Josh Rife – Class of 2000

November 21, 2007



Although I have a plethora of memories with Coach Thornton, my favorite track times at St. Olaf involve my senior year trip down to the KU Relays.  Coach, Jon Berg, and I went down early so I could throw the hammer and Berg could compete in the decathlon.  Unfortunately for me, I didn’t have my best throwing day in Lawrence (despite Tim Johnson’s yelling of the “Mario Brothers” theme music every time I stepped in the circle), but that did nothing to detract from the experience.  The trip was capped by a visit to the Toot Toot Restaurant on the way home, at which Coach was beyond amazed at my dietary selections (“Josh Rife just eats plates of meat!”)

As we sat watching the meet on Saturday afternoon I mentioned how impressed I was with all the tradition and history associated with the Kansas program.  Coach got a little twinkle in his eye and asked if I would like to meet someone.  I quickly agreed and followed him up to the luxury suites situated in the press box.  As he wove his way through a gathering of important donors/former athletes (I was obviously also dressed for success—I may have been wearing my black and gold checkered warm-up pants), he suddenly stopped, tapped a man on the shoulder, turned to me and said, “Josh, I’d like you to meet Jim Ryun.  Jim, this is one of my athletes—Josh Rife.”  At that moment, at the ripe old age of 21 years old, I realized I still had the ability to become star-struck (and embarrassed by what I was wearing). 

I have no real memory of what I (briefly) talked about with Ryun, but I’ve always remembered the gesture by Coach Thornton.  He could have taken any of our athletes up to the press box, but he took only me—the one thrower that had made the trip down to Kansas.  I truly was blown away—I’m sure Coach had no idea how much meeting one of the greatest U.S. runners of all-time meant to me.  This moment crystallizes what I have taken from Coach Thornton above all—to really love the sport of track and the history involved with it, and to enjoy the moments spent with your student-athletes.    

I’ve had other coaches that taught me more regarding technique (although few that could whistle across an infield over to the hammer circle to give me some nonverbal visual cue involving various contortions and finger pointing) or performance, but NONE that made me really appreciate and love the sport I was involved in the way he did.  Before I got to Olaf, I didn’t really care about events at a meet beyond mine.  After four years with Coach, I now find myself staying up to watch the world championships in Japan or attending track meets where I have no vested interest in the outcome—I do it simply because I have come to love the sport.   And, perhaps most shockingly of all, this interest has led me to become a track coach at the high school and collegiate level. 

So, I thank you for everything you’ve given me Coach—your love of track, your ability to share a laugh or story with (almost) any friend or foe, your ability to be gruff but impart small compliments that mean the world to the recipient, the letters of recommendation you’ve written me over the years, your thoughtful advice to “find a woman that doesn’t have as fat as ankles as you (I) do,” and finally, for being the type of coach I aspire to be when I work with my high school and college throwers.  I’d like to think there’s a little Coach Thornton in me when I tell my Cornell throwers to “drink a big glass of suck it up juice” or “two balls per athlete” when they start throwing tennis balls before practice.  I, and the ones I impart this knowledge on, could only hope to be so lucky. 

“The modern automobile is technologically incapable of running out of gas.”





Coach Thornton…

is always where he says he will be, when he says he will be there.

is always happy to see his athletes no matter what is going on in his life.

is always honest with you, especially if he likes you.

is not a big talker, but when he says something, people listen.

is in love with his wife Merril.

loves his two boys and their families.

takes coaching a little too serious, but that makes him a great coach.




has an All-Character Team.

makes me laugh even when it isn’t a laughing matter.

doesn’t recruit. He lets the runners come to him.

respects people of every walk of life. Even Iowans.

is a gentleman.

gives me a reason to visit St. Olaf.




is someone I want my wife and children to know.

is someone who I care about, because he cared about me.


I truly cherish my time with Bill Thornton and I hope he feels the same.




This memory comes from my sophomore year, in the spring of 2000.  I was not yet a member of the track team–that didn’t happen until Junior and Senior years.  However, I already knew the legend of Coach Thornton because I had him for archery class, where he was the self proclaimed “Arrow Nazi.”  He ran a tight ship in the Skogland fieldhouse for phyed classes and was apparently just as strict as leader of the thin clads.

One Saturday morning as I was walking from Thorson Hall to breakfast at Buntrock, I heard a voice come over the PA system. “Good morning, this is God.  There will be no fish in the steeplechase pit today. I repeat, there will be no fish in the steeplechase pit.  Let me remind you, this is God.” It was in a deep, serious tone that these words were uttered. Only a daring person would challenge the person or deity behind that microphone.

Indeed, I do believe the fish were unable to find their way upstream to the Manitou pond that morning.


“Thunder” isms – 2

November 18, 2007




21) “That Chris Coffey is gonna come rolling in like a shot put.”

22) “I’m busier than a one-legged man in a fancy-dance.”

23) “He’s as lonely as a pork chop at a Jewish picnic.”

24) “Just because you’re on a diet doesn’t mean you can’t read the menu.”

25) “The soap Nazi told me you guys are going through a lot of liquid soap.”

25) “You have to watch out for those sticky fingered Golden Gusties”

26) “Its like a cow peeing on a flat rock”

27) “You know why the South lost the Civil War?  Lee was a fine General, but a poor Quartermaster. I may not be a good Coach, but I’m a damn fine quartermaster.”

28) “I think those techies are really having a good time staying in the hotel. I’m not sure they ever made it to prom.”

29) (Said over the track P.A. system) “This is the voice of God” 

30) “I’d sooner be damned than be a damned Sooner.”

Having rarely gone more than 3 miles in a single run prior to college, the 8k did not even seem feasible.  Ultimately, it was Coach Thornton who got me to join the cross country team instead of just running track.  The first day, a 7 mile tempo run, just about doubled my total summer mileage, and I didn’t even finish it.  Riding back in the truck with him, he made it clear that I definitely need cross-country.  Two years later, I was completing the 11 mile tempo runs and pushing the pace with the rest of the guys.

It was always entertaining to show up 15 minutes before practice.  Every day brought something new.  One day he was telling Baxter, “Looks like you’ve been slacking on your abs this summer” and that he should head to the salad bar.  And the next he’d ask Havey (who else?) about whether he checked his new girlfriend, and her mom, for cankles.  When he complemented you on a race, you knew you deserved it.  But his responses after bad races were much more memorable. 

After getting outkicked on the indoor track by some Tommie, coach came storming over to me and yelled, “Was that guy passing gas cause you sure as hell didn’t want to stay with him.”  And after a terrible performance at the Miac championship, he used a more uplifting line, “The sun will shine again”, and left it at that.  He had faith in his runners and believed in their abilities.  He let you have it the way it was, and I respected that. 


Other notable sayings/memories:

Runner: (insert dumb question)

Coach: Is a 20-pound robin fat?

 After beating Carleton all season, we were still being “ranked” behind them.  Coach said, “You can put sh*& in one hand, and rankings in the other and see which one fills up first.”

 Watching coach win the Central Region Coach of the Year award at the 2004 national’s banquet.  In the interest of speeding the ceremony up, he ran up to get his award.  Unfortunately, none of the other coaches followed his lead.


After the national meet:

      Coach: “Who was that girl you were with?”

      Me: “That was my ex-girlfriend”

      Coach: “What the hell is wrong with you?


Coach’s passion for the sport, and his constant witty humor, wore off on his athletes, and it helped me appreciate competition and running. The tempo runs became a part of the week that I looked forward to; it was a chance to push as a team, to learn to work together, and to keep each other going.  It instilled a sense of leadership and discipline that benefited everyone.  I believe it was those 11 mile tempo runs, designed for us to run smart as a team, that got us a conference and region title in 2004.

 Thanks coach, Marc


My Thunder Reflection…

In an age of indulged youth, where teachers, parents and coaches go out of their way to build positive esteem in young people by emptily celebrating any little activity or accomplishment…Coach Thornton always provided the best mirror that would openly and honestly provide me with what I needed throughout my days at Olaf.  While some of my stories may sound negative…I always was motivated by Coach.  I always wanted to impress him.  I never doubted his commitment to his sport or to his team.  Lessons… 


On Recruiting….

I first met Coach T. when I was a senior in high school.  I sat in his office as an eager prospective student.  We spent about 2 minutes together.  The dialogue….”Runners are a dime a dozen…get me a good high jumper and we can win some meets.  Did you hear that we got Ken Hoffman coming next year?…so go ahead take a booklet and see you later.”

Verdict:  he was right…Ken was a stud.


On multi-sport athletes…

I did not run my first year at Olaf.  I chose to play club volleyball.  I came out for Track and Field as a sophomore and he did not talk to me for my first weeks on the team.  Coach Daymont pointed out that I may have some potential and his response…”he’s not bad for a faggoty volleyball player”

Verdict:  Right again, volleyball….I mean c’mon.


On Track and Field…

We had three 400 meter runners who were to qualify for the finals of the MIAC outdoor meet in 1993.  Willie Kugel (the top seed from Olaf) pulled a hamstring during prelims and Chris Welsh ran into a hurdle that someone left on the track and I had my own issues.  The meet was at Carleton and I had just won my prelim heat and I was underneath the stadium taking off my spikes near the St. Ben’s camp. Coach came down and asked, “Do you know what you did?” I responded, “I think so…I made finals?” In a raging, intense, thunderish voice he responded, “It’s a simple f****** game, stay between the god damn lines.” The indoor track was silent and he looked to my left and saw Willie with ice on his hamstring..”and YOU, Willie Kugel, quit your god damn sandbagging” Apparently I had DQ’d.

Verdict:  I shouldn’t have DQ’d and Willie did end up being quite the sandbagger.


On the subtleties of coaching the female athlete… 

“Sh&!, Meg, it’s a track meet not a God Damn beauty pageant”

Verdict:  Brilliant message.


On the nicest thing he ever said to me at Olaf…

My senior year I had won a race and set a conference record on the Friday night of the Indoor conference meet.  At Davanni’s he approached me and said, “Hey Ben, that wasn’t half that bad”  The next day I completely pissed down my leg in the 800 meters.  His tirade included…”That was such horse sh&!, I take back every nice thing I ever said to you …”

Verdict:  Those 15 hours of basking in his compliment were awesome.


On acceptance…

Many of my happiest experiences occurred with Coach after I graduated Olaf.  I became a track coach and I loved the moments where he would invite me to sit with him at state meets or any meets I saw him.  We would sit and he would talk with me as if we were colleagues.  Upon graduation, I had earned my stripes and we could then sit with a common respect.  I enjoy seeing him and I continue to think very highly of him.  We all need people in our lives who will challenge us.


Thunder’s Favorites

November 18, 2007


1) Merrill

2) Mark and Paul, and their families

3) Waking up at 4:30am

4) The Tremendous Twelve at Perkins 

5) Doing the Chuck’o 

6) Small Ankles

7) 400 Repeats

8 ) Go-Homes