Longtime Esko coach honored for four decades of coachingOver a coaching career that spanned nearly 40 years, Esko’s Jerry Zimny developed a reputation both for modesty and for having a wry sense of humor.
By: Jeff Papas, Pine Journal
Over a coaching career that spanned nearly 40 years, Esko’s Jerry Zimny developed a reputation both for modesty and for having a wry sense of humor.
So when Zimny learned a few weeks ago that he had been elected to the Minnesota Cross Country Coaches Association Hall of Fame, he reacted typically.
“I said ‘What? Are you sure?’” Zimny said.
Zimny was inducted July 16 at the Association’s annual clinic. True to his character, Zimny downplayed his own accomplishments.
“I was totally surprised when I found out,” he said. “Very humbling, is my perspective. I just don’t consider myself in the same category as some of the other people (in the Hall) and it was a real honor.
One person who might disagree is Zimny’s longtime assistant, Tim Lindquist. A former student of Zimny’s in school, Lindquist worked with his old teacher for 17 seasons as a cross country assistant and submitted his coach’s name for Hall of Fame consideration.
“I’m pretty sure it was unanimous,” Lindquist said. “Jerry has done so much for cross country and for these kids. His coaching and his personality are very matter-of-fact and he doesn’t want to be in the spotlight. He enjoys it, and the kids and coaches have enjoyed hanging out with him and coaching with him.”
Zimny’s coaching career started with junior high basketball in 1972 and eventually led to an assistant’s position with the Eskomos varsity. He took over as cross country coach in 1978, with his entire coaching and teaching career coming at Esko.
“I’m not sure I’d have [coached this long] if it had been somewhere else,” Zimny said. “They gave me the opportunity. I had the support of athletic directors, the school and community and the kids. It was pretty special that way.”
It was so special, in fact, that Zimny almost couldn’t retire.
“I told them over a year prior that the fall of 2011 would be my last year,” Zimny said. “They had a year and a half notice but then the juniors said I needed to coach their last year and I did.”
Zimny retired from teaching math and geometry in 2007 and still serves as a substitute in the Esko School District.
“Then I finally said 2012 would be the last year I would coach,” Zimny said. “In a way, I guess I was selfish about it. I was kind of clogging the pipeline and not letting someone else have the experience I had for all those years. In a way it’s a bit selfish to coach forever, and I think it worked out well.”
Again, Lindquist countered his old teacher’s modesty.
“He was one of the reasons I got into coaching,” Lindquist said, “Athletes are drawn to him, to his personality and to his teaching.”
“The thing of it is, Jerry ran with his athletes right on up through last year,” Lindquist added. “He would get out and train right with them so he was physically involved with it. He’ll have athletes and runners over to his house and give them pancakes or whatever he’s got. He’s a great example for these kids.”
Recent Esko graduate Marisa Shady — who won the state Class A cross country title as a sophomore in 2010 and was part of the girls team that won the Class A state team title last fall — said Zimny motivated her by example.
“I had so much respect for him, I just really wanted to perform for him,” she said. “And knowing that he and [Coach Lindquist] were going to retire, that motivated our whole team to try our hardest to win for them.
“I grew up with Coach Zimny,” Shady continued, noting that she started running varsity cross country in seventh grade. “He is like a family member now. I will treasure the years I had with him.”
The relationship Zimny had with his athletes will be hard to set aside.
“We (cross country) get the best students academically; we get the kids with the highest character in the school, the best people in every aspect and those are the kids we get to work with,” he said. “We’re the only sport that has kids in grades 7-12 training together and when a new seventh-grader gets a hello from a senior during those first days in school when you’re trying to adjust, well, that’s pretty special.
“We don’t have the controversy some sports do,” he added. “We always say that in cross country nobody sits on the bench and the worse you are, the longer you get to play. There are no officials, no judgment calls, everyone starts at the same time, they run the same course and the first one back wins. You can’t get any simpler than that.”
That said, Zimny says it’s time to step back.
“I don’t think I’ll miss [coaching],” he said. “There are other things I want to do in the fall. I’m still going to help run the section meet so I’ll be somewhat involved.”
Zimny will also keep running.
“That isn’t going to change much, except it’s getting much slower,” Zimny said, laughing. “I will run as long as I can. I’m afraid to stop. From experience, every time I’ve been injured it was much harder to get back into it and you never get back to the level you were at. But as long as I can run, I will.”
And retirement will also allow Zimny to travel.
“I have a hall-of-fame wife, too,” he said. “She and I want to do some more traveling and not be tied down. The fall, in September, is a good time to travel. She raised four kids while I was off coaching and it’s time to enjoy the fall.”