By any measure, Bill Wrightson has run the good race.
If he was a football coach with his record, they’d be erecting a statue of him. But he’s flown under the radar on Hilton Head Island — except in the hundreds of families he’s touched with his passion for the “pure sport” of running.
After the state cross country meet in Columbia on Saturday — where Sam Gilman led the Hilton Head Island High School boys to their fifth consecutive state title and the girls’ team finished second — Wrightson broke it to the kids.
He and his wife, Joy, are moving to Durham, N.C., to be near their daughter, Christie.
He’s almost 74, an accidental coach, really — a numbers geek who speaks softly and always does his homework. He never worked in the school.
In 13 seasons as head coach, his boys’ cross country team won eight state titles, and the girls five. As distance-events assistant coach in track, his 4-by-800-meter relay team won 10 of the last 11 state titles.
He was once called the team’s “Minister of Propaganda” because he pored over records and times, producing countless lists and spreadsheets on his 1990s iMac that’s not hooked to the internet.
It all started with Christie. When she went out for cross country in 1995 on something of a fluke, her father became a booster, doing whatever coach Chuck Rudolph asked. He drove kids, worked a stopwatch, bought them a tent and warmups, and once rented a Winnebago so the Seahawks team could stay cool at the state track meet.
When Christie went off to Duke University, he stayed on as a volunteer assistant coach.
As head coach, with volunteer assistant Max Mayo, the Seahawks teams have achieved the unthinkable.
To Wrightson, the most meaningful numbers are these: Four times, both boys and girls cross country teams won state championships in the same year; and for eight years in a row, both boys and girls teams were either state champions or runners-up.
“That speaks to the program,” he said, sitting at a desk in his Moss Creek home.
Large framed portraits of both the girls and boys 2013 state championship teams hang on the wall. Above the iMac is a framed column I wrote when he coached my son on the state championship 4-by-800 meter relay team in 2000.
He never had to do any of this. He certainly never had to go the extra mile. But Wrightson gave our children all his heart — and often, a purpose and a plan and a belief.
That’s the legacy Wrightson leaves at the finish line.
The mad scientist
Growing up in New Jersey, Wrightson ran for stamina, looking for an edge in other sports.
“I’d been a runner myself,” he said, “just not a good one.”
But he logged more than 50,000 running miles, until he had a hip replaced.
At the high school, he became enamored with the “purity of the sport”:
“The hard work, the practice it takes, the sacrifice the kids make of all that time and energy, the repetitive nature of it, pushing yourself to exhaustion more times than not,” he said. “Then you go out and put all that preparation to the test. And you do what you do. And there it is.”
While on vacation at Saratoga Springs, N.Y., Wrightson met the celebrated local high school distance coaches, Art and Linda Kranick.
They asked if he knew Jack Daniels.
“No, the coach.”
He got the 1998 book, “Daniels’ Running Formula.”
He drank it in like a sponge, becoming a disciple and eventually getting a personal note signed by Daniels on a drawing of his training philosophy: “The Running Triangle.”
Some thought the sport was organized jogging, but Wrightson said, “There truly is a science to the training.”
It’s a science that starts with 6:45 a.m. conditioning in the heat of summer for the gaggle of skinny Hilton Head High kids, many of them academic stars. Hilton Head Plantation residents are used to seeing them running through their neighborhoods shortly after dawn.
But as Jack Daniels himself wrote to Wrightson:
“Bill, always remember that runners are first of all individual persons, then runners. That order of importance is critical.”
The king of quotes
If Wrightson was the Minister of Propaganda, he was also a doctor of psychology.
“One of the neat things about distance running is that there are so many ways to monitor improvement,” he said.
They shoot for personal records, or a personal record on a specific course, or to see how they stack up against their peers. That’s why Wrightson spent a year going through boxes of old race data at the high school to piece together the school’s Top 50 list of best all-time cross country times.
“It gives you something to shoot for that is a tangible thing,” he said.
Studying the numbers help pick the right goals.
For this state meet, Wrightson didn’t want his girls focusing on beating favored Daniel High. Instead, he wanted to sell them on running the fastest average time in school history for all seven runners. All they needed was 1 second to be No. 1.
“That’s what I just love about the power of numbers,” Wrightson said. “Numbers don’t move.”
But then there are the words. The kids call him the “Quote King.”
At a region meet, his team won but didn’t run well. So here’s their coach quoting Japanese naval officer Isoroku Yamamoto, mastermind of the attack on Pearl Harbor. Actually, the quote may have come from the movie “Tora! Tora! Tora!” But he uses it anyway:
“I fear we have awakened a sleeping giant and filled them with a firm resolve.”
He quotes Tanzanian marathoner and trainer Juma Ikangaa: “The will to win means nothing without the will to prepare.”
He thinks this one comes from Dr. Seuss: “The dictionary is the only place where success comes before work.”
Over the years, the kids have rewarded him by inviting him to their weddings, Eagle Scout ceremonies, graduations — but mostly by joining the team for a run when they come home to visit.
Now — at the finish line — we can see amazing things that his stopwatch couldn’t measure.
As he and Joy pack to leave, we thank them with the words of Jackie Robinson, which are stored deep within the accidental coach’s iMac:
“A life is not important except for the impact it has on other lives.”
Parents and Hilton Head Island High School have organized a goodbye event for coach Bill Wrightson:
▪ 7 to 9 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 9, in the Buckeye Room at Mangiamo’s Hilton Head Pizza Co., 2000 Main St., Hilton Head Island. The public is invited.