Roy Griak, whose name was synonymous with cross-country and track at the University of Minnesota, died Thursday night at the age of 91, the Gophers athletic department announced.
Griak coached the Gophers cross-country and track and field teams for 33 years (1963-96), then stayed associated with the programs as an administrative aide. He celebrated his 50th year of service to the U of M in 2013.
“I consider this home,” Griak said then. “I get in my car, and I don’t have to steer. It just comes to the university by itself. I consider it a special place.”
Griak was inducted into the U.S. Track Coaches and Cross-Country Coaches Hall of Fame in 2001. He led the Gophers to Big Ten cross-country titles in 1964 and 1969, and his 1968 team finished fourth in the NCAA Championships after placing second in the Big Ten meet. Griak also coached the Gophers to the Big Ten track and field title in 1968.
He coached 47 cross-country and track and field All-America athletes, including three NCAA champions and 60 Big Ten individual champs. But it was Griak’s devotion to every runner on his teams that was most remembered by his athletes.
“Roy went to Minnesota, coached here for more than 30 years, worked here for more than 50 years and impacted more lives than almost anybody in the history of the athletic department,” Gophers athletic director Norwood Teague said.
“Though he retired from coaching in 1996, he never left the sport or the University of Minnesota. Roy was in the office as recently as a few months ago and still pored over results and times of our student-athletes while bringing his signature friendliness to conversations with colleagues. He was a Gopher until the very end.”
“I don’t know of another person who’s represented the U better, longer or more faithfully,” Don Timm, who ran for the Gophers in the late 1960s and is coach of the Coon Rapids girls’ cross-country team, said in a 2010 interview. “Everyone who ran for him loved him as a person and respected him as a coach.”
Griak was born in Montana, raised in Duluth and served three years in the Pacific as an Army infantryman during World War II. After the war he enrolled at Minnesota and became a middle-distance runner for coach Jim Kelly. Griak went on to a successful high school coaching career at St. Louis Park, and when Kelly retired in 1962 Griak succeeded him. He accepted a pay cut, from $12,000 to $8,500, to return to the U.
Griak once said that the most memorable part of his career was the “lasting friendships … And it’s a chain reaction. Donny Timm is so good and supportive to those [Coon Rapids] girls he’s coaching. Someday, 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 was a tireless advocate for everything associated with the Gophers, as well as many community events. He co-founded the Twin Cities Race for the Cure, which has raised millions of dollars for breast cancer research. His fundraising efforts resulted in more than $2 million raised for the Gophers cross-country and track teams. And the Roy Griak Invitational, one of the nation’s largest cross-country events, is named in his honor.
Steve Plasencia, who succeeded Griak as Gophers cross-country coach in 1996, said he constantly went to Griak for advice.
“He’s a father figure to many guys and a role model to all of us,” Plasencia said in 2010.
“Roy’s a Minnesota guy through and through. He’s going to do whatever he can to help.”