The victorious Villanova 4 x 1 Mile Relay team
wearing black ribbons for Coach Jumbo Elliott at the 1981 Penn Relays.
From left: Ken Lucks, Marcus O’Sullivan (Current
Villanova Coach), Jack Pyrah, John Hunter,
Jack joined Villanova as Jumbo Elliott’s assistant track coach and head cross-country coach in the fall of 1966 after meeting Elliott in spring of 1965 on a plane on the way to a Knights of Columbus track meet in Cleveland. Jack retired from Villanova in 1991 and is now considered Villanova “coach emeritus.” Upon his retirement, Villanova presented Jack a unique gift--the offer to accompany the Villanova track or cross-country teams to any meet in the country. Jack was inducted into the Villanova Wall of Fame in 2001.
Jumbo Elliott once said of Jack, “That Pyrah has the mind of a computer when it comes to track.” A visit with Jack reveals not much has changed. Jack still retains an encyclopedic knowledge of current and past runners and of course the famous Pyrah sense of humor.
When asked how he was feeling, Jack replied, “With both hands. That joke’s 90 years old; I’m only 87.”
Jack grew up in the Germantown section of Philadelphia and graduated from Germantown High in 1937. He began his coaching career at Philadelphia’s Shanahan Catholic Club in 1942 in Philadelphia.
Jack coached 18 Olympians at Villanova including Eamonn Coghlan, Marty Liquori, Sydney Maree, and Villanova’s present head coach Marcus O’Sullivan. Jack stepped in and became Villanova’s head track coach in 1981 when Jumbo passed away on March 22, 1981. During his years as head coach, Villanova won three Penn Relays titles and the school’s first Big East Conference Championship. When former Olympian and Villanova alum Charlie Jenkins was hired at the end of the season, Pyrah went back to his previous coaching duties of head cross-country and assistant track coach.
“That Pyrah has heard more sad stories [from Villanova runners] than a bartender!” Jumbo Elliott said once. “He’s so nice, so understanding that some of the runners call him ‘Mother Pyrah.’” Many of Jack’s runners, now spread around the globe, keep in touch with him still. During his illness and at his birthday it’s common for Pyrah to hear from many of his former runners around the country and around the world. Jack is proof that good guys can finish first. Jack won eight IC4A and an incredible four NCAA championships (1966, 1967, 1968, and 1970) as head cross-country coach at Villanova. The 1970 title was famous because it was won after Irish runner Donal Walsh demanded that a film of the race finish be reviewed in order to prove that a Villanova runner had finished ahead of other point scorers and had been passed in the finish chute.
Jack has also been a long-time track official in South Jersey until his recent health problems affected his mobility. Jack won’t bring it up but he has a major track meet named after him, the “Jack Pyrah Invitational,” held the first week in December at Villanova.
When Marcus O’Sullivan went on a recent recruiting trip to Kenya, he met former Villanova distance great Amos Korir. Marcus said, “Amos’s first question was ‘How is Jack doing?’” Jack was Amos’s coach at Villanova.
Another former runner, Tom Donnelly, Haverford College track and cross-country coach, was a key member of Jack’s championship teams at Villanova in the 1960s. Donnelly’s runners have earned 97 cross-country and track and field All-American awards since 1980 including 24 individual NCAA championships and an NCAA championship relay team. Tom remembered, “Jack was both loved and respected by every single athlete, male and female, who came into contact with him at Villanova. He was the soul of that program for a third of a century. In his understated way, Jack Pyrah had an enormous positive influence upon hundreds of young athletes. They and Villanova are richer for the experience.”
Jack said, “I told Browning it’s the best thing you’ve ever done. More important than all of those trophies you won and all of the electric cooking machines you’ve won at races over the years!” Jean recalled Browning and Jack’s long friendship. “When those two got together they could just spend hours just laughing about the smallest things.” Jack closed his eyes and smiled at the memory.
“Browning would make you laugh; he had so many great sayings. One of my favorites is when he would console one of his runners with, ‘You can’t win ’em all-- you can’t win ’em all especially if you just lost one.’
“I first saw Browning when he was a senior at Woodbury High School. He ran in the AAU championships as a high school kid against grown-ups. He was also New Jersey State Champ in the mile. I don’t think people realize just how good Browning was. Many of the area (South Jersey) high school coaches have never even heard of him.”
Jean Pyrah adds, “One of the toughest things about getting older is there are less and less people to share common memories with, things you’ve experienced together.”
(By the way, I’ve noticed that all of the Elliott/Pyrah products who have gone on to coaching--Browning Ross, Larry James, Tom Donnelly, and Marcus O’Sullivan to name a few--share the Elliott/Pyrah characteristics of a sense of humor and common sense approach to training, and an unsurpassed knowledge and love of running.)
Villanova Track Secretary Ilene Lee sums it up: “Jack is just a treasure.”
Jack Pyrah held the title of “assistant emeritus” at Villanova University after his retirement from coaching. He joined his colleague Jumbo Elliot, in the U.S. Track and Field and Cross-Country National Coaches Association Hall of Fame in 2006. Jack passed away in July of 2007 and is missed by all who knew him.
This article was written by Jack Heath and previously appeared in Runners Gazette Magazine http://www.runnersgazette.com