson told the Daily Press’ Dave Fairbank in 2014. “We want them to want to get better and try to keep it as a sport. It’s supposed to be fun. Sometimes in athletics, you get worried about how much you’re winning. I think the main thing is that I want them to have fun trying to get better, they’re going to strive to do that. They will have teammates that they like. They will be able to represent themselves, and their family and the college in a very positive way.”
Simple, grounded, but far too rare.
“He was extraordinarily inclusive,” said Harvard associate head cross country coach Alex Gibby, who ran for and coached under Stimson at W&M. “He did an exceptional job of connecting with everybody. It was easy to have a relationship with (stars such as) Matt Lane or Ed Moran, Paul Vandegrift, those guys. But I remember when I was a useless freshman and hurt for four months — he always made you feel like you had a place in the program and it was a valuable place. You can’t teach that. He was just a terrific human being.”
Gibby and Heacock are part of Stimson’s remarkable coaching tree. Walt Drenth is Michigan State’s track director, and in 2014 his Spartans won the NCAA women’s cross country championship. Andrew Gerard leads George Mason’s programs, and in 2003 he guided Stanford to a national title in men’s cross country. Gibby’s wife, former W&M athlete Kathy Newberry, is a volunteer coach at Harvard.
Stimson not only encouraged but also empowered coaches, preparing and recommending them for jobs elsewhere.
A Mid-American Conference shot put champion at Ohio University, Stimson was a renowned throws coach. But when a back injury shelved Heacock for much of his senior season, Stimson had him coach fellow javelin thrower Brandon Heroux, who later became an All-American.
Gibby recalled that in his rookie year coaching men’s cross country at W&M, the team finished last at the 2003 NCAA meet. Discouraged, he sought out his boss.
“Dan just had this unyielding faith,” Gibby said. “He sat me down when we got back. It’s just those little moments of support for a young coach that are truly essential. Certainly the words matter, but it was the meaning behind them. He wasn’t saying those words because he felt like he had to. He sold it because he believed it.”
Predisposed to blood clots, Stimson lost his right leg in 2010, promoting his decision a year later to resign as director and serve as an assistant coach. Doctors amputated his left leg in 2013, and he retired into a voluntary assistant coaching role in 2014.
“Hey, I don't need a podiatrist anymore,” Stimson deadpanned to Fairbank in 2014.
Confined to a wheelchair for much of his later years, Stimson never lost that penchant for what Heacock called “comic relief.” Indeed, just four days before Stimson passed away he was joking with Hawthorne in his hospital room.
Stimson is survived by his wife of 46 years, Rosemary. Their son, Clare, is a realtor and Eco-Tour guide. Their daughter, Krista Crider, works at the Centers for Disease Control. She is a former W&M record-holder in the hammer throw and has two children.
Husband, father, grandfather, coach, friend and force of nature. How’d he do it all?
“The easy thing to say is, he was himself,” Heacock said. “He just had this great personality. … He just cared so much about everybody he ever met.”
Imitating Stimson’s voice, Gibby spoke his mentor’s mantra: “Hope. There’s always hope.”
“That was sort of his life philosophy,” Gibby said. “It was consistent and he believed it and it was present every day and it was so genuine.”
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