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A love of kids lands state honor

Submitted Photo Dick Davidson (left), stands with his Hall of Fame presenter Mark Zinnel on the night of Davidson's induction on Jan. 30.

SLAYTON -- "Mr. Davidson, I think is a coach in the truest sense of the word," said electrical engineer Nathan Knuth of Sebastopol, Calif. "He was a mastermind at looking at people's strengths and was able to develop lots of guys into becoming contributing members of a team -- a group that worked together to accomplish things that we could be proud of. He had the knack to paint the broad brush and see the whole picture."

Knuth, a 1989 graduate of Slayton High School, was a member of back-to-back true team track and field boys' state championships, coached by Dick Davidson -- who was honored Jan. 30 with a well-deserved induction into the Minnesota Track and Field Coaches' Hall of Fame.

Davidson, who began teaching mathematics and physical education at Slayton in January of 1967, guided the Wildcats -- and later the Murray County Central Rebels -- to long-term success in both track and field, as well as cross country.

"He was the most complete coach I ever ran for," declared USDA Farm Service manager Mark Zinnel of Pipestone. "He took the time to work with and help everybody. He gave the runners a lot of latitude and he knew when to work you and when to rest you."

Zinnel, a four-time state champion -- twice in cross country (1976 and 1977) and twice in the two-mile run (1977 and 1978) at Slayton, introduced Davidson at the induction ceremonies at Park Center High School.

"Dick was always trying to develop depth and we always felt that we had enough 'replacement parts' to take care of business because of that philosophy," explained Zinnel, who competed for Davidson before the true team concept came in.

"I wish we would have had the true team meets back then, because I think Dick would have had a few more state championships."

Four state championships in boys' track and field are among Davidson's long list of accomplishments over his 34-year career at Slayton and MCC.

The Wildcats won a state title in the regular MSHSL meet -- in dramatic fashion -- in 1978, with Zinnel and future Hamline University All-American Bob Veenhuis providing multiple points with high individual and relay placings.

Then in the second and third seasons of the newly-created true team meet -- sponsored by the coaches' association -- the Wildcats won state championships in both 1988 and 1989.

Slayton had placed third in the inaugural state meet in 1987 and finished third again in 1991.

As MCC, the Rebels continued the tradition, capturing back-to-back third place true team finishes in 1993 and 1994, before winning the state title in 1997 and claiming a fifth third-place trophy in 1998.

That string of success produced eight top three true team state meet finishes in a 12-year span.

"Dick had a knack of pushing buttons when you needed it and knew when to lay off when you didn't," summarized State Farm Insurance agent Paul LeTendre of Morris, who was a sprinter and long-jumper for Davidson before graduating from MCC in 1994.

"He empowered people to do what needed to be done and always stressed doing the little things right," recalled LeTendre, who played four years at defensive back for legendary football coach John Gagliardi at St. John's University in Collegeville.

LeTendre sees similarities between the coaching tactics of Gagliardi and Davidson, both of whom utilized a somewhat laid-back approach, but yet stressed doing things the right way.

"It was rare of us to drop the baton," LeTendre says about his high school relay teams. "Coach Davidson always made sure that our steps were on -- in relays and jumping events -- and that attention to detail, along with repeating things over and over, helped our execution in all the events."

State champion half-miler develops area cross country power

A native of Bristol, S.D., Davidson won a state championship in the 880-yard run as a senior in 1963.

"I remember the race well," he recalls. "I had just placed fifth in the 440 and went right to the chute for the 880, as there was only one event -- the 180-yard low hurdles -- in between.

"I was not one of the favorites. In fact, I was on the scratch line at the start. But with about 180 yards to go, I was in third place. Then someone was passing me and I thought, 'Oh no, I am not going to place.' So I stepped it up and took the lead coming off the last curve. I think I won it by an inch and the top five all finished within a second of each other. It was that close."

Davidson continued his track career at Northern State College in Aberdeen, S.D., graduating in December of 1966 and landing his teaching and coaching position at Slayton where he has lived ever since.

"Slayton has been a great place to live, teach and coach," Davidson said. "The support of this community has just been tremendous for our family."

Taking the reigns of the Wildcat cross country program in the fall of 1968, Davidson built Slayton into a perennial powerhouse, highlighted by a boys' state runner-up finish in 1975, followed by the back-to-back individual state titles claimed by Zinnel.

Two decades later, MCC's girls brought home a third-place state cross country trophy in 1994 and earned second-place honors in 1995.

Davidson guided a total of five girls' cross country teams to the state meet and coached seven regional or sectional boys' championship teams -- twice winning three straight ('73-75 and '86-88) -- before adding a seventh title in his last season in 2000.

Between the boys and girls, Davidson had a total of 17 conference championship teams.

Davidson was inducted into the State Cross Country Coaches' Hall of Fame in 2008.

Love of kids keeps coach excited each year

"The big thing about Dick Davidson is that he truly liked kids," declared Slayton area farmer Jim Christensen, who graduated from SHS in 1976 and ran both track and cross country for the Wildcats, as the program was climbing the ladder of success.

"Dick had the ability to get the most from an average runner," said Christensen, whose daughters Amy (Class of 2001) and Ann (2002) both ran for Davidson, too. "The kids always had fun competing for him and everyone had so much respect for him -- because he respected them -- and what it boils down to is that he really liked working with kids."

In his acceptance speech, Davidson talked about some of his favorite memories -- including the tremendous anchor leg (mile relay) by Veenhuis that clinched the '78 state title, and praised the elite performances of Zinnel as a four-time state champion.

Davidson also mentioned the coaching friendships that were developed over the years, while sharing time at track meets.

But a major part of his talk included his love of track and the impact that the sport has had on the individuals that gave it a try.

"One thing I always liked about track was that it was all inclusive; everyone could participate from sprinters to distance runners, pole vaulters to hurdlers and discus throwers. Because so many kids could find 'their event,' I saw it change their lives," Davidson said during his induction speech.

"Participating as individuals, or as part of a team, they challenged themselves each day. They developed the mental discipline that is necessary to excel. And with success came self-confidence and self-esteem. And that can and does change young people's lives."

In track and field, Davidson's teams won a total of 11 conference championships, nine district or sub-section titles and won five regional or sectional crowns, while finishing second three times.

In addition to Zinnel, Slayton's Jay Hafner won an individual state title by winning the high jump in 1990.

Davidson had a pair of relay state champions, as the foursome of Dave Swart, Perry McNeil, LeTendre and Mike Clauson won the medley (200-200-400-800) in 1994 and the Rebels won the 4x800 relay in 1998 with the group of Mat Fritzmeir, Eric Janssen, Lance Platt and Nick Gaul.

"That '98 4x8 was a real surprise," remembers Davidson. "Most of those guys were on our 4x200 team that was pretty fast. We were loading that up, but then one of our best guys got injured and we decided to move them up. Janssen had never run a half before. But we upset two good teams to win the section and then ran the event even faster -- 8:07 -- to win the state meet.

"Sometimes, you get lucky."

While that 1998 relay state title certainly had the makings of a "blessing in disguise" and there may have been some luck involved, Davidson did emphasize relays and felt the importance of giving attention to all of the events.

"To me it was always exciting to put together competitive relays," he stressed. "It made the kids work harder and we usually had a lot of competition to make the teams. There were lots of thrills in the relays, but we also had a few disappointments handling the baton."

Davidson coached seven pole vaulters that cleared 13 feet -- including his son Jim (SHS, 1984) -- and liked working with that event, too.

"I enjoyed working with with hurdlers and pole vaulters," he said. "It was rewarding to see them master the technique, but the vaulters never wanted to quit practicing. They would take practice into the night if you let them."

Two of Davidson's vaulters -- Tyson Rupp and Cory Brown -- scaled over 14 feet in the 1990s.

While recruiting and developing athletes at Slayton and MCC led to lots of track and field championships for Davidson's teams, winning was secondary to the concept of advancing individuals and relays as far as they could in post-season competition.

"Other than the true team meet, I wasn't always concerned about the team scoring," Davidson said. "Winning a meet is exciting and does it encourage team unity, but it was usually my philosophy to put the kids in the events that were best for them individually for advancement and not worry about team points."

Knuth, who ran collegiately at both St. Thomas (St. Paul) and at Notre Dame (South Bend, Ind.), was able to run in four consecutive state cross country meets, finishing as high as fourth in 1988 as a senior -- before finishing fifth in the 3,200-meter run the following spring.

"Mr. Davidson was a great coach and he sure knew how to get the most out of everyone," Knuth said. "He could work you hard, but you knew how much he cared about you."

Gayle's interest and support were essential

At both the induction banquet and in this interview, Dick gave his wife Gayle lots of credit and thanks.

"Gayle was always very involved and so understanding -- coaching track is very time consuming," explained Dick. "She supported me in so many ways and was always there for me. Being married to a track coach isn't always easy with the long hours of practice and meets."

According to Davidson, Gayle helped promote track and field at Slayton by writing articles for the local paper and taking "thousands" of pictures.

"We also had great support from our parents," he added. "No matter how far away the meet was, we always had a big following."

Davidson, who retired from teaching and coaching after the 2001 season, may have said it best when he mentioned the impact or effect that coaches can have on kids.

"I believe that coaches can have a big effect on kids," he concluded. "Many of the kids that I coached were over achievers. They developed self-confidence and a work ethic that carried over to everyday life.

"Competition really isn't about coming in first place. The successful athlete is the one that strives to the best they can be.

"They are the real winners."

A multitude of former Slayton and MCC track and field athletes -- and cross country runners -- can be classified as such, thanks to the kind, caring and enthusiastic coaching approach of Dick Davidson -- one of Minnesota's best.