Although he knew the 2016 cross-country season would be his last, Rick Weinheimer wasn’t letting anyone in on the secret.
The longtime Columbus North coach didn’t want it to be about him.
On Wednesday afternoon, the coach who has led the Bull Dogs to five boys and one girls state championship, announced his retirement from teaching and coaching, effective at the end of the school year.
“I was sure last July, but if you announce it this fall, then it becomes about ‘Farewell to a longtime coach,'” Weinheimer said. “The kids deserve for this season to be about them, clear through the banquet. Then, Christmastime fell, so this felt like the right time to announce it.”
Knowing the 2016 season would be his final one as a coach, Weinheimer took time to reminisce. His last time at Brown County’s Eagle Park following the semistate, he had a chance to look around and appreciate it. He spent some extra time at the state meet walking up and down the final stretch by himself because he knew that would be the last time.
North athletics director Jeff Hester said Weinheimer’s message is one that he try to emulate through the school’s other athletics programs.
“He’s really a foundation block not only for the cross-country program, but for the whole athletics department,” Hester said. “His philosophy and his approach to athletics in general aligned with mine. I told Rick I’m a better athletic director having been around him as a person.”
A championship career
Weinheimer came to Columbus in 1978 as an English teacher at Northside Middle school and cross-country coach at Columbus East.
After that first season, Bill McMahan, who worked at East, wanted to coach there, and the North cross-country position became open, so Weinheimer switched over to North.
The past 38 years, Weinheimer has been the Bull Dogs’ boys cross-country coach, and he’s also led the girls team the past 35 years. In those 35 years, North has qualified for the state finals 32 times.
Weinheimer has led the boys to the state finals 20 times, winning five state championships (2002, 2003, 2009, 2010, 2011). But the biggest moment in his tenure came in that 2009 season when both the boys and girls ran to state championships at Terre Haute’s LaVern Gibson Championship Cross Country Course.
The boys were heavy favorites that year and responded by becoming one of only three teams ever to put all five scorers in the top 25. The girls ran after the boys that year, and pulled a shocking upset, winning by 82 points after finishing third behind Carmel and Noblesville in the semistate a week earlier.
“You had two state championships, one from each direction — from the favorite and from the very unlikely underdog,” Weinheimer said. “That’s a pretty special moment.”
Making runners great
When Christian Wagner moved to Columbus from Lafayette in the early summer of 2001, he didn’t know anyone.
But after running with the North cross-country team that summer and joining the Bull Dogs at their annual team camp at McCormick’s Creek State Park, he knew plenty of classmates when he started his sophomore year of school that fall.
“It was awesome what he did for me,” Wagner said. “It wasn’t the standard of what he did with most kids that were there in middle school. He reached out to me, and I ended up running with the kids during the summer and went to the camp, so I knew the whole team. I can’t thank him enough for doing that kind of stuff. That was an awkward situation switching schools. He goes out of his way all the time to make kids better.”
Weinheimer also made Wagner better at running. After running in the mid-17 minutes for 5,000 meters (3.1 miles) when he arrived at North, Wagner became a three-time All-State runner and the state champion as a senior, running a school-record 14:35.
Wagner also won state track titles in both the 1,600 and 3,200 meters as both a junior and senior.
“He really takes runners and gets them to do as good as they can and gets that thought to kids for the rest of their lives, as well,” Wagner said. “I wouldn’t be as good as I was, that’s for sure.”
The top girls runner in North history, Mackenzie Caldwell, agrees. Caldwell was the cross-country state runner-up in 2013 and now is a junior at Colorado.
“I could never say enough to thank him for everything to make me not only the runner that I am but the person that I am,” Caldwell said. “I know I would not be where I am right now as a runner or mentally or as a person without him. He’s just a great coach. My whole time there, he really had the ability to help each person tell their own story. He had the ability to treat each athlete separately and help them become the best they could be as an individual.”
A few of Weinheimer’s former runners have followed him into the coaching ranks. Greg Albert led Westfield to a third-place state finish in 2015. Albert’s high school teammate, Mike Rivera, led Jacksonville Bolles to a state runner-up finish in Florida last fall.
Another of Weinheimer’s former runners, Ryan Burke, is in the process of building a quality program at Columbus East.
“I definitely would not be doing what I am doing today if not for him,” Burke said. “He was a big influence on me. I try to impact kids’ lives the way that he was able to do with me and my friends. Our style of running, a lot of that stuff definitely was influenced by what he was able to do with us as runners. My coaching philosophy and style has definitely been shaped heavily by him.”
A new career
After finishing out his 13th year as head of North’s English department and his 38th year as assistant track coach, Weinheimer plans to devote more time to a couple of pursuits that he’s already begun.
Weinheimer wrote the book “Move Your Chair,” which was published in 2015. He currently is working on a Christian adaptation, “Move Your Chair for God.” He also wants to write a book on leadership and motivation.
“All the years at schools, I’ve seen kids with hidden voices that have something they need to say and never get a chance to say it,” Weinheimer said.
During past two years, Weinheimer also has had opportunities in public speaking and motivational speaking. He gave 21 presentations in 2016, will have done six more by the end of February, including Thursday night’s talk at the Brown County Chamber of Commerce’s annual members dinner.
In his discussions, Weinheimer talks about how to cut out distractions in the everyday world and find out what’s most important to people, how to pursue that every day and how to appreciate the process. He said if people apply themselves to the process of what they do every day and how the end result will take care of itself.
“I’ve loved having a career (as a teacher and coach) where every day, you have a chance to make a difference with people,” Weinheimer said. “That’s such a gift. (Motivational speaking) is also a way to make a difference, so I’m kind of excited. This is probably a time to make a transition between making a difference with teenagers every day and getting a chance to try to make a difference with adults.”
So after working 50 to 60 hours a week for the past 39 years, Weinheimer will be cutting that down to about 30 hours in his post-teaching and post-coaching career.
“No specific thing caused this to be the right time, and to be honest, I still love coming to school,” Weinheimer said. “I feel really blessed. I’ll go through the end loving what I do, and it will be time to step onto the next stage.”
The Columbus North cross-country programs under coach Rick Weinheimer: