So, you say you worked hard and did your best today. How do you know? What is your best? Is it the point where you think you’ve reached some preconceived limit of your effort, your ability? Or have you found out what your true best is by, over time, testing those limits, trying to go beyond them? To truly find out what you are capable of?
Randy Wright recalls running mile repeats (a training regimen for distance runners that’s rarely described as “fun”) one day at Bryant High School and his coach Danny Westbrook taught him a valuable lesson.
“He explained,” Wright began, “that in repeats or racing or life, you will always come to a decision: ‘To keep pushing through the pain. Or quit.’
“’To be a winner in a race — or in life — you must push through the pain to achieve your goals. This is true in running and in life. It doesn’t matter if it is a class, a workout, a race, a relationship, or in business.’”
That’s teaching, isn’t it? Whether it’s in a classroom, on a track, on the pitch, the diamond, the gridiron, the court or somewhere on the uneven, often rugged terrain of a cross country course. It’s more than information. It’s more than rote repetition. It’s actually more than just winning or losing, passing or failing — though passing and winning are splendid rewards and losing and failing are often harsh lessons.
Teaching, coaching, mentoring lend themselves to so much more. In 36 years of it, so many lives are touched, so many futures are affected.
Such is the case for Westbrook who is set to officially begin his last season of coaching when the Bryant teams open the 2016 track season at the Panther Relays in Benton this Friday (weather allowing).
Westbrook began his coaching career right out of college at UALR, coaching basketball, football and track at Rison. After a year, he came to Bryant where he’s been ever since.
Initially, he was hired as the junior high boys track coach, assistant junior high football coach and assistant junior high basketball coach.
In 1981, Bryant was barely big enough to be a Class AAAA school with just over 4,000 students in the entire school district. It’s now a district of almost 10,000 students including the fifth largest high school in the state.
In the interim, he has coached six State championship teams, five State runner-up teams, and 17 conference championship teams. He’s also coached numerous individual State champions and has seen 41 of his athletes gain college scholarships in either cross country or track.
Over his career, he has won several coaching awards including the 1993 National Federation of Interscholastic Coaches Association Boys Outstanding Cross Country Coach, 2003 Arkansas High School Coaches Association Outstanding Girls Cross Country Coach, and the 2004 Southwest Sectional Coach of the Year for Track and Cross Country by the National Federation of High School Coaches. Westbrook served as vice president of the Arkansas Track Coaches Association from 2003 until retiring from that position in 2014.
“I would say my favorite thing — and the thing that Coach Westbrook did that had the biggest impact on me, was that he always had high expectations for me,” said Jordan Chadwick, who ran at Bryant from 2006-07 to 2009-10 before beginning a stellar career as a hurdler at the University of Central Arkansas. “He never let me be complacent in training.
“With that being said, he was always the first (and most excited) person to let me know when I did something great, but also the first (and most passionate) person to let me know when I was doing something that did not meet his expectations,” she added. “Also, I would credit his passion for the sport with my passion for the sport. Being coached by a person that loves what they’re coaching makes all the difference in the world.”
Westbrook originally took over the cross country program at Bryant from Joe Treat, the late Hall of Honor basketball coach. Continuing as a basketball and football assistant, Westbrook began to build the program and, in 1991, the Hornets won their first State championship.
After that, he gave up his other coaching duties to concentrate on cross country and track, starting a girls program.
“I was on the actual first full girls (cross country) team,” recalled Erin Franks, who graduated from BHS in 1995. “We kind of had a learning period. He had two very young daughters at the time. We taught him how to deal with girls and he taught us how to deal with coach because most of us hadn’t really played sports before. Some had done softball and things but not really super competitive like this was.
“He taught us how to be a team and we were like a family,” she added. “He’s really kind of like a father. He’s still one of the men I respect most in this world. He coached me and trained me and helped me be a collegiate athlete. I won three State championships then went on a full collegiate scholarship for track and cross country. If it had not been for him, it would not have happened. He knew how to make me push myself harder and I apply those same principals in my life today.”
The program grew. Westbrook was not shy about inviting students to come give cross country or track a try.
“I first started running for Coach Westbrook in seventh grade track back in 1988,” recalls Brian Bariola, who eventually won two individual State cross country titles and was the leader of the State title teams in 1991 and 1992. “Back then running was a new sport for me. I’d always been a soccer player but there was no school ball then and the local club play stopped around sixth grade. So track was my brief introduction to him.
“The real relationship started the following fall when I was in eighth grade,” Bariola continued. “He happened to be teaching a class next to my first-period class. He remembered me from track and, before class, he would talk to me about this sport he’d recently started coaching called cross country. He explained it to me and I was sold.
“I decided to start right away and my life would be forever changed,” he stated. “I was able to witness first hand his passion, dedication, and compassion for his running athletes. We started as a team of seven or eight guys and maybe three girls and he treated us like his own kids.”
There was something else too, Bariola related, “What sets him apart from most any other coach is he was also a runner. He ran then and still does today. That meant a lot to me. He not only was telling me what to do but he did it too. I was able to see him first-hand put his heart and soul into coaching our cross country team and he even recruited his wife, Vicki, to help him with timing and traveling.
“With his coaching, guidance, long talks of encouragement, he pushed me to go on and win those two individual titles as well as the team championships. I couldn’t have been happier, but more, Coach Westbrook was so happy for me. And that led to college scholarships that paid for the next big part of my life.”
To varying degrees, that’s a familiar story.
Wright, who graduated in 1993 and was a member of those title teams, said, “Coach Westbrook has the all the qualities of a great leader, honesty, communication, confidence, commitment and positive attitude. He is the single biggest influence on most of the runners including myself going through school.
“I started track in the seventh grade not really knowing what I was going to do with my life,” he recounted. “It was with a simple question to go to track or study hall. I decided to go to track and give it a shot. I was a kid that never really thought about college because I really never thought I would have the money to go.
“From that first day going for a short run to the day I completed my career at Bryant, Coach was there to motivate and push me to be better than I thought I ever could,” Wright mentioned. “He helped us realize we could get scholarships and what we could achieve with hard work.
“A lot of the lessons I learned while with Coach, I still use in life and business today. It is true what people say that a coach can really mold young people and affect their lives forever.
The program grew to the point where Westbrook needed help. In fact, last year, from grades 7 through 12, nearly 200 students participated in cross country.
“Coach Bodie Nance was a tremendous asset to our program and then eventually Coach Steve Oury took over the boys cross country program in 2003,” Westbrook said. “I think we can safely say that for several years, we have had one of the largest cross country teams in the state. I am very proud of that. Track and field is a great sport but cross country is by far my favorite. In cross country, everyone gets to participate. Nobody has to sit on the bench.”
Reflecting on his career, the coach said, “What I look back on and really appreciate is just the dedication and hard work that I’ve seen from athletes I’ve coached.
“I would really like to first and foremost express my gratitude to my wife,” he said. “I think few people really understand what a coach’s wife endures throughout a coaching career. Vicki has been my rock. She has helped me through the tough losses and been there with me to celebrate the victories. It has been so awesome to have had her support and to have shared my career with her. I am looking forward to spending quality time with her. We plan on doing a lot of traveling and a whole lot of snow skiing, which is one of our biggest passions.”
The couples’ daughters are all grown up now. In fact, both Lisa Stine and Amber Leaton, are both teaching at Bryant High School.
“Over the years, I have coached with some great coaches and made some great relationships,” the coach asserted. “Our current track staff is an awesome group of dedicated coaches, Coach Oury, Keith Dale, Beth Solomon, Brad Stroud, John Orr, Deanna Porter, Denise Smith and Debbie Clark are all very knowledgeable and hard working. I have appreciated the opportunity to work with each of them. I know the future of track & field and cross country here at Bryant is in good hands.”
Said Bariola, “I’m very proud of what he has accomplished as a coach. I’m even prouder to know his love and compassion for his athletes has driven him all these years. I’ll be sorry to know he’s not coaching any longer but also know no one deserves a nice retirement like Coach Westbrook.”
“Over my 36-year career, out there on the track, I’ve seen a lot of sweat and pain expended,” Westbrook concluded. “We’ve had some really outstanding performers over the years but my hope is that everyone who came through our program, regardless of their ability, gained some great memories and learned all those important life lessons that track and cross country can provide.
“Our motto was always “hard work pays off.” I believe that rings true in sport as well as life.”
A retirement reception for Coach Westbrook is planned for Saturday, May 21, from 2-5 p.m., in the Bryant High School multipurpose room in Building 10. All friends, former athletes, and their families are invited to attend.