Behind the success of Indiana State’s track and field program is a star coach — well, a few star coaches.
There is a long list of legends in Indiana State University’s storied history of athletic success. Names such as basketball’s Larry Bird, wrestling’s Bruce Baumgartner and gymnastics’ Kurt Thomas resonate in many sports fans’ homes across America — and they all got their start athletically at the national level right here near the Crossroads of America. Others such as John Wooden got their first taste of success at Indiana State University and moved on to a brighter spotlight later in the career.
One man gained his start, honed his craft and continues to be a working, living legend right here at Indiana State. That man is John McNichols, who is in his 32nd year as the men’s track and field, as well as cross-country head coach and his 26th season as the coordinator of the combined men’s and women’s programs.
McNichols, a native of St. Charles, Iowa, is a 1972 graduate of Indiana University. Prior to arriving in Terre Haute for the 1983-84 academic year, McNichols was the head boy’s track and field coach at Bloomington High School North.
His resume is filled with success from his time leading the Sycamore program. He has won nine cross-country conference titles, including three-peats 2004-06 and again 2009-11. He has won two MVC Indoor Track and Field Championships (2011 and 2013) and nine MVC Outdoor Track and Field Championships, including three straight from 2011-13. Under his leadership, the combined men’s and women’s programs have won 31 MVC Championships. Additionally, the track wing of the athletics offices is filled with his MVC Coach of the Year Trophies — 21 to be exact.
McNichols has achieved a majority of his success by attracting student-athletes to his program without the benefit of state-of-the-art facilities and the other bells and whistles that those running competing programs have had to showcase for a number of years. That fact, however, changes this spring, thanks in large part to a generous gift from the family of Max and Jacquie Gibson, which has allowed for the first new athletic facility on campus to be constructed in 25 years. This spring, the Gibson Track and Field Complex will host its first competition with the Gibson Invitational, set for April 16-18. A dedication of the new complex is April 17.
“I can’t say enough about the support of the Gibson family towards our track and field program,” McNichols said. “We have received support from many of our track and field alumni over the years, but the Gibson resources have allowed us to build a championship cross-country course on the city’s east side, and now we are experiencing growth right here on campus.”
A new era is dawning on First Street, as the future of Sycamore athletics is finally experiencing growth you can see in person. When it is dedicated later this spring, the Gibson Track and Field facility will represent the first phase of new athletic facilities near the Wabash River. The first season at the new facility in 2014-15 will be much like the start of the cross-country course in the late ’90s: There will be a brand new video board, which will double as a scoreboard, and there will be a grand entrance in place. The competition areas are set to be first-class in every way.
For McNichols, he sees the opportunities for development through continued support of the program, and one day he dreams of hosting national events at the Gibson Track Complex, just like he did 20 years ago in cross-country.
“I remember visiting the area that became the cross-country course for the first time and thinking this is the perfect area, and we dreamed of everything that could be added in future years to make it a top-notch facility,” McNichols said. “We have taken the same approach with the Gibson track complex.”
Always a visionary, he had the foresight to bring another legend to the Sycamore Track program 27 years ago. That legend was John Gartland, who led the women’s side of the program for many seasons and enjoyed his own considerable success with the program. With a military background, Gartland brought a high level of discipline to the program and complemented McNichols’ expertise in many areas. They added in nationally renowned throws coach Larry Judge and were able to put together a roster of skilled and well-coached student-athletes over the years. Now Gartland coaches the women’s cross-country team, and one of the athletes he trained followed him in leading the women’s track program — former Sycamore All-American Angie Martin.
“We worked in a mobile office in the early days and searched the nation for athletes who would work hard and already had the skills to be successful,” McNichols said. “I worked with the sprinters and hurdlers, Coach Gartland worked with the jumpers and Larry Judge began his legendary career in the sport working with our throws. We all worked together well, and while I coached the men and Gartland coached the women, we each had our own specific events and crossed over to coach both genders. The Sycamores were able to enjoy a lot of success over the years with that formula.”
But the most gratifying accomplishment of all for Coach McNichols is the fact the student-athletes who went through his program continue to support the university.
“We have been able to keep a lot of alumni close to the program over the years,” McNichols said. “Those who went on to be successful in other areas of life have been a great financial support. Others are vocal supporters of our athletic programs and are season ticket holders. Some continue to help the program through their work in the community. And then people like Angie and Jeff Martin and now Kyle Walsh are coaching right alongside us as we get to ready to open the Gibson track complex. We’ve not only had success in the past, but also this program is built to continue to enjoy success in the future.”
Indeed, the work of John McNichols and his entire staff and his all-time roster of student-athletes have worked hard to make Indiana State Track and Field a proud championship program. Now with a new facility and a dedicated group of alumni who continue to advance the program as well as the support of a grateful community, McNichols knows a future of growth and success continues to be at hand for Sycamore Track and Field.