This is the third article in a three-part series looking at the high school cross country coaching profession in South Carolina. We've asked three coaches and their wives to talk about the rewards and challenges of the coaching profession, how the job impacts them and their families and how they have adjusted to the demands, and how high school coaching has evolved over the years in the state.
First article in series: Young couple takes on the demands of high school coaching
Second article in series: Cummings family finds formula that's working at Riverside
SUMMERVILLE -- Jim and Eileen Kilbreth retired from coaching high school cross country four years ago, but like many who stepped down before them, and since, the sport has remained a big part of their lives.
Though the couple says they don't miss "the daily grind" of coaching -- listening to athletes' complaining about workouts, dealing with "helicopter" parents and the hours spent each week just on paperwork -- it's likely you'll still see them at cross country and track meet most weekends during the school year.
"We miss being around the kids," Eileen Kilbreth recently told scrunners.com. They still work at cross country and track meets, they just don't know many of the athletes by name.
"We do get to see some of our former athletes, in that they are now coaches in the sport and have teams of their own," Eileen said. "We wind up cheering a lot for those kids who frequently wonder who the heck we are yelling at them."
Couples share coaching sport they love
Eileen officially retired from coaching in June of 2009, but continued to coach at Summerville High until the end of the 2010 season. Jim retired at the end of the 2010 track and field season. Together, the couple coached cross country and track for 71 seasons, the majority of that time at Spartanburg High. The Kilbreths left Spartanburg in 2005 to coach at Summerville.
Between the two, Jim and Eileen brought home 10 state championships, and numerous county and regional titles. Each credits the other for their successful coaching careers.
"One advantage we had was that we planned the same workout for all the athletes and just scaled it back for the girls or new runners," Eileen said. By doing that, she said her husband "could take the faster runners and I could cover the rest of the team."
During speed workouts, the couple would combine the girls and boys, Eileen said.
"We corresponded by walkie-talkies on road workouts so no athletes were unsupervised. That always left one of us to attend to any emergencies," she said.
The Kilbreths used the "bad cop, good cop" approach in handling wayward athletes.
"Jim was the iron fist of discipline, while I was the crying towel and sympathizer," Eileen said. She also taught at the middle school level, which allowed her to recruit runners for both girls and boys teams.
"I taught English, which everyone had to take, and I requested lunch duty, when everyone had to eat, so I 'attacked' them in their early years and convinced them to run," Eileen said. She would also offer a free ride from the middle school to the high school for daily practice.
The work both coaches committed to in building and maintaining quality programs at Spartanburg and Summerville also meant making personal sacrifices.
"We did not take too much time away from the running program," Jim said. A typical year would start the middle of May with cross country practice and continue through the summer until school started.
"We might get away a weekend or two, but that was it."
The Kilbreths say they miss the "weekly race camaraderie" they had built with all the opposing coaches. "Every weekend invitational was like a reunion of coaches for us," Eileen said.
Longtime coach Jim Kilbreth shares insight on sport as career comes to an end
Yet, in some ways, coaching high school cross country and track became more of a challenge for the Kilbreths, especially toward the latter half their careers when recreation and club soccer programs took off.
"The advent of club soccer hurt our sport in that many runners chose to participate in that sport instead
of ours," Eileen said. "Athletes thought they could compete in both sports at the same time, but we knew injuries would result." Participating in cross country and soccer "was too much for a person that age," she said.
Since retiring four years ago, the Kilbreths have been spending much of their time traveling, and they credit their careers as coaches for allowing them to do that.
"All those summers we trained really make us appreciate how lucky we are to be able to travel," Jim said.
The pair also stays involved in high school athletics, helping out at several spring track meets and attending the SCACA Clinic each July. They are also in their third year of recording stats for the Summerville High football team, Jim said.
When asked if either of them would coach again, both said they would, though if she had it to do over, Eileen would have entered the sport at an earlier age. As for her husband, he wouldn't change a thing. In fact, Jim, who started coaching in Illinois in 1965, still corresponds with one of those athletes, now 66 and a missionary to China.
Kilbreth honored during first Low Country Tri-County Meet of Champions
"Kids looked on us as dinosaurs when we told them about that," Eileen said.
Jim's former student from his early coaching years in Illinois still holds the school record in the 400 meters.
Clay Boswell talks about Jim and Eileen Kilbreth