On the back corner of the window sill in Tom Heinonen’s office is a green and yellow card that reads, in glitter, “Who’s the BEST coach around, TOM.”
Picture frames line the walls with pictures of past and present stars he has coached.
Annette Peters, former Olympian and American record holder at 5,000 meters is shown with a large bouquet of flowers and her son at her side. Kathy Hayes has her special spot on the wall as Oregon’s first woman to win an NCAA Championship.
All are a representation of milestones that Heinonen has seen come and go with the Oregon women’s track and field program since 1977.
After 27 years as head coach, Heinonen will soon reach his final milestone: retirement.
“Yeah, it’s time,” Heinonen said. “I’ve had eight or 10 months to get ready for this, and we’re getting down to where each time I do something for the last time, it’s something that’s pretty important.”
The men’s and women’s track and field teams will merge into one program at the conclusion of the 2003 season.
“It’s a logical step, virtually everybody in the country has done it,” Heinonen said. “It makes sense to simplify things, it makes sense to have six coaches using their expertise across both genders rather than having two people who are really good hurdle coaches or two people who are really good long jump coaches.”
Heinonen leaves Oregon without regret, as he has thought about retirement for five years.
“He’s comfortable with the fact that it’s his time to go,” assistant coach Mark Stream said. “I think, in a sense, he’s going to be able to leave it behind, but he will never leave track and field behind.”
The 57-year-old has done it all as a coach. He has led his teams for nearly three decades and won every award and honor there is.
As the women’s cross country head coach and in track and field, Heinonen’s distance crews have accounted for 86 All-American honors, 33 Pacific-10 Conference titles and seven NCAA crowns.
“At some point or another, we won about everything you can win,” Heinonen said. “At the same time we haven’t been very good lately, and that’s been hard, but we try really hard.”
On the track this season, no runners advanced to next week’s NCAA Championships. Heinonen’s harrier squad finished fifth in the conference in 2002-03 after taking eighth the year before.
But despite limited success recently, Heinonen has had a personal impact on his athletes of today.
Freshman Nicole Feest recently finished her first track season as a Duck and was attracted to Oregon because of the two-time Pac-10 Track and Field Coach of the Year.
“That was the biggest, if not generally, the reason why I came here,” Feest said of Heinonen’s stature. “I knew that coming here to walk on, Tom would take me to the level I needed to be at.
“I had great confidence in him, he’s very successful, and when I think Tom Heinonen, that’s women’s track and field right there.”
Feest improved from a 10 minute 59 second personal best in the 3,200 meters as a prep to running 16:57.94 in the 5,000 meters on the track.
So what makes Heinonen a good coach?
“I’m there every day,” he said. “I mean really, I’m just a decent guy trying to do a good job.”
Not too bad for someone who is the only head coach to win multiple NCAA titles in track and field and cross country, along with several international coaching accolades.
Redshirt sophomore Laura Harmon remembers her first impression of Heinonen. She was in eighth grade and attending her first Oregon Track and Field camp.
“He was like an idol to me almost, because that’s when I was just getting into running and just finding out a lot more about running and how important he had been to women’s running since the get-go,” Harmon said.
Redshirt senior Carrie Zografos enjoys the laid-back atmosphere that Heinonen carries. Zografos transferred from Colorado after two years to return home, where she walked on to the Oregon squad.
“He’s not manipulative and not controlling, and he really lets you seek out what you love about the sport and find that self-motivation and find that drive,” Zografos said.
After nearly 30 years, where does Heinonen go next? He’ll keep coaching, because that’s what he knows and loves.
He plans to coach the Oregon club sports running team.
“I’ll give it a try,” he said. “It’s a pretty informal group, and we’ll see what we can make of it, and if it’s fun and rewarding for the kids and for me, then I hope I’d get to keep doing it.”
The Minneapolis, Minn., native also wants to hike, bike, camp and do volunteering. But if that doesn’t work?
“If that’s not fulfilling, I’ll get a paper route,” he said.
Heinonen has left his stamp on this program and track and field. For nearly three decades, Heinonen has reached many milestones, and now he reaches the final one. It’s the end of an era and the beginning of retirement.
“With Tom goes an era for women’s track and field,” Stream said. “This program was built totally by him and his vision. For him, women’s track carries the stamp of Tom and his love for Oregon track. Tom’s time at Oregon would be known as an era, just as much as Dellinger, Bowerman or Hayward, but this one’s the Tom Heinonen era.”
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