Since he retired in 1996, it might seem as if Roy Griak is working harder than ever. Except he really doesn't view it that way. His passion for running, and for people, became his life's work -- and at age 86, he still considers that a great blessing.
The former Gophers men's track and cross-country coach now serves the teams as an administrative assistant, and he's raised more than $2 million for the program. He works out every day on campus, where he remains a friend, mentor and inspiration to students and staff. In his Plymouth neighborhood, he leads kids through impromptu exercise sessions in his driveway, and he loves to visit the high school athletes coached by his former runners.
On Saturday, Griak will be helping out at the Gophers' Roy Griak Invitational, one of the largest cross-country meets in the nation. Though the race will mark its 25th anniversary, that represents only a fraction of a life that has influenced thousands of athletes for more than 60 years.
"I don't know of another person who's represented the U better, longer or more faithfully," said Don Timm, who ran for Griak in the late 1960s and now coaches the Coon Rapids girls' cross-country team. "Everyone who ran for him loved him as a person and respected him as a coach. Even now, when I go to visit him, it lifts my spirits, because he is one of a kind."
Griak loves them just as much. Throughout his 33-year tenure as coach, he gave the same amount of attention and encouragement to the slowest runner as he did to the fastest. Many of those athletes remain close to Griak and to the program, and many who followed him into coaching use the same approach with their students.
Ask him what makes him proudest, and it's not the 60 Big Ten champions, the 47 All-Americas or his induction into six halls of fame. It's the countless human connections Griak has made, which have enriched him as much as the people he's touched.
"I get kind of emotional thinking about that," Griak said. "Those lasting friendships are the most important thing. And it's a chain reaction.
"Donny Timm is so good and so supportive to those girls he's coaching. Some day, they'll teach their kids the same qualities. It's kind of nice to think of how that continues from one generation to the next."
Griak grew up in the immigrant neighborhoods of Duluth and began running for a practical reason. With only one hour on school days to get home, eat lunch and return to class, he learned to sustain a brisk pace over a distance. After serving three years in the Pacific with the U.S. Army during World War II, Griak ran track and cross-country at the U for coach Jim Kelly, then returned to take Kelly's place in 1963.
Griak's teaching and coaching philosophy was inspired by his junior high principal, Glen Card, who made a huge impression on him with small acts of kindness. Timm got a firsthand look in 1967, when he walked into Griak's office as a mediocre runner who hoped to try out.
"Most coaches would have said, 'This is the big time. You're not good enough,' " Timm said. "But he stopped what he was doing. He got me a pair of shoes and a uniform and welcomed me to the team."
Timm became a Big Ten champion in the steeplechase. Garry Bjorklund won an NCAA championship in the 6-mile run and competed in the 10,000 meters at the 1976 Olympics. Steve Plasencia, who now coaches the Gophers men's track and cross-country teams, was an All-America in both sports, a two-time Olympian and a U.S. champion in the 10,000.
Plasencia recalled a day when Griak literally gave all he had to an athlete. A Gophers runner at the Big Ten championships took off his sweats in the start area and revealed to the stadium that he had forgotten to put on his shorts. Griak rushed behind a shrub, removed his own shorts from under his sweatpants and gave them to the athlete, just in time for the race.
"Whenever there's a matter I don't know how to handle, I go to Roy," said Plasencia, who took over the cross-country team from Griak in 1996. "He was a father figure to many guys and a role model to all of us. He has a way of relating to people where he makes you feel like you're the only person in the world at that moment, and he's still an influence. When he says a few words to our team, they're all glued to their seats."
The beneficiaries of Griak's generous spirit are everywhere. Timm has seen him work 15 hours to help run a track meet, then thank everyone -- right down to the janitor -- before he leaves. He co-founded the Twin Cities Race for the Cure, which has raised millions of dollars for breast cancer research, and he is a fierce advocate for physical education and no-fee sports opportunities for kids.
That has come back to him through former pupils and friends, who help Griak with everything from household chores to six-figure donations to the Gophers program. Saturday, that chain reaction of benevolence will keep moving forward at the race named for him.
"I always enjoy the day, watching all those kids compete," Griak said. "Coaching is a young person's game. But I still have a love for teaching, for being around young people. It's a wonderful thing."