Grinnell alumni salute Will and Evelyn Freeman for 40 years of coaching

Sept. 25, 2019Will Freeman reached into his wallet to take out a battered piece of paper that had been tucked inside for more than 30 years.

“Family before work; team before me; process before result; keep learning; aim for quality; live with integrity,” Freeman said reading the paper aloud to more than 200 alumni, family, friends, and community members in attendance Saturday at a retirement reception for Will and Evelyn Freeman. “I read this paper every now and then to re-center me to what matters in life.”

The message encapsulated the Freemans’ philosophy and was a fitting conclusion to the reception. Will and Evelyn’s guidance and mentorship mattered immensely to the lives of Grinnell College cross country and track & field athletes during the past four decades. When the Freemans decided to retire as head coaches after the 2019-20 season, it was not a surprise so many of their student-athletes returned to Grinnell to celebrate them.

“I came back to see friends, re-connect, and honor the coaches and the community that the Freemans have built over the years,” said Elizabeth Jach ’09, a policy and planning analyst at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “Evelyn made me a better athlete. She challenged me to run more mileage and thought I was ready to take on new tests, which was really encouraging. She also did a great job of creating a sense of community. The relationships women built with each other were more important than how we did on the course.”

Several Grinnell alums took part in the Les Duke Invitational at the College’s golf course.
Several Grinnell alums took part in the Les Duke Invitational at the College’s golf course.

The Freeman festivities were part of the 2019 Cross County and Track & Field Alumni Reunion Weekend. Alumni ran or cheered on runners at the annual Les Duke Invitational. About 40 people partook in an athletic facilities tour led by former Athletic Director Dee Fairchild. A public retirement reception was held at Darby Gymnasium and a dinner honoring the Freemans at Quad Dining Hall wrapped up the weekend.

Will and Evelyn began coaching and teaching at the College in 1980. Neither has held any other job in their professional lives.

“When George Drake hired us to coach, we could jump over a crossbar really well,” Will said. “That was our one thing we could do. We didn’t have a lot else to offer. We had to learn about Grinnell and what it takes to be successful at this unique place.”

Mission accomplished.

Will’s cross country teams have won 29 Midwest Conference titles over the last 33 seasons. He’s also coached three conference winning track squads. In 2010, he was named the NCAA Division III Central Region Coach of the Year.

Evelyn’s teams have won 17 cross country championships, starting with her first year as a coach in 1980. She also has led the Pioneers to two indoor track titles, and one outdoor track crown. She has guided several All-American athletes and Academic All-Americans, and eight times has been named Midwest Conference Coach of the Year in cross country.

When asked what made the Freeman such good coaches, Sarah Spencer Perry ’08 said they made runners want to be part of the team.

“They certainly challenged and pushed us, and we were around a group of other athletes that challenged us too,” she said. “Will and Evelyn attracted hardworking student-athletes, and they worked to cultivate that and help us to find a balance between academics and athletics.”

Jeff Nassif ’89, a software engineer living in Farmington, Massachusetts, mentioned how Will was constantly trying to figure out the right mix of philosophies toward training and competing.

“He constantly was going to talk with other coaches,” Nassif said. “As a result, every year would be a new philosophy; it was really cool because he was so invested in it. Both Will and Evelyn were ridiculously motivated to learn.”

A reclining Evelyn and Will Freeman, front left, are joined by student-athletes, alumni, and friends at the finish line of the Les Duke Invitational.
A reclining Evelyn and Will Freeman, front left, are joined by student-athletes, alumni, and friends at the finish line of the Les Duke Invitational.

Will and Evelyn championed an athlete-centered approach where students have an open two-way dialogue with them. They also taught classes at Grinnell and used the concepts and tenants of classroom teaching to influence how they coached and the system they used.

“Their athlete-center model of coaching was a blend of science for high-level athletes coupled with a humanistic approach to every endeavor,” said Athletic Director Andy Hamilton ’85.

The reception was bittersweet for some current student-athletes who wished the Freemans well in retirement, but also wished they would stick around longer to continue coaching them.

“I’ve only had them as coaches for one year, but I already know how amazing they are and the impact they’ve had on the program,” said Paige Olowu ’22, a sprinter from Minneapolis. “I mean just look around. There’s 200 alumni here.”

Current student-athletes visited with alumni after the reception, sharing commonalities about the program and the Freemans.

“Much of the track and cross country experience and traditions are the same as they were 40 years ago,” Evelyn said. “We just welcome new faces year to year. It’s been a privilege to work with so many multi-talented Grinnellian, and we are lucky to have found Grinnell as our home.”

—by Jeremy Shapiro

For your information:

Keep up with the Freeman’s final cross country season on the men’s team page and women’s team page

To read more alumni news, check out our news archive.