For former University of Maine cross country and track and field head coach Mark Lech, it didn’t matter who he coached. He just wanted to make them better athletes than they were before.
“It doesn’t matter what level they come in from. If I can get them to improve, that’s what coaching is all about, Lech said. “It’s fun to take somebody who was a 4:17 or 4:20 miler and get them under 4:10.”
July 1 marked the first day of retirement for Lech after spending 25 years coaching the University of Maine’s cross country and track programs. During his tenure, he coached the 2004 UMaine men’s cross country team to the America East championship and he was named the league’s coach of the year.
He was the head coach of the cross country teams for all 25 years and was an assistant for the track and field teams before taking over as the head coach in 2006.
“I was in the professor’s union and the university offered a buyout,” Lech said. “I’m 66 years old and the last time they offered a buyout was seven years ago.
Lech said he discussed the offer with his wife, Patricia, who works in the education department at Umaine, and decided to accept it.
“I hadn’t been looking to retire but the right situation came along,” he added.
Lech, a native of Palmer, Massachusetts, came to UMaine in 1998 as the head cross country coach and assistant track and field coach after coaching cross country and track at Northeastern University, his alma mater.
He’s in the Hall of Fame at Northeastern, where he was a two-time All-American and finished second in the nation in the 800-meter run in 1978 and third in 1979. He competed in the 1980 Olympic Trials.
His list of proteges includes All-Americans Corey Conner and Riley Masters, 12-time America East champ Jesse Labreck, Kelton Cullenberg and Joe Moody. Each advanced to the NCAA championships and were among the top-20 individual athletes in the country in their respective events.
“As a person, it is difficult to find someone with greater character than Mark Lech,” Masters said. “While Mark shaped my athletic career, I am far more grateful for how he shaped the person I have become.”
Lech said he will miss taking “diamonds in the rough” and transforming them into productive athletes.
“I look at it like I’m painting a picture. You try this and that and see what works for them. And once they find it, they can improve in leaps and bounds,” he said. “Someone will notice and say ‘Wow, look at how they’ve improved.”
The buyout offer came in April, so Lech said he hasn’t figured out yet what he is going to do next. He indicated that he would still like to do some coaching.
UMaine director of athletics Ken Ralph said he wished Lech “great joy” in his retirement.
“For the past quarter-century, Mark has left his imprint on the track and field and cross country programs at the University of Maine. Hundreds of athletes have benefitted from his expertise, wisdom and humor during his time in Orono.”