TRAVERSE CITY — John Lober bent down and picked up a piece of of straw off the Traverse City Central track.
The legendary Trojans track and field mentor was chatting with other Central coaches at the school's spring college signing event, held outdoors on the track.
Not many knew it'd be Lober's last as head coach of Central's track and field program, one he built into a northern Michigan powerhouse and model for other successful teams across the state.
The track is his baby. He oversaw its 1970s construction.
Even knowing it was his last season, he's still picking straw off the surface during a signing ceremony. Not just once. Multiple times.
After 52 years of helping Trojan track and field athletes put their best foot forward, Lober is taking a step back from the helm of the boys track program at Traverse City Central.
“What a ride. What a man,” former TC Central runner and ex-TC St. Francis coach Branden Morgan said. “Once I became a coach, I thought, 'If I can just be a little bit of what he is, I'll be successful."
Although Lober was responsible for recruiting, scheduling, coaching, directing and teaching hundreds of students a year, he still made a profound impact on each individual he coached, starting with his first team at TCC in 1977.
John Benedict was one of the first students Lober coached at Central when he took over the program following seven years as an assistant. Benedict faced an ultimatum from his doctor while running hurdles for Lober — change events to reduce stress on his hamstring or switch his lead led for the hurdles. Benedict thought the answer was easy — quit running hurdles and save his legs — but Lober made sure to push Benedict to switch his form and prove he could be just as good no matter what challenge was thrown his way.
"He really molded me as a person and changed the trajectory of my life," said Benedict, a 1977 TC Central graduate who co-owns Playmakers in Lansing. "The lessons he gave me about being positive and looking forward and figuring it out and not just quitting or wallowing in pity. No, pick yourself up, dust yourself off, get back at it. That changed my life."
Benedict said he often finds himself falling back on Lober's teachings with the mantra of "here's what we are going to do" when leading his business, which specializes in selling running gear and hosting distance running events in the Lansing area. Lober still keeps in close contact with several of his athletes, who have now become friends, from the 1977 team — starting the gigantic network of people who have had their lives influenced by the generational coach.
To put things into perspective, Lober coached track for 57 years, including serving as head coach at Traverse City Central for the last 44 seasons. Only Don Sleeman, the head coach at Ann Arbor Pioneer for 53 years, had a longer tenure than Lober — which is nearly as long as Joe Paterno coached at Penn State (46 years).
The only person that Lober recalls coaching longer than himself is former assistant Don Lukens, who coached as an assistant and head coach for 62 years.
Lober has coached during five different decades at Central and spent enough time to see his students not only have entire lives and careers of their own, but become lifelong friends the 79-year-old coach still spends time with.
"I've gone from being one of his athletes to being a friend which is really special and doesn't happen all the time," said Benedict, who turned 61 this year. "It might with the iconic coaches that you know can connect in this way, and he is the only one of my coaches I am friends with many years later. That is no accident."
RECRUIT, RECRUIT, RECRUIT
"One of his biggest strengths as a coach was that he knew that one thing that made someone unique and what made them special," former Trojan and University of Michigan runner Anthony Berry said. "Even if they didn't realize it, he saw it before they did and that is what made him the best coach Central has ever and will ever have."
Lober's ability to recruit kids and his approach to getting new athletes out on the track turned into one of the main reasons he was successful. Nearly every kid at Traverse City Central in the last 50 years has been asked by Lober to come out and try track at least once in their high school career.
Finding the hidden potential of any athlete was his specialty and bringing the best out of them when the time came always seemed to be a byproduct. Berry, who holds numerous school records in the distance events at TC Central and was all-state six times, said that without Lober's initial nudge to get him on the track and make him aware of his potential, he may have never went on to run at Michigan.
For years Lober would set aside a few days out of the season and head over the the middle school to give a track clinic and gauge the skill of the youth in Traverse City and his program. These visits are remembered by many in the TC running community as their introduction to track and field and a place where Lober regularly pinpointed future athletes, such as discus thrower Leah Doezema, for events once they reached the high school level.
Lober recruited Doezema out of her eighth-grade gym class after seeing her try throwing once.
"I remember him saying, 'God gave you a set of shoulders, kid. If you don't throw this year, I will personally track you down,'" said Doezema, who four years later won a Division 1 state championship in discus.
Benedict said he remembers Lober recruiting kids in the hallways when he was in school and that never changed. Lober continues to make the rounds through the high school, tagging kids who he hadn't seen or spoken to before with the ever-present inquiry "want to come out for track?"
The Trojans have had as many as 135 athletes on the boys track team. This year's squad featured 81.
"He always found something in the kid that they didn't know that they had," John's son Joe Lober said. "He could kind of match something up with each kid that they didn't know or think that they could do."
His own experience of getting cut from the basketball team as a 5-foot-6 freshman led to dabbling in track and field. Even there, he wasn't encouraged, which led to his relentlessly optimistic positivity when dealing with kids.
"We all have that ding in our life," Lober said. "Sometimes that ding becomes your life story. I find myself drawn to the average kid, not the all-staters."
The recruiting never stops in the Trojan track and field program and sign-up cards are still placed throughout the hallways to bring interested kids to Lober's office.
After growing up in Toledo, Lober started coaching at Bellaire in 1964, leading the football, junior varsity and middle school basketball and track teams, all while teaching math, English, health and physical education.
To put that in perspective, there were no girls sports at Bellaire then, and only three paid coaches — football, basketball and track.
Lober — whose brother Bob was a Hall of Fame golf coach at Central — started at Traverse City Central in 1970, after two more school years teaching and coaching in Sylvania, Ohio.
He's worked with nine different athletic directors in his tenure, winning 136 invitational titles, 21 league crowns, 11 Division 1 regional championships and the 1992 Class A state championship. TC Central, East Kentwood, Benton Harbor and Kalamazoo Central remain the only western Michigan teams to win Class A team state titles.
He coached 109 teams over the years, including cross country at Central. He started up the Record-Eagle Honor Roll Meet in the 1970s as an assistant coach, a meet that now also bears his name.
“You remember every race of every kid,” Lober said.
He thought about hanging it up over the last five years. When he told athletic director Zac Stevenson he was stepping down, Stevenson didn't believe him at first, saying, “That's what you said last year.”
Lober, who retired from teaching in 2000, taught current Michigan State women's basketball coach and TCC grad Suzy Merchant how to drive.
That's just the tip of the iceberg, but delving more into the numbers of Lober's seven-decade coaching career takes away from the impact of things stats and awards don't measure.
COACH OF COACHES
Numerous Lober athletes go into coaching themselves.
Morgan has perhaps the most unique experience, coaching under, for and against Lober.
“I've learned so many things from that man, about track, about life,” Morgan said. “It didn't matter if you were on his team. He just wanted kids to get better. He wanted to do it the right way. He wanted boys to become grown men.”
Morgan said he tried to instill those values when he coached TC St. Francis for two years (2010-11).
“He surrounds himself with quality people like (Chris) Ludka, (Don) Lukens, (Tim) Donahey,” Morgan said. “He has the ability not only of finding and building athletes, but finding and building coaches.”
Aside from having those three at his side for decades, Lober credits coaches Konrad Visser, Bryan Burns, Tony Moreno, John Piatek, John Tredway, Eric Houghton, Paul Anderson, Lisa Taylor, Chad Norton, Kristina Olson and many others for helping sustain TC Central's success over the years.
Former TCC runner Preston Pierson now coaches at East Kentwood, a school that comes to the Ken Bell Invitational in Traverse City every year and regularly wins it until Central's girls and West's boys snapped that streak this year.
Pierson graduated in 2006, ran at Hope College and started at East Kentwood in 2013. The Falcons won six state titles since (2013, '14, '17, '18, '19).
“His passion for the sport was inspiring for me as an athlete and I brought that into my coaching as well,” Pierson said. “His ability to give young men confidence and be part of a great program benefits them as an athlete, but also throughout their entire lives. I try to honor him with how we do things here.”
Bill Pennington went from being the team's fourth discus thrower to coaching 30 years at Midland. Former Trojan athletes Nate Plum and Mark Fiegel went on to coaching careers in soccer.
Jim Nagy, part of the 1992 state championship team as a long jumper, went on to be a scout for the Seattle Seahawks, Washington Football Team, New England Patriots and Kansas City Chiefs and currently serves as executive director of the Senior Bowl. He also grew up two blocks away from Lober, frequently playing pick-up basketball with Joe Lober.
“It's all about connecting on relations, and he's always been great at that,” Nagy said. “I know the man very well. He had so much good energy, always positive. Doing what I've been doing all these years, I can really appreciate what he does.”
While almost everyone in the community, including Lober himself, knows he's not walking away from the program completely, his role will change as he takes a step back and helps a new head coach take the reigns.
"The family needs him to coach, otherwise he's gonna drive us crazy," Joe Lober said. "We want him to kind of step aside and take some time and relax a little bit, but we know if he's the so-called assistant coach that he's still going to be out there raking the sand pits and putting up banners and all that stuff."
The amount of time Lober spends working on the program, fielding calls from coaches and athletes, making connections for his runners to attend college, directing meets and compiling stats and records will decrease as he searches for more time with his partner of 15 years, Margo Million.
But even Million knows his decision to step back doesn't mean stepping away completely.
"I don't think he is done with coaching," Million said. "This is his passion, his life and that is where his heart is at, is coaching kids.
"I'll believe when I see it. I believe that he's going to find 25 other things that will fuel him. That's just the way he is."
Anyone who runs into Lober wouldn't believe he is 79-years-old with the energy and enthusiasm he brings for life. Even some of the high school kids say they can't keep up with him. He plans to make more time with Million, taking RV trips and is hopeful to make a trip to Europe before his time on this earth is up.
East Kentwood just built a $20 million multi-purpose indoor facility. Lober wants something like that in Traverse City, as well as building an archive room at the TC Central track to house records and memorabilia.
Lober said he wants to still keep team records, help out coaches from any school and do private lessons.
“I don't ever picture myself stopping doing this,” Lober said. “I want to take everything I know and pass it on without being a pain in the butt.”
Grand Valley State University head coach Jerry Baltes regularly recruits Lober's athletes. He didn't attend TCC or run for Lober, but he's seen firsthand what the Trojans mentor helps produce. When contacted for this story, the first thing he said was, "Do you really think he's going to stop coaching?"
"It's just so rare that somebody can have that combination of desire," Benedict said. "If there's one thing you want to do it, but be able to physically be able to get out there and have the energy to bring it. ... it's sort of transcendent."