You can hear him from anywhere on the track. His voice projects above every other sound you hear. He is standing by the finish line, his face red and his hands cupped around his mouth as if every focused decibel could somehow push you across the finish line. As you come around the last turn, his voice booms, “BRING IT HOME!”
The sound of that voice rings in the ears and memories of hundreds of Rochester runners. But after a career spanning nearly half a century, men’s track and field and cross country Coach John Izzo finally plans to retire.
Long before he became Coach Izzo, John Izzo was a runner. His first experience was at Rochester’s Jefferson High School, and he later ran for the Golden Eagles at SUNY Brockport. While at the latter, Izzo qualified for the national meet twice and took home two New York State Championship titles in the 600- and 800-yard run. After graduation, he taught history at Brockport High School, where he first became “Coach Izzo” to the high school’s cross country team in 1969 and later the track and field team in 1973.
But, he also managed the drama club for many years at Brockport High School. He had a stint as a racecar driver. He is known for making up songs on the spot and can play the guitar. He once fell during a BMX competition, broke both wrists and still finished the race. He has been working on a mystery novel for as long as anyone can remember. For a brief time, he drove a tractor trailer to help pay his way through college. Despite his many titles over the years, “Coach” was the only one that stuck. For more than 46 years, he has served as a mentor to hundreds of athletes.
When asked what they think makes Izzo’s coaching so successful, both current members and alumni of the program say it is his attention to members of the team on an individual basis.
“If I were to use one word to describe Izzo’s training method, it would be ‘gravitas’,” says co-captain senior Mark Rolffs. “In Coach’s race plans, he stresses that everyone has their own job to do. If you do your job, a bigger thing will come from it.”
Coach never directed his attention solely to the fastest runners. Alumnus Andrew Keene ’14 recalls one race in particular, an 800-meter run, featuring ten Yellowjackets. “Most coaches would offer the most congratulations to their fastest athlete, but Izzo was the opposite,” Keene said. “He was really excited for everyone, but by far the most excited for a teammate who finished last on our team, but ran a huge [personal best].”
Others echoed this sentiment. During his final race at UR, James Meyers ’13 recalls Izzo approaching him and giving him pre-race words of encouragement. “Coach Izzo comes up to me and looks me dead in the eye, completely serious, and just says ‘Let’s do this one last time,’ and then just pats me on the back,” Meyers said. “We didn’t win that day…but after the race, Izzo said, ‘I am proud of you and the runner you have become.’…It was at that moment that I knew I had made all the right decisions in my life to get where I was right then.”
Dedicated to each team member’s improvement as an athlete, Izzo often extends his workdays beyond the typical nine-to-five. Izzo frequently meets athletes outside of practice hours if classes interfere with the regular practice times.
Alumnus Dan Lane ’11 recounted a five-mile workout he had to run late in the evening after a chemistry lab. “I was about three and a half miles through, and I saw Coach Izzo’s car driving laps around the part of the cemetery I was running,” Lane said, “When I asked him what he was doing out there, he said he just wanted to make sure I was doing okay and cheer me on…He gives his athletes everything he has.”
Lane added that Izzo has tremendous respect for his athletes’ desire to excel both on and off the track. “He used to say that his athletes’ priorities should first be personal health and happiness, then family, then academics, then running, and you could always tell he meant it,” he said, “If you had to pull an all-nighter to finish a lab report, he would cut down your workout. If he thought you were sick, he would drive you to the doctor himself…He recognized that there was a huge world beyond running for us and wanted us to get the most out of it.”
The culmination of all of this is a team that is consistently willing to give all it can to the sport, as attested by the nine national champions, 21 All-Americans and numerous national qualifiers and Academic All-Americans Izzo has coached over the years. His athletes strive to do their best under all conditions and circumstances, leaving no race run half-heartedly.
“He’s a patriarchal figure to many of the members of the team. If you need anything–he’s here for you,” Rollfs added.
Coach Izzo leaves behind a legacy of success and countless “Izzo stories”: his affection for alliteration, long hours he’s spent keeping athletes company during emergency hospital visits, memorable pre-race pep talks and many more.
“He makes running about more than just many steps in a row; he makes it about willpower, courage and teamwork,” concluded Meyers. “Coach Izzo’s athletes live and breathe the sport because of this.”
Arre is a member of the class of 2015.