Staff Blog: Timeless Wisdom

Al Buehler is an underappreciated coaching a legend whose story is being told in a new book and documentary. Photo: Megan Morr

A new book and documentary helping to shine some light on an unsung hero. 

As a young coach, I’m always in search of wisdom and inspiration to help me become a more effective mentor for my athletes. Most often, I end up learning from other coaches that I’ve had the good fortune to watch in action. Sometimes, however, these lessons come from someone I’ve never heard of, much less met in person.

A few weeks ago, I received a copy of the book Starting At The Finish Line: Coach Al Buehler’s Timeless Wisdom, a 96-page hardcover book written by Amy E. Unell. Along with it, I was given a code to watch a feature documentary of the same name on iTunes. As a running geek and student of the sport of track and field, I’m ashamed to admit that I had never heard of Buehler until the book found its way to my desk. After skimming through the book and watching the film, however, I quickly developed an appreciation and admiration for the former Duke University cross country and track coach, whose story is not only a inspiration for coaches and runners, but anyone in search of a role model, teacher or good example to follow.

Al Buehler is my kind of coach. He’s my kind of guy, even though I’ve never met him. The 81-year-old, who still teaches “History and Issues of Sports” at Duke, coached the Blue Devils’ cross country and track programs for 45 years, guiding several all Americans and NCAA champions, five of whom went on to become Olympians, two of them medalists. Buehler has made a career of flying under the radar while helping his athletes perform at the highest levels — as students, athletes and human beings. He was also responsible for breaking down racial barriers in track and field in the 50s and 60s and was a supporter of offering equal opportunities for women in athletics.

“I like to think of myself as a teach who happens to specialize in track and field,” Buehler writes in the Coach’s Note at the beginning of the book. “That’s what coaching really is — it’s teaching.”

The book, available for purchase online, is a quick page turner. It’s full of inspiring anecdotes from Buehler himself (“I don’t know of any unenthusiastic coaches who were worth their salt. If you can’t be excited about something, why should any of your students?” he says) and stories from athletes he’s coached or mentored, including the likes of Joan Benoit Samuelson, Carl Lewis, Dave Wottle and Jackie Joyner Kersee, as well as athletes and coaches from other sports, such as former Duke and NBA star Grant Hill — who served as executive producer of the film —  and legendary college basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski, who says, “He’s (Buehler) been able to figure out not just how to high-jump or run, but why somebody would put in an extra bit of practice, the mental stuff that goes along. For him, this is the most important part of being a champion.”

The documentary, available on iTunes, was produced by Unell and premiered at the U.S. Olympic Track & Field Trials this past June. It does a great job of bringing the book to life and telling the story of this under-appreciated figure in American track and field coaching. Plus, it’s just a damn good story.

I’ve been told that inspiration is where you find it. I’ve found it recently in a book and movie about a little known coach named Al Buehler. Learning about his life and the lessons he’s been teaching to athletes, students and others whose lives he’s impacted is helping me become a better coach, teacher and person. Read, watch and let it do the same for you.

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