Legends cast long shadows. Just ask Jim Dilling and Loren Ahonen, who were hired last summer as head coaches of the Minnesota State Mankato men’s track and field and cross country teams, respectively. A conversation about legendary Maverick coaches will always include mention of their predecessor: 34-year Maverick head coach Mark Schuck.
Schuck took the helm of the men’s cross country team in 1979, won nine North Central Conference cross country titles and was a nine-time league Cross Country Coach of the Year. He also led the Mavericks to their first-ever NCAA Division II cross country title in 1988.
Schuck coached four national individual champions during his 15 years as head coach of the men’s track and field team (including a four-time high jump champion and NCAA indoor record holder by the name of Jim Dilling). Schuck was named league Outdoor Coach of the Year four times and Regional Indoor Coach of the Year three times. His 1989 Maverick indoor track and field team finished second in the nation.
So legendary was Schuck that it took two men to replace him.
One is Ahonen. The Michigan-native was hired to serve as the men’s cross country coach and assistant track and field coach after working with the distance runners as an assistant coach at Western State in Colorado.
As a student-athlete at Western State, Ahonen amassed seven All-American honors, including two in cross country and five in track and field. Ahonen also takes academics seriously: He graduated Summa Cum Laude in 2011 and was the first student-athlete in Western State history to earn a pair of Capital One Academic All-American honors. He was also a seven-time NCAA Division II Academic All-American. His commitment to academic responsibility extends into coaching as well, which impacts his recruiting strategy.
“I’m looking for guys who see the balance in their lives,” Ahonen says. “They’re passionate about track and field and cross country. They want to improve their running, but they know that for them this is the means to a greater end. They’re here to do great in school and use their experience in athletics to help them be more successful in whatever career they will be moving into.”
The other is Dilling, a Wisconsin native hired to serve as the head coach of the men’s track and field team. As a Maverick student-athlete, Dilling racked up four national championships in the high jump and was a six-time All-American in the event (including both indoor and outdoor). At the 2006 NCAA Division II Indoor Championships, he set the NCAA Division II high jump meet record at 7 feet, 6.5 inches.
After graduating, Dilling was the 2007 USA Track & Field High Jump Champion and represented Team USA at the IAAF World Track & Field Championships in Osaka, Japan, where he finished 16th in qualifying. He finished 2007 ranked fourth in the United States and 19th in the world.
Dilling also spent two years as an assistant on Schuck’s staff before taking the helm last summer. He is eager to extend the tradition he learned by being so close to the program.
“Coach Schuck had a 35-plus year presence within the program and will always be someone who I look up to as well as look for as a resource moving forward,” Dilling says. “The biggest challenge, not seen by those outside of the program, is being able to give current and future student-athletes of the track and field team the same amazing experiences that have been given to each and every one of us who are alumni of the program. Not a day goes by that I am not thankful for the educational and athletic experiences provided to me by this great institution, and being able to deliver that to my athletes is the true challenge that I face in my new position.”
Certainly, leading a collegiate athletic team is never easy work. But for now, Dilling and Ahonen are finding that in a legend’s shadow isn’t a bad place to start a young career. Not for these guys. And not for these programs, built by Schuck to be handed over seamlessly to young coaches just like them—two young men equipped to breathe youthful energy into tradition.
“I give credit to Minnesota State Mankato and the hiring committee for being able to conduct two completely separate searches and realize the potential for compatibility amongst future staff members,” Dilling says. “We are in this together and not only utilize each other as a resource, but others within the sport who we know and trust. What makes our chemistry meld together is that we both believe that we provide one main thing to all student-athletes: opportunity.”