CA Coaching Legends: Jim Eckman

As we approach the beginning of the outdoor season, we will continue to profile track and field coaches (and many that coach cross country as well) to our California coaching legend series. We have a lot of choices that cover the entire spectrum of events but as always, if you have coaches that you would like to nominate, please let us know on twitter @milesplitCA or you can email us at albertjcaruana@gmail.com, jgeorge@milesplit.com, and jeffrey.parenti@flosports.tv.


Our latest addition to our coaching legend series is longtime Yreka coach, Jim Eckman (photo above courtesy of Mitch Stephens as he was inducted in the California Coaches Association Hall of Fame in 2017). He was a government teacher, coach, and athletic director at Yreka HS from 1970 until his retirement in 2003. He was also much more than a teacher/coach as you will see below with his involvement with local politics as mayor and as a member of the City Planning Commission and  Yreka City Council. Current Yreka coach Pam Borg took over for him after spending a few years working with Coach Eckman.

"I had the pleasure of working with Jim when he hired me to be an assistant in 1998 until he retired a couple of years later.  His style of coaching was based on the expectations of hard work, positive attitudes, determination, mixed with a bit of fun from his athletes and staff. We had a lot of fun together. He started coaching cross country and track back in the early 80's. Based on what I can find, he won somewhere around 30 league and division titles. He was named Coach of the year in both sports by the northern section and was recently inducted into the Hall of Fame for the Coaches Alliance in 2017. He has mentored many athletes over the years and continues to stay in contact with many of them over the last 30 years. Since moving to Oregon, he has continued to make a positive impact on our sports by being in charge of meet logistics at the legendary Hayward Field at U of O. As a member of his Logistics team at the last three Olympic Trials and World Jr. Championships, he takes his job seriously by maintaining an organized, hard-working crew that is passionate about doing what is best for the elite athletes. He is a true professional in every sense of the word. It has been an honor working with him."

Coach Eckman's teams had four top 5 finishes at the California state meet including two third-place finishes by his 1987 and 1991 boys' teams. The 1987 (inaugural CA state XC meet) team finished behind McFarland and Robert Louis Stevenson in the Division III race and the team had a cameo role in the movie "McFarland". Below is a photo from the movie "McFarland" featuring a Yreka runner.


During his tenure, Coach Eckman also coached two California state Track & Field champions. Jim Frey won the mile with a time of 4:08.82 in 1983 after finishing second the previous season in 4:10.32. In 1996, Aaron Gillen won the 3200m. with a time of 9:03.96 after winning the state Division IV XC title in the fall. Gillen defeated Nordhoff's Will Bernardo in the 3200m. as he sped by him right before the finish line. Bernardo's coach was another legendary coach which we profiled earlier this year, Ken Reeves. He had this to say about his friend, Coach Eckman.

"Some facts about Jim.  Also, quick story about Jim after Aaron Gillen won the state 3200 and I guy I coached won the 3180.  With about 200 meters to go in the race, our guy, Will Bernaldo, had about a 10-meter lead.  Gillen was in second and I saw him look back at 200 meters to go. My thoughts were, he's looking to see if anyone will catch him for second.  Talking to Jim afterward, Aaron was looking back to see if the Arcadia winner (who had finished in a 56-second last lap that year) was coming.  Aaron was sizing up the situation and passed will with about 20 meters to go and won by maybe a meter.  Great race and very classy interaction after the race."

1998 - Yreka HS Awarded 1st Place by Women's Sports Foundation/ National HS Coaches Assoc.  for encouraging high school girls to participate in sports - $10,000 Award

As YHS Head Coach of Track & Field - 73 athletes qualified for state meet; 9 medal winners with 2 firsts (1983 - Jim Frey in 1600m; 1996 - Aaron Gillen in 3200m)

As YHS Head Coach of Cross Country - Boys Team qualified 11 times and Girls Team 6 times for State Meet

California Teacher of the Year in Politics in 1974

Northern Section Athletic Director of the Year in 1998/99

California Girls Athletic Director of the Year in 2001

Civic Involvement
14 years - Yreka City Council; 6 years - Mayor

2001 - Yreka Citizen of the Year

1975 -1977 - Member California State Curriculum Commission

Aside from his expertise in Cross Country and the distance races, Coach Eckman also had success with field event athletes although he always gave credit to his assistant coaches. Among some of his best athletes, Susan Schaap was a state finalist in the high jump in 1998 and 1999, Jeremy Moore was a 4th place finisher in the 1989 pole vault competition and Andy Connor was a 6th place finisher in the 1987 discus competition.

Former athlete Chris Harris is now the Principal at Jackson Street School (Yreka Union School District) and he had this to say about his former coach.

 "I had the opportunity to be an athlete in Coach Eckman's program for 4 years in high school, but also to coach against and with him for a few years.  Coach Eckman is a coach that got the maximum out of every single athlete that took part in his program.  He instilled a sense of belief and confidence in his athletes to the point they believed they would win every meet.  Coach Eckman was a master strategist....from identifying key gaps within his team, to then fill those gaps, but then too a strategist to win track meets!  In 1987 (I believe) he won the section title with 6 boy athletes!  

Coach Eckman pushed his athletes out of their comfort zone to fulfill their maximum potential.  Coaching in Yreka, you get what you get in regard to athletes.  However, Coach Eckman consistently drew huge numbers into his program and consistently won many championships with those teams.  He also surrounded himself with an amazing coaching staff that matched his passion and commitment to the sport and to their athletes.  When working out in the rain or snow, Coach Eckman would say..."get running...your epidermis is waterproof!"."

Another former athlete, Cindy Dawson, spoke about Coach Eckman's impact for her during her high school career and how he helped her prepare for life after high school.

"I trained under Coach Eckman for both cross country and track during high school from 1997-200.  I started running competitively at an early age (around 4th grade) and so by the time I reached high school I would say I was quite serious - track was my passion.  I had goal times in mind, and had formulated an intended time frame for achieving them.  Coach Eckman recognized my intensity, and although he embraced my hard work and drive, he worked with me to be sure I never became overrun by it.  As my coach, he not only provided the expertise to enable me to reach my goals, but offered unwavering support and confidence in me which ultimately developed me not only as an athlete but a successful young adult in all aspects of life. Prior to each race I would be a bundle of nerves - I put so much pressure on myself to perform and reach my goals that every race seemed like an important milestone along my planned path of success.  Without fail, as I stepped onto the track, Coach Eckman would put his arm around my shoulders, turn me away from the starting line, and walk me away from my competitors who were beginning to line up.  He would lean down, and talk quietly, as if he was sharing an important secret with me.  He would review my race strategy, remind me of my split goals, and ensure that I knew exactly where he'd be along the way for checking in.  He'd always end this talk by boldly directing something to the effect of "You've got this, just relax" or "You'll be fine, you can do this."  It was the "matter of fact way" with which he said it that communicated his confidence in me.  And his directive tone made me believe it, and more importantly made me believe in myself.  His calm demeanor helped settle my nerves and he knew that I needed that in order to perform at my best.  As I made my way through the race, he'd be right where he told me, providing me not only updates on my time but calm and supportive injects which continued to boost my confidence when I needed it.  He would greet me at the finish line, give me a hug, tell me good job, and ask me how I felt about my performance.  Sometimes I would be disappointed with my time/results, but he would find something positive to compliment as well as provide feedback as to how/where I could improve next time.  There was always something to celebrate, no matter the results, which helped me to pick myself back up had I been disappointed, but there was also always something to improve upon which ultimately focused my drive towards the next milestone.  He seemed to find that perfect balance that would help me to be proud, but also motivate me to improve. I always felt this personalized attention meant I was his favorite athlete.  But as I got a little older, and became more aware of the events around me, I realized he was providing this same personal  attention to all of his athletes - including my teammates who were racing against me.  We were all his favorites.  And after each race he would meet each athlete with equal attentiveness - places didn't matter, if a personal best was ousted, or form improved, a win had been achieved.  He helped each of us to be proud of ourselves and strive to continually improve.  

Mr. Eckman's confidence in my potential and valuable mentorship extended beyond the athletic realm.  I had set my sights on attending the US Air Force Academy and becoming a USAF pilot.  Although he thought I could be a successful student-athlete at an Ivy League school, he tailored my training and helped to prepare me for the rigors of the military environment.  He made sure to expose me to all of my options so that I could make an informed choice when selecting a school, but he fully supported my dream of attending USAFA even when other teachers did not.  Aside from my parents, I would say Coach Eckman had the greatest impact on me during my formative years.  

I went on to compete at USAFA, and am still serving as a proud AF pilot.  Before he moved from my hometown, I made sure to check in with him when I returned home over the holidays - he would invite me to lunch or tea so I could update him on my endeavors.  He continued to mentor me, and coach me from afar, as I grew as an athlete and leader at USAFA.  Throughout my time there, and even continuing today, when I face a tough challenge I can still hear Coach Eckman's voice telling me that I can do it;  just remembering the confident way he always believed in me continues to help me to believe in myself.  Such inspirational coaches are invaluable to our young people, and I truly believe that Coach Eckman has been among our nation's best!  I am so thankful for his mentorship and friendship, and his willingness to invest his time and support in all of us -  his favorite athletes.  Someday I hope to be a coach myself, and I will strive to model my behavior after his example."

Thank you to all the people noted above for their contributions to this article. Thank you also to the late Doug Speck whose work you can continue to find with a simple internet search including an article that he wrote about Coach Eckman in 2007 when the Varsity races at the Yreka Invitational were named in his honor.
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