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Throwback Thursday: Notre Dame Fighting Irish Track Runner, Arnie Gough

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After those two experiences, how could I not go to Notre Dame?

Photo from 2016 NCAA Outdoor Track & Field Championships (arkansasrazorbacks.com)

Playing a sport at the Division I level requires a few things. First, you must have the skill to compete at that level. Second, you must have the motivation, drive, and discipline to put in the work both on and off the field (or in this case, track). Third, you must love, or have passion for, the sport in which you compete. Whether Arnie knew it or not, he had all three of these things as he headed off to Notre Dame, and the fruits of his labor most definitely paid off: on the track, in the classroom, and throughout the rest of his life.

How did Arnie Gough come to become a world ranked high hurdler at the University of Notre Dame?

This is Arnie’s story.

“I grew up in Merrillville, Indiana and attended Gary, Indiana’s Andrean High School. Gary has historically been a huge track area. Basketball may have been the biggest sport in Gary, but track was definitely a close second. When I was in grade school, the high school track athletes were my heroes; not the football or basketball stars. At one point in time, the teams in Gary won more than half of the state track championships. Track was such a big part of the local culture. I just knew I wanted to run track. I also played football in high school, but I only weighed about 150 pounds. I remember on weigh in days, I would sneak five pounds of weights into my back pockets so that I didn’t seem so puny. I ended up doing pretty well in football. I only started one game during my junior year and that night just happened to be the night we upset the number three team in the country. I was third string but the first string player was injured, and the second string player was sick, so I got the start. I made a couple of big plays in the game and ended up getting some media coverage that in hindsight could be fairly characterized as overhyped. I started every game as a senior and made all conference again, but without the heroics of the previous year.”

“The publicity surrounding my high school football career, however, was much bigger than I actually deserved. (laughs) Because of that one game my junior year, I was recruited by most of the Division III football programs in the Midwest. However, all of my friends were headed to Indiana University, and that sounded like fun to me. After some influence from a family friend (Bob Welsh … Welsh Family Hall), I also applied to the University of Notre Dame, and I got in. When Bob found out I had gotten in to Notre Dame, he started a campaign to win me over and convince me that Notre Dame was where I needed to go. When I was a senior in high school, Notre Dame’s football team played the University of Alabama in the Sugar Bowl and won, claiming the National Title that year. And then a couple of weeks later Bob invited me over to his house to watch the ND/UCLA basketball game, in which Notre Dame broke UCLA’s 88 game win streak. After those two experiences, how could I not go to Notre Dame? As my senior year drew to a close I did start to waver a little bit, as all of my friends were heading off to Indiana University. That is until my dad told me, ‘you can go to college anywhere you want, but I’ll pay for it if you go to Notre Dame.’ Done deal, I was headed to Notre Dame.”

“During my high school track career, I broke a few records at my high school, but I was only third best in our conference. The Division III schools that were recruiting me were only interested in me playing football. None of them offered me any track scholarships. A school or two told me if I wanted to run track, great, but I did not get any offers specifically to run track at the collegiate level. I have no idea what made me decide to try out for the track team at Notre Dame, but when I got to ND, that is exactly what I did. I made the team as a walk-on. I was the lowest of the low on the team freshman year, but that’s how my track career began.”

“Track is pretty straight forward, whether it’s at the high school level or the college level, the fastest guy wins. In high school I faced some tough competition. Not just locally in Gary, but in Northwest Indiana as a whole. One of the guys I ran track against in Gary was the AAU National Champion heading into our senior year. Also, there were at least five guys from my area that I faced again while running track at Notre Dame, so I was exposed to some really good competition at the high school level. The biggest difference from competing at the high school level to competing at the college level for me was the height of the hurdles, which were three inches higher at the college level. Doesn’t seem like much, but it’s a pretty big difference running at them as fast as you can. I was able to adapt without too many problems because I had long legs and my hurdling was not that great at the time.”

“As a student-athlete at Notre Dame I was an accounting major in the business school. Track started in the fall, as we trained all year round, and that first semester freshman year was a real awakening for me. I got through high school without really putting in too much effort, but when I got to Notre Dame, I found out that in order to be successful both on and off the track, I was going to have to put some work into it. I studied hard as an undergraduate student, but I also had a fun social life. Those who knew me in my classes saw me as a hard-core student. Most were probably unaware I was on the track team. Those who saw me out at the bars knew me as somewhat of a partier. Those who ran track with me knew I was a good student but also knew I was almost always up for going out to a bar or a party if someone had a good scoop on an away trip. I did my best to keep those three worlds separate from each other. My daily routine at Notre Dame was to go to every class every day, practice track from 2pm until 6:30pm or so, eat dinner, and then study (Monday-Thursday) from 7pm until 11pm, and all day on Sunday. On Friday nights and Saturdays I tried to have as much fun as I could. I was pretty disciplined in each area of my life. It was a crash course in establishing and maintaining a work-life balance.”

“When I arrived at Notre Dame, my freshman year, it was also Joe Piane’s first year as a coach at Notre Dame. He went on to set the all-time record at Notre Dame for coaching longevity, retiring in 2014 after 39 seasons of coaching track. I got to watch the whole arc of his great coaching career. In 1974, he was an assistant coach, and a very young guy. He was just a bit older than some of the seniors on the team and became close friends with many of them. He was focused on the distance runners, and I was a sprinter, so he did not work much with me directly. His philosophy was to recruit a lot of middle-distance runners, as he knew those guys could be stretched to run longer distances or shorter distances in track and fill out the cross-country team. At the time, most of the sprinters and jumpers were walk-ons like me. Back then, the Notre Dame Fighting Irish Track program was not what Coach Piane built it into today, it was still in the building phase. Coach Piane brought in a local coach, Ed Kelly, to coach the sprinters. He was a former Notre Dame pole vaulter, and a teacher at a local high school. Coach Kelly was my primary coach during my years at Notre Dame.”

“Ed was personally very motivated and worked very hard to motivate us. He was constantly looking for new ways to make us better. As a whole, the sprinters and hurdlers were not very talented, but we liked track and liked being on the ND track team. Coach Kelly believed in us, and pushed us, and because of his motivation and coaching, I went from a walk-on to being ranked 17th in the world by my final season. Coach Kelly was the guy who got me there. He was intelligent, innovative and thoughtful, and he knew how to not only bring out the best in us, but also how to push us further than we ever thought we could go. During my senior season (1978), he came in to practice one day and he absolutely lit into me. He told me I was just going through the motions and that I needed to put in more effort than what I was doing. It was a shock to my system coming from such an even keeled, controlled person. From that point, I just got better and better. Everything I achieved beyond that moment my senior year, I attribute to him and his coaching. I’ve tried to express to him how much he meant to me, and I hope I’ve done a good job at that.”

Here it is … what was your favorite track memory at Notre Dame?

“During my freshman year on the track team I was the low man on the totem pole. As we neared the first indoor meet, they put up a list of who was going to represent the team at the meet. I had no expectation of making that list, and I did not. On the day they were leaving for the meet I got a call from Coach Piane saying that a mistake had been made and I had made the list. Ecstatic I headed over to the coaching offices, picked up my travel gear and boarded the bus. There I was on the bus, traveling to a meet as a member of the Notre Dame Track team and I absolutely could not believe it. The meet was at Michigan, or Michigan State, I don’t remember, and I didn’t know many of the guys who were traveling to the meet, as they were mostly the distance runners. My roommates that night were George Matteo (a pole-vaulter), Dave Betlach (long jump) and Ted Burgmeier (also a pole-vaulter and a three year starter on the football team, including a legendary performance in the first “green jersey game”), and it was such a neat bonding experience. From that weekend on we remained good friends. I ran one race and probably finished last. On the way home the team stopped at Win Schuler’s Restaurant and they treated us like celebrities, as if we were the Notre Dame Football team. Back in those days, the Notre Dame Track program was not a big deal, and track athletes did not stand out like the football players or basketball players did. Let’s just say it did not give you much cache to say you were on the Notre Dame Track team. But in that restaurant we were treated like we were special. It was a great thrill. I’ll never forget the feeling.”

“As my senior season was wrapping up in 1978 I mentioned to Coach Piane that I had been accepted to Notre Dame Law School. I commented that with my having to sit out my sophomore year with an injury, it was a shame that I could not use my last year of eligibility while in law school. My comment must have left an impression on him as he went back to his office and started digging through the NCAA rules. He came back to me, pointing to a paragraph in the new NCAA handbook and said to me, ‘Let’s put your legal brain to work. Read this paragraph and tell me what it says.’ I read the rule, which was a new rule just put in to place for the next year, and it looked like it indeed would be possible for me to use my last year of eligibility while in law school at Notre Dame. (The rule stated if you had a year of eligibility left and went to graduate school at the same school where you completed your undergraduate athletic career, that you could compete as a graduate student). I was the first Notre Dame athlete to compete (legally at least) as a graduate student. There were traditional fifth year athletes, who had delayed graduating to use their remaining year of eligibility, but I was the only graduate student at Notre Dame that year competing in college athletics. There were only a handful of us around the country competing as graduate students because the rule was brand new, (it came out late in the year), and people just weren’t aware of it yet.”

“That year, my first year of law school, I went from being pretty good at running track to truly excelling. I am sure part of it was my studying as a first year law student went way up and my partying got cut way down. That combination absolutely paid off. During that 1979 season, I set the Notre Dame record in the 110 hurdles. I held that record for 19 years. I did get to meet the hurdler who would go on to break my record (Errol Williams). Williams was also an accounting major like I was, and not only did he break my record, I was told he also graduated with a higher GPA than I did. One day I took my family to an indoor meet at ND to watch him run. He was stretching out in the infield and I walked up to him and said, ‘Hi, I’m Arnie Gough.’ He looked up at me, trying to figure out where he had heard the name before. I replied, ‘That’s my name on the wall, the record you’re trying to break.’ He laughed saying, ‘And I am going to break it!’ He didn’t break it that day, but he did the next year.”

“I graduated from law school in 1981 and headed to Chicago where I got a job with Winston & Strawn LLP, which is where I worked for 35 years. I practiced corporate law, with my focus being international lease financing. Though I worked on deals involving lease financing of all sorts of things, what I did most in my career was lease aircraft. It was fun and took me all over the world. I am also co-editor of a three volume leasing treatise that is still in publication, so I know what it’s like to get the first published copy of a book you have worked so hard on.”

“The most important thing I learned during my time at Notre Dame was how to focus and apply myself when I needed to, which ended up being a critical part of being successful as a practicing lawyer. As I’ve seen so many times (both in my own life and in the lives of those around me), if you can just push through the mental barriers your mind places on you, you can accomplish wonderful and amazing things.”

“I am now retired from Winston & Strawn, and I coach track and football at the high school level (freshmen football, and freshmen, junior varsity, and varsity track at Fenwick High School). I am inspired to show these young athletes how to push through where they currently are, in order to get them beyond the limits they have placed on themselves. I went from a walk-on to a 19-year record holder, and saw my name on the list with the best in the world. None of those accomplishments were in any of my wildest dreams, or things that I thought were within my reach. However, Coach Kelly kept pushing me and was able to get me far beyond where I thought I was able to go. Accomplishing the things that I did, that was my moment of enlightenment, and I coach today in order to spread that to the next generation of athletes. It has been a great joy for me to coach track and football. I love being around young people. They are funny, interesting and challenging. They keep me young and make me old all at the same time!”

“If I could leave a few words of wisdom with young athletes today, it would be this. I know that most student-athletes realize how much competing in their respective sports means to them, but they also need to make sure they do not sell themselves short. If you love the sport you compete in, and do not get recruited to continue competing at the collegiate level, don’t give up. Try walking on. They may have a spot for you, and they may not, but give it your best shot and try out. You just never know where life is going to take you. The one thing I learned from running track at Notre Dame is this. Once you have graduated, moved on, and have gotten a job in the real world, you cannot replicate the fun and excitement of competing at the high school or college level. I have done triathlons and run so many races over the years, but nothing compares to competing for your school with your friends. Enjoy every moment of it and give it your all.”

So … do you have a funny memory from your time at Notre Dame?

“During my senior year at Notre Dame I lived off campus with six guys. When we had our first indoor track meet of the season, I won my race, and WNDU was there filming. When I got back to the house, we watched the news to see if I had made it on TV and there I was, winning in my race. I was excited to be on TV. Three or four weeks later, I won another race at an indoor meet, and the WNDU news guys were there again filming. When I got back home, I told all my housemates we have to turn on the news because I am going to be on TV again. The sports segment came on, and they highlighted one of our pole-vaulters, and then went to commercial. I thought maybe I would be on after the commercial, but after the break, it went back to the regular broadcast. At the end of the broadcast, they put up a picture of the Dome. It was late in February and the effects of the Great Blizzard of 1978 were everywhere. They were filming the Dome from the main circle showing all of the snow still around, and then a Notre Dame student walks in front of the camera. It was one of my housemates, Pat Mannion. Pat is half-loping, half-walking, doing what can be fairly characterized as a ‘silly walk,’ and we all started laughing hysterically. Here I thought we were going to be watching me, the new TV star, and there was Pat in a bright yellow ski jacket unlike any that anyone else dared to wear at ND at the time. He said he saw the TV crew, but had no idea they had filmed him. I think that is the hardest I have ever laughed!”

I always ask people if they have any philanthropy work they would like to share, and Arnie did not disappoint. “As a lawyer, I worked for many years with Chicago Volunteer Legal Services, a group that provides free legal services to the needy in Chicago. My wife Julie (Schneeman, SMC ’79) and I are long time supporters of the ACE Program at Notre Dame, which trains teachers and places them in Catholic schools that need help. It is a fabulous program and we have supported it for a number of years, and both my son Phil and his wife Anne are graduates of the program. I have seen firsthand how the Notre Dame ACE students come into struggling Catholic schools, bringing great enthusiasm, intelligence and commitment, and make a huge impact in the communities in which they serve. Some of them stay in Catholic education for a short time, but some of them end up making it a career. During his time in the ACE program, Phil wrote grant requests and raised tens of thousands of dollars for the school where he worked. He is still in touch with many of his students (fourth, fifth and sixth graders). The ACE Program shows how a little thing can create such a huge rippling effect. Father Tim Scully, who founded the ACE Program at Notre Dame, is one of the most dynamic individuals I have ever met and inspired generations of ACE teachers to accomplish miracles.”

Arnie and his wife Julie (who was a nurse) split their time between living in the Chicago area, and spending time at their lake cabin in Minnesota. They have five children. Charlie went to Notre Dame, is a double Domer, and a Bengal Bouts Champion. Casey went to Holy Cross undergrad and received his MBA from Columbia. He was an excellent football player at Holy Cross (two-time captain and All American). Eric went to St. Thomas University in Minnesota for both undergraduate and graduate school and still lives in Saint Paul. Mary Margaret, their only daughter, went to Marquette for nursing school, and Phil, went to Holy Cross for his undergraduate degree and also played football at Holy Cross. As noted above Phil went to Notre Dame for graduate school (and the ACE Program). In addition to his day job, Phil is a regular contributor to that fine Notre Dame football blog, One Foot Down.

Cheers & GO IRISH!