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SRU cross country, track and field coach says goodbye after 35 years of leading cross country, track and field programs

John Papa has retired after 35 years as Slippery Rock University cross country and track and field head coach. Submitted Photo
Proud Papa

SLIPPERY ROCK — Pieces of a broken pole vault in his arm couldn’t prevent John Papa’s success as an athlete at Slippery Rock University.

No opposing teams could prevent his success as a coach there, either.

Papa, 65, recently retired after 35 years as SRU’s head men’s and women’s cross country and track and field coach. He was an All-American as a decathlete at The Rock, contributing to the school’s lone NCAA team national championship in 1979.

A Gateway High School graduate, he placed third in the decathlon at the PSAC Championships his freshman year — despite making a quick trip to a Bloomsburg hospital after getting those pole vault pieces lodged in his arm.

Retired SRU track and field coach John Papa, center, is flanked by decorated athletes Trinity Clark and Dalton Anderson after a successful meet this season. Submitted Photo

That mishap never stopped him.

“I loved competing there,” Papa said of The Rock. “We had a lot of team success there. Bill Lennox was a tremendous coach who I learned a lot from. When I had a chance to come back to SRU as a coach, it was a no-brainer.”

Papa graduated from The Rock in 1979 with a degree in elementary education. He was part of consecutive PSAC title teams as an athlete.

After a few years as a teacher and track coach at Loudon County (Va.) High School, he accepted a graduate assistant track coaching position at SRU in 1984. Papa earned his master’s degree in athletic administration and was named the university’s head cross country and track coach in the summer of 1984.

He’s gone non-stop ever since.

“John was a tireless worker,” retired SRU athletic director Paul Lueken said. “He worked year round between cross country, indoor and outdoor track. He organized meets here during the summer, too. The number of people he’s impacted, you can’t put a number on it.

“He’s never afraid of getting his hands dirty. Whether it’s setting up a course, pounding stakes ... John Papa was out there doing it. And of all of our athletic programs — and this is saying something — his was the most consistently successful.”

SRU tallied 25 total PSAC titles under Papa, including 18 women’s track and field crowds, five men’s track and field, one men’s and one women’s cross country title. Papa’s teams were also runner-up in the PSAC 32 times.

Individually, Papa helped 12 student-athletes win national titles, 127 attain Division II All-American and 345 win individual or relay conference crowns.

“I’ve never taken credit for the success of our athletes,” Papa said. “I’ve always told our athletes that they’re more responsible for their success or failure than anybody.

“I did what I did as an athlete and knew what it took to get there. I always wanted my athletes to get to that same level. It was our job as coaches to instill the work ethic and develop them as good people, good community members,. good citizens. It was up to them to work for what they got.”

Papa coached more than 500 student-athletes to PSAC Scholar-Athlete honors. His teams’ annual grade point average easily exceeded 3.0 and he oversaw 40 CoSIDA Academic All-Americans, 28 PSAC Top 10 award winners and five PSAC Pete Nevins Scholar-Athlete of the Year winners.

Papa recalled the 2008 season, in which SRU’s men’s and women’s indoor and outdoor teams swept conference championsghips.

“That’s hard to do in one year,” he said. “That season stands out for me.”

His career stands out in general.

Papa is being succeeded at the helm by Bill Jordan, who coached 17 seasons with him.

“His work ethic was key for him,” Jordan said of Papa. “The kids saw his constant hard work and dedication and they followed his lead. He’s also just a fun guy to be around.

“John Papa is a ‘build you up’ type of person. Everybody enjoyed being around him. He cares deeply for his program and the kids cared as well.”

Papa was particularly proud when Butler County high school track and field athletes came to The Rock and continued their success in the sport.

“I love when local kids become part of our program,” he said. “No. 1, we have a lot of strong high school track programs in Butler County. No. 2, our university is highly regarded locally and county athletes want to come here. That’s a big part of it.”

Lueken described Papa as “a quiet motivator ... he wanted athletes to better themselves and worked to help them excel. He lived that.”

Papa coached roughly 1,000 athletes during his career at The Rock. He won 21 PSAC Coach of the Year awards and 16 NCAA Division II Atlantic Region Coach of the Year honors.

“I’ve picked up on a lot of his coaching traits through all those years with him,” Jordan said. “John is a role model and mentor to me. My best way to honor that is to make sure this program continues on at the level he’s placed it.”

Papa has no doubt it will.

“Bill is young and energetic,” Papa said. “He’s been my associate for years. There’s no better man for the job.”

Papa’s career will be celebrated during the annual cross country and track and field alumni weekend Aug. 26-27. Details will be made available this summer.