Everywhere Pat Henry went, he won. Won like you wouldn’t believe.
State championships when he was a high school track and field coach at Hobbs (N.M.) High – five in 10 years. National championships when he was a junior-college coach at Blinn College – three in four years. National championships at LSU and Texas A&M at a clip unrivaled by any coach in NCAA Division I history – 35 team titles, on both the men’s and women’s sides.
He is, perhaps, the greatest track and field coach in NCAA history and will be inducted into the Texas Sports Hall of Fame on Feb. 21.
“I’m trying to figure out how everyone is going to keep what they have to say to five minutes,” said Henry, who has been Texas A&M’s coach since 2005. “Of all the guys there, I’m the track coach so I’ll start a stop watch if I have to.”
Henry’s joke was part of a series of deflections he threw up instead of doing the thing everyone close to him has been more than willing to do ahead of his induction – reflect on an unrivaled career of accomplishments dating back to the early 1970s.
“He is the gold standard as far as track and field coaches,” said former USC coach Ron Allice. “To put it in running terminology, if you’re going against him you’re used to looking at his back.”
Henry’s introduction to coaching came from his family – growing up in Albuquerque, N.M., his family was heavily involved in promoting track and field events and it came to him naturally.
“There’s no question I was influenced by my family and what their interests were,” Henry said. “I’m just glad my grandpa and my dad weren’t bricklayers, because if they were that’s what I’d be doing. Whatever your family does, I think, you’ll go to that and be naturally drawn to that.
“My grandfather and father were big influences on me, but on my four brothers, as well, because we all ended up as coaches.”
After he graduated from the University of New Mexico in 1973, the natural move for Henry was to go coach in a high school – a career trajectory that moved along at a faster pace the more he won.
“In our generation, the natural thing was to go coach at high school and, just maybe, if you do well, to go to the next level,” Henry said. “So after 10 years of high school, I thought ‘Well, there’s gotta be something a little more than this’ so I tried to look for a possible junior college or maybe Division II or Division III.
“So Blinn came open, and after a few years I started to think ‘Well, maybe there’s something more to it than this,’ so I started to look for a Division I and got offered the LSU job.”
Hired by LSU in 1988, Henry created a juggernaut, winning the NCAA women’s outdoor championship in his first season, then becoming the first school in NCAA history to win both the men’s and women’s titles in 1989 – a feat the Tigers repeated in 1991.
He also coached the first men’s and women’s indoor national title sweep in his final season at LSU. All told, there were 27 NCAA team championships there.
And then, out of the blue, he left.
“I think it took us all by surprise,” said LSU coach Dennis Shaver, who was Henry’s assistant at the time. “I remember it like it was yesterday. We were at the Olympic Trials on a day off, and he just disappeared for a little while and we had no idea where he was.
“It turned out, that’s when he was being introduced as the new coach at Texas A&M. I think, maybe, after you have all that success people start to take it for granted and Pat is a visionary person … he looks at things and sees them for what they can be, and he saw an opportunity and the resources at Texas A&M to do something special.
“Success in this business doesn’t come easy. Honestly, I just really enjoyed working for him and I think all the success he’s had has really reenforced the quality of his philosophy and his approach.”
Shaver is one part of Henry’s coaching tree that may also be unrivaled in the track and field world – Oklahoma coach Jim VanHootegem and Alabama coach Dan Waters are former Texas A&M assistants.
And it’s Waters who has a story that perhaps defines Henry’s approach – from the 2008 Big 12 outdoor championships in Boulder, Colo., as the meet wound down and Texas A&M found itself losing pace with Colorado in the team standings. Colorado would go on to barely edge Texas A&M for the team title,
Waters was in charge of keeping track of the team points and giving Henry periodic updates – with three events left in the discus, 5K and 4X400 relay, the outlook was dire.
“He wanted to know how it’s going and I had to tell him it wasn’t looking good and we needed something really special in the discus to have a shot,” Waters said. “And (Henry) goes ‘Well those guys are going to throw great,’ and just said it without a doubt in his mind … well in my mind I think we’re done, because discus hadn’t done anything all year.
“And I’ll be damned if they didn’t go out there and throw great and score 11-12 points and get us back in it. Colorado dominated in the 5K and barely beat us, and they had a great team that year, but of all the thousands of moments with (Henry), that’s the one I took away because never once did he ever entertain the thought of losing. His confidence in his team and the people around him was always so remarkable … that’s who you want to surround yourself with.”
Henry has surrounded himself with more national titles at Texas A&M – eight so far, including men’s and women’s title sweeps in 2009, 2010 and 2011.
“When I was a kid, the thing that really sparked my imagination and what you could do in track and field was Adolph Plummer,” Henry said. “My dad was working with him a lot when broke that record and for me, it showed that if you wanted to work very, very hard, no matter where you were from you can be successful.”
Plummer ran for the University of New Mexico and broke the world record in the 440 in 1963.
“When I made the move (to A&M), it was fun to kind of get the juices flowing again,” Henry said. “I was excited about what I was doing again and it made me realize that at its base, this ended up still being about some of the same elements from high school to junior college to Division I, about recruiting and hard work.
“Now in high school, you’re recruiting kids out of the hallways, but you get it. It’s obviously a different element when you move up, but to me, the change has been something great and I still enjoy it.”