Vern Wolfe, a celebrated track coach for a third of a century and an early exponent of weight training in his sport, died on Wednesday in a hospice in Vista, Calif. He was 78.
The cause was complications from a broken hip, his wife, Marilyn, said. The Wolfes had been married for 53 years. He had suffered in recent years from Parkinson’s disease.
From 1963 through 1984, Wolfe coached the University of Southern California to seven outdoor and indoor team titles in the National Collegiate Athletic Association championships. His runners, jumpers and throwers won 29 N.C.A.A. individual titles and broke or tied 30 world records.
He coached such Olympic gold medalists as Dallas Long (1964 shot- put), Bob Seagren (1968 pole vault), Donald Quarrie (1976 200-meter dash), Rex Cawley (1964 400-meter hurdles) and Randy Williams (1972 long jump). He also coached O. J. Simpson, the football star who ran on the Southern California team that still holds the world record for the 4×110-yard relay.
Wolfe first attracted national attention when he coached at North Phoenix (Ariz.) High School between 1955 and 1960. In that era, only weight lifters and bodybuilders lifted weights in training. Athletes in other sports shunned lifting because they feared it would leave them musclebound.
But Wolfe was an innovator, and he started a weight program by picking up empty cans from a nursery, filling them with cement and connecting them with rods, thus creating instant barbells.
He told The Phoenix Gazette in 1995: “We had fun. We didn’t know what we were doing, but we were trying to make sense out of it. Calling it weight training gave it a stigma in those days because of the name, but there was a certain advantage to being where we were at the time, sort of isolated in some respects. We didn’t have people around us telling us we couldn’t do it.”
Long was one of the stars at North Phoenix.
“When I was a freshman in high school, the experts on such things were still saying weight lifting was incompatible with being flexible and maintaining explosive speed,” Long said. “Vern Wolfe was a member of a small cadre of coaches who took the heretical point of view that these experts didn’t make much sense.”
Wolfe’s weight program paid off. In 1955, Jim Brewer, a sophomore on the team, became the first high school pole vaulter to clear 14 feet, and two years later the first schoolboy to vault 15 feet. In 1958, Long set national high school records of 69 feet 3 1/8 inches for the 12-pound shot used in schoolboy competition and 61- 1/2 for the 16-pound shot used in college and international meets. In 1959, another North Phoenix athlete, Karl Johnstone, set a national record of 194-5 for the high school discus.
Vernon Richard Wolfe was born July 14, 1922, in Garber, Okla. He was raised in Los Angeles, and as a collegian at Southern California he became a 14-foot pole vaulter in the days before fiberglass poles were used. After two years of college, he spent three and a half years in the Army as a paratrooper, then returned and earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in education.
He coached at Torrance (Calif.) High School (1952-54), North Phoenix High School, San Jose State (1961) and Foothill College (1962) before moving on to Southern California.
He is survived by his wife; two sons, Corey of Battleground, Wash., and Dean of Lomita, Calif., and a granddaughter.
In retirement, he lived in Fallbrook, Calif., and in his 50’s and 60’s he pole vaulted in masters’ meets. In 1996, he was inducted into the National Track and Field Hall of Fame in the same class with Long, his shot- putter.
Wolfe went out on a critical note. He told The Eugene (Ore.) Register- Guard upon his retirement in 1984:
“I don’t want to knock everything because I’ve got a lot of good memories and the sport has been very good to me,” he said. “But a lot of the changes I see don’t sit well with me.
“I’ve had 35 years of it and I don’t like the way the whole athletic scene is going with all the narcotics, drugs, steroids, the expense money under the table and the influence of the shoe companies. It’s taken all the fun out of being a coach. I’m still young enough that I can go out and have some fun without worrying about recruiting, grades, the foreign legion and everything else.”
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