The first California state cross country meet took place on Saturday, November 28, 1987. Since then, some of the state's brightest and most successful cross country coaches have amassed multiple team and individual championships. Of course, the roots of cross country in California go back FAR before there was a state meet, and this state was a breeding ground for legendary coaches in the "pre-state meet" time period. Some of the Golden State's best have bridged between the two eras, starting before the state meet came into being and continue to coach to this day. Every week through the end of cross country, we will feature one of these Coaching Legends, a past or present figure that helped shape the sport in the Golden State and make California the best state in the nation for cross country!
(Photo above and first photo below by Kirby Lee)
The start of the 2017 cross country season was very atypical for longtime Loyola coach Lalo Diaz. What is normally an exciting time of the year for all coaches was instead shrouded in sadness for the Cubs, as 2003 Loyola graduate David Torrence had been found dead in a pool in Arizona, where he trained as a professional mid-distance runner. Torrence had maintained a strong relationship with his high school coach and was a regular at practices and meets, and his absence was difficult for everyone in the program to process. In a 2013 interview with Runners World, Torrence spoke about the impact Coach Diaz had on him: "I would say the most important thing is to listen to your coach. That person is there every day to watch you, to help you, to develop you. It's a person that can shape you into an adult. My coach would tell me during particularly hard workouts, 'This last repeat isn't about getting into shape; this is about becoming a man. Twenty years from now, you may be tired after a day of work and not want to talk to your wife or play with your kids or pay your bills, but you have to suck it up and learn how to get it done.'"
News of the sudden death of a former athlete would hit any coach hard, but it was especially difficult for a man like Dr. Diaz. Talk to the people that know him well, and they all highlight one thing: Coach Diaz invests in people and forms genuine, long-lasting relationships built on trust and support. Recent graduate Robert Brandt, now at UCLA, makes this his first point when discussing his former high school coach:
It sounds cliche, but I've always considered great coaches to be ones that coach the person and not the athlete. I was always motivated to work hard for Coach Diaz because of the passion and interest that he had in me as a person. The Loyola program has historically been so successful because Coach Diaz instills great conviction and belief in his runners through his unwavering commitment to them as people. Running under coach Diaz was one of the most rewarding experiences of my life, and I think all former Loyola runners carry great pride in knowing that they were apart of something special.
For a coach that has had so much success over a 41-year career, surprisingly little has been written about Dr. Diaz in recent years - if you did a Google search for him, you would have a hard time finding out his accomplishments. Is it possible that people have come to take him for granted in the Los Angeles area, or is this just an indication of a humble man maintaining a low profile? Coach Diaz began at Loyola in 1987, but his greatest team achievements have come this century - Loyola has won 6 state championships since 2002 (plus nine Southern Section titles in track), and the Cubs made it to NXN in 2007 and 2008. Their best squad, though, predates the team national championship: the 2002 state championship team led by Mark Matusek and Torrence was ranked 6th in the nation by The Harrier. In addition to those two standouts and Brandt, he also coached Elias Gedyon and numerous other noteworthy individuals (including 2017 Southern Section D1 champion Shane Bissell). Yet despite all that Gedyon, who is competing for Adams State, spoke at length on the impact Coach Diaz has had on his life:
I just want to start by saying he is a man of vision and creativity. I learned a lot from him and he taught me to be a man for others. We're open to each other on everything and we grew closer and closer every year as a coach and an athlete. He took care of his athletes, he really wanted all of us to succeed in life. One thing he taught me was to never give up on my dreams and I'm still here pushing it. Lastly, his humour is the most amazing thing I loved. I can have a bad day and he'll show up at 6am in the morning making jokes and making everyone laugh, then if I'm having a bad day I'll forget all about it and just think about the funny thing he said all day. I wish he was still here coaching me. I respect him as a man and a coach. Both Mr. and Ms. Diaz are amazing and their family are wonderful people, they love to help and other reach there dreams. I call to hear from him from time to time just to laugh and share things with him like the old days. It never gets old to that guy!
Rival coaches also have the highest esteem for Coach Diaz. He has been a regular presenter on the coaching clinic circuit, and many coaches have remarked about his willingness to share with them. Great Oak coach Doug Soles says, "Lalo is a wonderful guy! Very sharing and caring for everyone around him, including his competitors. His teams are extremely consistent at a high level and he is one of the greatest coaches on California History. I would want my kids to run for him!"