Born to Coach: The Story of Bill Squires
A new book reveals many sides of Bill Squires, the legendary, whacky Boston coach who has mentored runners of all abilities and helped inspire the running boom.
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This week, we’re all missing the Boston Marathon. I’m also missing the annual celebration of new running books that is a highlight of the Boston Expo. A great sport deserves great writing, and those panels every year are better than a vintage wine tasting. This year’s was to include the launch of Paul Clerici’s Born to Coach: the Story of Bill Squires. The Squires story is intertwined with Boston itself, and its great Marathon where the coach had such an impact.
Remember Duel in the Sun? Squires coached both duelists, Alberto Salazar and Dick Beardsley. Run for the Hoses? Winner Jack Fultz was a Squires athlete. The four victories of Bill Rodgers? Squires helped the drop-out smoker transition to superstar marathoner. “GBTC,” the letters Rodgers inked on his Boston shirt? Squires was one of founders of Greater Boston Track Club, and was club coach when it placed four men in the top ten at Boston in 1979. Wheelchair racing? Squires was a major advocate, and coached Boston’s first winner, Bob Hall.
From three-time Massachusetts State high school mile champion in the 1940s to his still-voluble presence at Boston in his eighties (he’s 87 now), Squires’ full life in running is assiduously chronicled. The man’s vigorous personality and colorful voice drive the narrative, but the book is informative about the context, too.
Learning how good Squires was as a miler at Notre Dame in the 1950s (4:08, seventh in the Olympic trials), I also learned how ruthlessly the American college system burned out its middle distance runners with the demand for points (“I’d run five times. I was a tough bastard,” says Squires.) I learned how popular and intense the indoors season was in those days, like the time Squires got booed for elbowing three-time Olympic gold medalist Mal Whitfield out of the race (“I knocked him into the stands…I had instinct. I could run on the boards.”)
I learned how idiotic the old amateurism rules were, when Squires was running 2:47 at the Boston Marathon at age 28, but got banned as a “professional” because he was now coaching high school kids for a living. And I learned how Squires’ biggest break at national level, his appointment as distance coach for the 1980 Olympics, was denied him by the futile U.S. boycott of those Games.
While he suffered from negative history, Squires made major positive contributions. His fame comes from the stars he mentored, but his true legacy lies with countless lesser runners, in the graded group programs he devised at Wakefield High School, perfected as coach at Boston State and UMass Boston, and carried to the peak of world running with Greater Boston Track Club. He was a genius as a team coach, skilled at developing runners at all levels.
In the history of running in America, he goes down as one of the first to see the need for a sport of post-collegiate running, and for working to create those post-college opportunities. He was also strongly supportive of women joining the sport. And, thus, the great running boom was born. Squires was one of those whose inventive energy created it.
Squires himself is the book’s greatest strength, through his unpredictable mix of characteristics: eccentric and innovative, visionary and pragmatic, shy and boastful, devout and profane, frugal and heart-of-gold generous. Clerici is under his spell. He sourced his narrative wholly from interviews with Squires himself, giving it the vivid color of first-person autobiography. Of course, this also limits it as biography, interpretation, and in factual reliability.
“I’m gonna clue ya!” Squires keeps saying, and insistently, relentlessly, he does. That voice is everywhere, dogmatic, inspiring, incoherent, and lurid as a drill sergeant.
“There’s an odd thing with me—when I have to do something, goddarnit, I’ll do it! And guess what? I’ll punish ya. You’ll frigin’ remember me. And that’s the thing that I put into Alberto Salazar and Greg Meyer and all those guys, I don’t tell them to do that, but it’s part of my coaching. I tell them, ‘We don’t run against no talent. We go against good teams. Are we going to waste our time? No. We’re going to get something out of this race.’”
Yet Squires shows himself at times to be an astute learner. In England during Army service, he bumped into Derek Ibbotson (then the world record holder for one mile), and took on-board how over-intense American training was in those days, and too light on mileage.
In his quirky inarticulate way, Squires must be a great communicator. The book has hilarious stories of him chatting up waitresses to get his guys better food, or talking an unsuspecting householder into giving Beardsley a bed for the morning before he raced Salazar. At the least, like many great coaches and teachers, Squires for sure has the ability to convince every athlete that he believes in them, and knows stuff that will help them.
There are gaps in his knowledge, naturally. If he believes, as he is quoted as saying, that all Kenyans are one-pace “rhythm runners” who don’t know how to surge, he hasn’t watched the same races that I have. I won’t argue with the book’s claims that Greater Boston Track Club in the late 1970s was the best running club in the world, but I would not have backed them in a ten-man team race at that date against Gateshead Harriers (UK), Glenhuntly (Australia), and S&B (Japan).
Squires appears through different eyes in a heart-felt foreword by Beardsley. (Squires went out on a limb to get Beards his career-changing opportunity at the London Marathon, offering to refund his airfare if he didn’t race well. Beardsley won.) And as an epilogue, Clerici has assembled personal tributes from many of the best American runners and experts, who bring Squires endearingly and vividly to life, with anecdotes, affection, and wider perspectives.
Somewhere in Running Heaven, I suspect, there’s a special corner for great coaches who are innovative, inspiring, compulsively talkative, and totally whacky. Bill Bowerman and Percy Cerutty are there, saving a spot for Bill Squires.
Roger Robinson is the author of When Running Made History which has won international acclaim as one of the best books about running ever.