Legendary Coaches: Joe Tribble Of Westminster

Tell us about your origins as an athlete, how you fell in love with the Sport, where you competed at and honors you won (when you first got interested in the Sport)

My name is Joe Tribble, and I am an Atlanta native. I am 59 years old by God's Grace, and I am in my 37th year at The Westminster Schools in Atlanta, Georgia as a history teacher, Head Boys Cross Country Coach, and Assistant Track Coach for the Distance runners. I was married to my dear wife Gail for almost thirty years until she passed away in 2018 after fighting a courageous battle against cancer. My wonderful daughter Grace recently turned 27. I thank Bruce Taylor for according me this remarkable honor to be a part of his "Legendary Coaches" group. 

I trace my love for running to 1972 when I was 12 years old and saw Dave Wottle and Frank Shorter on television both win Gold Medals in Munich. I had always played sports year-round, especially football, baseball, and basketball, and in my neighborhood, we were always walking and running everywhere barefoot, especially in summer if we were not on our bikes. 

I didn't start running until I was a freshman at Northside High School (now North Atlanta). That fall, the first day of school, an older friend from the neighborhood made his way through the crowded main hallway and asked me if I would do his friend a favor and run Cross Country. I said ok and showed up that afternoon with some kind of shorts and my Adidas Italia shoes. We ran maybe three miles, and even though I stopped to rest twice, I was exhausted. For the next four years, I ran CC and Track at Northside, as well as numerous ATC Saturday races. 

I suppose I had a few what might be called high points: running 4:58 at Lakewood stadium for my first-mile win in 9th grade; running my first Peachtree that summer in 1975 with 611 others runners; sophomore year at age 15, having never run farther than 10km, running the Atlanta Marathon, covering the distance (my mom followed me the entire race in her VW hatchback) right at 4:10, and interestingly, given my future coaching career, the race started and finished at The Westminster Schools track; running the summer before my junior year 28:22 at the ATC Stone Mountain 5 miler and later that year finishing 6th in CC Region at the Atlanta Water Works City course--missing State by one place; anchoring the Sprint Medley as a junior at the Westminster Relays in a 2:01pr for second place; and finally my senior year after I again missed going to the State Meet in CC, I ran the 880 in the Region finals at Lakewood (a fast race won by a runner who should be remembered--Jerome Williams of Therrell). During these four years, I had several good Track coaches named Mason, Fitzhugh, and Kell, but Cross Country was different; I had only one coach. Coach Leon Greeson was one of the most extraordinary men I ever met and certainly the best coach I ever had. 

Did you compete in college and how you did there (honors) or, did you continue your love for the Sport next as a coach?

At the University of Georgia, I was nowhere near good enough to be a top runner, but I am thankful my coach, Lewis Gainey, allowed me to walk on and stay on the team. Without his support and encouragement, I am not sure what I would have done, as I wanted to keep running, but I was last on the team. By my junior year, I had worked my way up and finally made the traveling squad (top 9 runners) under Coach Jon Fox, who like Coach Gainey allowed me to train and race though I was not very fast compared to most of the guys on the team. The only honor I garnered at U.Ga. was to run on the team and a few times put on a Georgia uniform. I will always remember the first time I ran an away CC meet, opening the running bag and seeing a pair of new sweats, new spikes, and the ultimate, a U.Ga. singlet. One other thing while at Georgia, over a few summers I enjoyed working with the CC runners at Northside High School and was rewarded when those kids ran PR's in the fall. 

Even though I graduated from Georgia in 1983 with a dual major in History and French, as I wanted to be a teacher I had to do some student teaching. I was assigned to Henderson High School, taught 5 classes (Georgia History, USA History, and Economics), and worked with the CC coach named Moore. A remarkably thoughtful and kind person, Coach Moore generously allowed me to design the workouts that fall, as well as implement them. Moore was a fine mentor, and he taught me a great deal about working with high school kids. It was rewarding to watch the boys and girls teams have their best finishes at Region, barely missing going to State. I hoped to stay on at Henderson, but there were no openings that fall; however, there was an opening for a history teacher and a running coach at The Westminster Schools, a private Christian school just 2.5 miles away from my house. 

What, if any, coaches were your greatest influences in Cross Country and/or Track and Field and how did they affect/inspire your career?

Of all the people I have ever met in running, Coach Greeson had the greatest influence on my life as a runner and my love for distance running. Additionally, as you might well imagine, he had a significant impact for good on my development as a person. He often told me that "what makes a person a better CC runner made them a better person." Then and now I have found his philosophy to be true if not somewhat ironic as he described himself as only a pretty fair AAA level baseball player who only ran between the bases! He was a man of very few words so when he spoke I always remembered it, a man of discipline, a good sense of humor, and great humility. Maybe the most treasured memory I have of him was that all four years I ran for him before every xc meet he asked me to lead the team in the Lord's prayer (remember this was a public school, and we were not supposed to be praying, overtly anyway). I believe this had a significant impact for good on my Christian Faith. I think his favorite saying was "a good cross country runner has got to gut it to the finish," and I did my best to always do this for him. Looking back, I think I ran every race for Coach Greeson. He taught me to love a sport he never even participated in--who can do that? Well, somehow he did. 

I was 23 years old when I walked into Paul Koshewa's math classroom that January of the 1983-84 school year. "Kosh," as he was affectionally called by everyone, was behind his desk with a mountain of papers in front of him, and there must have been fifty or sixty guys crammed into his classroom waiting for the meeting about the upcoming track season to begin. Here sat a man who had fought in three wars winning numerous commendations, WWII (navigating for American bomber assaults over Nazi Occupied Europe including some of the most dangerous missions of the war over Germany), and later navigating aircraft in both the Korean War and the Vietnam War. I knew him by sight and reputation from many ATC events, and from competing against his son Max--still a good friend, as well as Kosh's massive coaching history that seemed to dominate the room, from officiating at numerous USA Olympic trials, to essentially starting girl's CC in Georgia, to coaching a truly great runner and person Jeff Galloway. He had already been at Westminster for three decades: I was somewhat in awe. As he talked about the upcoming season the room became quiet as the guys respectively listened. Near the end of the meeting, he introduced me as the new CC and track distance coach. I said something about being glad to be there and be ready to work hard, and after the meeting ended he looked at me and said "they're all yours." Just like that, I was responsible for setting a good moral example as coach while training and teaching about twenty guys how to run the 800m, 1600m, and 3200m, in addition to teaching five classes of European history during the day before practice. For the next 10 years I had the distinct pleasure, privilege, and honor to work alongside one of the most knowledgeable track and field coaches in the country, maybe any country. I could fill up several more pages about everything I learned from Kosh and only scratch the surface, so I will relate the only time he ever took me aside specifically to instruct me face to face, and I thank God to this day that he did. My background at Georgia had been high mileage, and I had to be reminded I was coaching high school boys, not college runners. I was leading the runners in two-a-day workouts that first season, covering an average of at least 10 miles a day--just as I had run in high school. But this was WESTMINSTER Kosh explained. He told me, "oh yes, you'll get results, but given the hours of homework these kids must put in for their AP and Honors courses there will not be too many hours left in the day to sleep." I hadn't thought about that. He kept looking at me right in the eyes and added "they will do EXACTLY what you ask them to do, but they will eventually break down and get injured, so always remember it is better to be undertrained than to be overstrained." I did not like what he said, though it went deep and immediately resonated. I did not want to change my ideas about distance running, though somehow I knew he was right; the ideas I followed were MY ideas, and I attempted to resist the excellent instruction he so pointedly and generously gave me for a while. But only for a while, as example after example in history had taught me Truth understands Error but Error does not, and cannot understand Truth. With a single moment and a few pristine observations, Paul Koshewa led me (eventually after a few months of chaffing) to turn 180 degrees around and embrace the training philosophy from which I have never departed: in high school distance running the rule ought to always be Quality over Quantity. That fall I reduced our training regimen from 70 miles plus a week with two workouts a day to one run a day with a maximum weekly mileage of 37 to 40 miles, over six days, leaving it up to the runners if they wanted to put in an easy jog on their own on the Lord's Day, most never have. 

Do you have any top pupils (athletes) who have gone on to become coaches? 

Yes, several of the Westminster runners I have had the privilege to coach over the years have gone on to coach as well. Four superb examples who immediately come to mind are Chris Yoder, who has had a great career at Wesleyan, Phil Hagedorn, who coached CC while at medical school at Johns Hopkins, Geoffrey Sudderth who coached with me for ten years at Westminster, and Ricky Dimon who is still coaching the varsity at Westminster today. 

Give us a list of all the State Team Championships/Individual State Champs you coached, or just Region Champs as a team/individuals and Coaching Honors you have achieved? 

I have coached, as well as any Coaching Honors I have received is important as it highlights the fact that any awards that have come my way occurred BECAUSE of the exploits of the runners. As a coach, of course, I try to inspire the runners to always do their best, but in the end, when the gun goes off it is totally up to them to achieve Victory. I apologize for any errors in this section, y'all please forgive me, but to the best of my memory the following stand out: years ago Marc Bloom awarded me with being a member of the Harrier Magazine's Hall of Fame; GATFXC Hall of Fame, Westminster Hall of Fame; years ago, ATC named me Paul Koshewa Coach of the Year; and more recently, the people at MaxPreps selected me as one of the Top 100 Coaсhes in the USA in all high school sports for my CC coaching.  I have been honored to lead Westminster's Boys CC team to 26 State Championships: from 1987 to 1992; from 1996 to 2005; from 2007 to 2013; and from 2017 through the present. I have also been honored to help inspire several individual runners to do their best and win individual State Titles: Jay Saunders 1600m; David Schmidt 800m; Eric O'Brien won 3 titles in CC and 7 in track for a total of 10, 4 in the 1600m, three in the 3200m; Jeff Mauldin CC Title; John DeGuenther 800m; Phil Hagedorn CC Title; Blake Jorgensen 1600m and twice 3200m; Stephen Downey won both the 800m and 1600m his senior year; Reynolds White CC Title; Jordan Flowers 2 CC Titles and 5 titles in track for a total of 7, once at 800m, 3 at 1600m, once at 3200m; Tucker Hartley 3200m; Jag Gangemi 800m; Graham Huff 3200m; Naima Turbes sophomore and junior years won both 800m and 1600m for 4 overall titles; and most recently, Will Wallace won back to back 3200m titles as a junior and a senior.

What are the 2-3 most striking moments in Track/XC you witnessed happen? and please relive it here for us...

Your question about the most striking moments in Track and XC I have witnessed required a great deal of reflection, and in the end it was impossible to choose, but here are a few very satisfying and striking moments. As in the above paragraph, I apologize if I overlooked something: Westminster runners, please forgive me. One of the most striking moments in my career was the very first CC State Championship team I coached in 1987. It had been 25 years since the boys team had won under Kosh in 1962. We had great teams and great guys in 84, 85, and 86, and we had finished third, third, and second, but still had not won. The 1987 team was hungry for Victory and they achieved it! The feeling we experienced as we added up the points on the quick score envelope and a short time later got the official word at Al Bishop Park is not possible to describe, as words just completely fail. So I will just say we were very, very happy, and when I think about that team even today deep inside there is a great feeling of happiness and satisfaction. Another big moment was just two years later when sophomore Eric O'Brien led our team to a 1,2,3, sweep of AAA at State, with the low team score of the day at 24. The next day, the Sunday sports section had a nearly half-page photo of O'Brien, Suggs, and Kramer as the gun went off on the front page, exciting! O'Brien was truly remarkable (see above) losing only twice in 12 State races. Another striking moment was the team winning the 2013 State Track Meet in AA. Taking almost all the distance points were Jordan Flowers (also CC Champion that fall) winning both 1600m & 3200m, Jag Gangemi winning the 800m & getting 3rd in the 1600m, and Austin Dhillon coming home 2nd in the 800m. More recently, Naima Turbes dominated both the 800m and 1600m at the State Meet in 2017 and 2018, a rare achievement, and Will Wallace who won back to back 3200m in 2018 and 2019. There have been so many striking moments over these past four decades, so many excellent races and unexpected wins, and our closest Victory ever this past fall winning AAA Cross Country State by a mere two points! I am thankful for all of what the Westminster runners have achieved on the trails and the track.

How do you feel the Sport has advanced this Century? 

When you ask how I feel the sport of running has advanced this century, a few things come to mind immediately: women's running, in general, is far more respected now from high school running here in Georgia to the Olympic Games; a sub-two-hour marathon--hard to believe but true; track surfaces massively changing from 1954, when Roger Bannister ran the first sub 4:00 mile on a muddy Oxford University cinder track, to the all-weather surfaces Bill Bowerman pioneered at Oregon, not to mention the shoes he pioneered as well there! Yet, paradoxically, even with all the many changes and advancements, as Hawthorne Wesley used to say at the ATC Cross Country banquets, "running is the World's Oldest Sport." And in many ways running remains the most basic of all sports even after thousands of years with the distance runner still today battling the elements, the terrain, the clock, and of course the voice inside your head that tries to get you to slow down and say to yourself I just don't have it today--I'll do it next time. 

How challenging has it been for you to watch COVID-19 destroy the Outdoor Track season?

Watching the fear of the COVID-19 virus destroys the 2020 Outdoor Track season, only a fragment in many ways of the worldwide nature of events at this time, has been as difficult as it has been unprecedented. Unlike Olympic sports that have been postponed, and even college-level running, though perhaps damaged, the running will resume; however, watching kids lose 25% of their high school track careers has been very hard to take, and devastating for seniors on our team, like Katherine Vuckovic and Zach Roe, because high school running moves on, and it cannot be postponed or delayed with another year of eligibility. We now know, as we always should have known, that in an instant we can lose everything important to us as runners. When everything seemed to be disintegrating before our very eyes, I tried my best to comfort and to remind the runners of relevant truths spoken throughout history, as when Benjamin Franklin admonished us to "lose no time," to take nothing for granted, or as Paul reminds us in the Bible that what we see is only temporal, passing, that we must look to what is not seen, to the eternal, and that there must be a reason for these events even if we cannot presently understand those reasons for God Is Sovereign. It has been a difficult few months for coaches and runners everywhere I am sure. 

What are the most important things you attempted to pass on as a coach for all the athletes you coached? 

You asked what are the most important things I have attempted to pass on to all the athletes I've coached? Building on the above paragraph, I have tried to constantly teach over the past four decades that running is a Blessing, a remarkable Gift, that it should be fully realized and never taken for granted, that living in our free country has allowed us to do this very thing--whereas a great runner like Emil Zatopek, though his winning of the 5,000m, the 10,000m, and the marathon in a single Olympics may never be duplicated, was treated so cruelly and shamefully in 1968 by the communist government in his country the moment he tried to talk about the freedoms for all the Czech people we enjoy every day. To stay humble in the pursuit of winning, as the great Billy Mills said to future generations of American distance runners that "God always does His part and that we must do ours" to achieve the greatest Victory. That each member of the team was important as an individual, made in the Image of God, and that we may never make it into the history books like the Ancient Greek Day Runners, or Zatopek, or Mills, or Joan Benoit, but each member of the team was a part of the long history of running, winning, losing, all in the pursuit of Victory. As I mentioned earlier in this essay, that what makes a person a better Cross Country runner makes them a better person through sacrifice, humility, thankfulness, determination, courage, discipline, and appreciation for this gift of life we possess, in sum all those things that add up to the character. I am still learning every season, every day, so perhaps there are many more Truths I may yet discover and one day be able to teach the runners I coach. 

What would you like to pass on to the next generation of young coaches about the Sport, winning, and mentoring kids to become successful productive lives as adults? 

What would I like to pass on to the next generation of young coaches about the Sport, winning, and mentoring kids so that they may lead successful and productive lives as adults? To answer this very important question, I would simply pass on the things I have tried to teach the athletes described in the above paragraph. I would add that for me, my Christian Faith has been invaluable; that these young coaches must learn the hard lesson of patience (I am still working on this one); that the runners will see and sense their enthusiasm each day, so it is vital they remain enthusiastic come what may; to always strive for excellence, and that by doing your best as a coach and the runners doing their best to follow their coach, well, this is a high form of excellence; that you may not be appreciated for all your hard work except by close friends, family, the runners, and God, a belief attributed to the great English Philosopher Sir Thomas More centuries ago; and finally, to always lead by example, confidently knowing that you can do all things through Him Who Gives you strength. 

Can you please give me a paragraph about what coaching the Sport has meant in your life and what are your plans?

When asked to comment on what coaching the Sport has meant in my life and what are my plans, I would say some of the greatest moments of Joy in my life I experienced while coaching distance runners, and that strange as it may seem I am certain that some of my very best teaching has been on the trails and the track while coaching. Often as a coach, I have had to go far beyond the rational and the reasonable, aspects of the mind that frequently serve a teacher well in the classroom, to teach the runners that they have great wells of strength deep inside themselves, and that if actualized will help them to run faster than they have ever believed or even imagined possible. I even created a special course for students at The Westminster Schools called Running Through History, now in its 25th year, which combines two of my greatest passions, teaching history in the classroom and coaching runners outside of such a confining space. Looking ahead to the future, Lord Willing I want to coach until I retire, and I also strongly desire to run as long as I am able. I pray daily that I may serve God faithfully in everything that I do and seek forgiveness when I do not, and that ultimately, when my life here is at an end, when I have finished the race I have been given to run on this good earth, that I will have achieved True Victory.