Bill Lawson feels comfortable leaving the Kent State track and field programs in their current solid state.
Still, walking away from a post he’s held for the past 17 years was not easy.
Rehearsing the words he would use to explain the decision to retire from his role as Director of Track and Field/Cross Country helped Lawson get through the obligatory meeting with Golden Flashes Director of Athletics Randale Richmond.
But nothing could completely prepare him for the sensation of finality that flooded his body during that conversation.
“As I was speaking to [Richmond], I couldn’t believe the words were coming out of my mouth,” said Lawson. “It didn’t feel real until he’s listening, then saying OK, we’ve got to get this done, this done, press conference [Tuesday]. It got real in a hurry then.”
Lawson’s nearly four-decade career as a collegiate track and field coach will end when Kent State’s 2022 outdoor season concludes at the NCAA Championships, set for June 8-11 in Eugene, Ore.
The decision to retire was sparked by the desire to spend more time with his family, which is now stationed in Florida. His son TJ, a former Stow High School star and Kent State All-American in the multi-events, is training for the 2024 Olympic Trials at IMG Academy in Bradenton. His daughter Abbie, a former standout soccer player for the Flashes, is also living in Florida along with Lawson’s wife Jodie.
“We bought a house in Florida. It's been working fine, me working up here and them living down there, but I think it’s just gotten to a point where we need to have the family together,” said Bill Lawson, now 65 years old. “This is a personal family decision.”
Going out in style
It’s difficult to find the perfect time to leave a job you love. Lawson believes right now is as close as it’s ever going to get.
Lawson just secured his 13th Mid-American Conference track and field championship on May 14, when his Kent State men’s team claimed the outdoor crown. Ten of those titles were earned by his women’s teams. Lawson had never won a MAC men’s outdoor event until this season.
“That’s the one title that had eluded me,” he said. “We felt like we lost five or six that just got away from us for one reason or another. If we hadn’t won [this year] would I have stuck around? Probably not. But we were on an unbelievable mission to get it done.”
Anthony Milliner will attest to that.
Kent State’s grad student triple jump standout vividly recalls a near-miss at his first MAC indoor meet.
“I remember my freshman year, that very first meeting in September, Coach Lawson was super excited. He was saying we’ve got the weapons [to win a MAC championship],” said Milliner. “We got second place at Bowling Green back in 2018, and that hurt. I remember watching [team champion] Eastern Michigan dance around and be happy. That vision never left my head.”
The Flashes didn’t finish higher than third in the MAC indoors or outdoors over the next three seasons. When the pandemic struck in 2020, Kent State’s men’s track and field program lost several scholarships and an assistant coach due to budget cuts. There were rumors that the men’s program may be eliminated.
Lawson kept fighting through the difficult times, then started receiving the university support he needed once Richmond was named KSU Director of Athletics just over a year ago.
“We challenge our coaches to be extraordinary leaders. We’re just here to support them,” said Richmond. “So it was like, what do you need coach? He said here are the things that we lost, Randale, here are the things that we need. We get these things back, we’re going to be a championship team. I went to (KSU President Todd Diacon) with a plan and presented it, how it’s going to impact young people. Then Lawson executed it in a year. That’s immediate impact.
“(Lawson) is an extraordinary leader, and we were able to support him. You see the results. These kids had an amazing experience because of it.”
Just one of the guys
While celebrating the MAC title, Milliner and his teammates knew in the back of their minds that it may help trigger Lawson’s exit.
“I wasn’t shocked. It was like, yeah, it makes sense,” said Milliner. “I’m definitely sad, but I'm glad I got to ride out all five years with Law as the head coach.”
What makes Lawson so special?
“He’s personable. He's just a good guy,” said Millner. “I remember at my [campus] visit he made me laugh. I definitely thought he was a cocky guy, kind of arrogant, but I like a coach that’s confident. We've been messing around with each other through all of these years. He was my direct coach last year when I was MAC champ in the triple jump. I'm definitely going to miss him. We always joke about being in the same nursing home together, with my old knees and my back. He acts younger than me sometimes. But he’s definitely a really good guy. I knew that from the day I met him.”
Lawson has oozed energy and enthusiasm since his coaching career started at John Marshall High School in Minnesota in 1982. His collegiate coaching run began in 1984 at his alma mater, Northern Iowa, where he served as associate head coach for 15 years. Lawson was a four-time Division II All-American at Northern Iowa in the decathlon, pole vault and triple jump.
The Illinois native then spent six years as an assistant coach at national powerhouse Oregon before taking over the Kent State program in 2005, when he was hired by former Director of Athletics Laing Kennedy.
Lawson has coached two individual national champions (Matthias Tayala, 2014 men’s hammer throw, and Danniel Thomas-Dodd, 2017 shot put) and 72 All-Americans, and has been named Great Lakes Region Coach of the Year five times and MAC Coach of the Year 12 times while leading the Flashes.
“As the presser says, I'm retiring from Kent State. But I can’t sit down. I've got too much energy. I feel healthy, wonderful right now,” said Lawson. “I don’t know what I'm going to be doing. I know I'm going to be coaching my son. I know I'm going to be down in Florida with the family. Who knows what the next year or five years will hold for me. But my time here in Kent is done. It's been a wonderful 17 years."
Along with coaching his Flashes through this week’s NCAA Regional and the 2022 NCAA Championship meets, Lawson will also spend the next several weeks helping choose his successor.
“Knowing that we’ll have him involved in finding a new leader of the program, that’s comforting,” said Richmond. “He's really had his hands in every inch of the program, so he knows exactly what it looks like, exactly what you need to transition it, exactly what you need to maintain it. I feel very confident about where we are there, and where we are right now as a program.”
Richmond said a new director of track and field/cross country will be in place by July 1. Potential in-house candidates include Nathan Fanger, a former Kent State All-American regarded as one of the top throws coaches in the nation.
“I don’t think that’s my place to say,” said Lawson, when asked if any of his assistants should be considered candidates to replace him. “But I do know this — my phone has been buzzing non-stop. Everybody's going to be approaching us in Indiana [at this week’s NCAA Regional], they’ll be approaching my assistant coaches. Let the games begin.”
The Kent State Director of Track and Field/Cross Country position is attractive thanks to Lawson, who steered the ship through some rough waters during the pandemic and now has both the men’s and women’s programs positioned to be perennial MAC title contenders.
“I feel almost foolish for leaving because this place is popping right now,” said Lawson. “What Randale Richmond and President Diacon are doing for this university, it's a great place to be. We're going to win more and more championships. A few years ago some things made it really difficult to win on the men’s side. Those things have been lifted. I'm going to tell you right now, both teams are going to be really good next year based on our recruiting classes and who is returning. We’re excited.
“I'm trying to leave this place as good as it’s ever been, so these guys can just keep it moving.”
This article originally appeared on Record-Courier: Bill Lawson is retiring from KSU so he can join his family in Florida