Paul Olsen, Augustana men's track and cross country coach, always talks to his athletes and students about being able to “embrace the now.”
To him, every moment is precious.
In a few months, Olsen's “now” will take on a very different look.
On Tuesday, the venerable Vikings coach announced that this will be his last school year coaching the Vikings. When the team ends its run at the NCAA Division III National Track & Field Championships, Olsen will end his run with the programs.
“I don't know why now,” admitted Olsen, just a few hours before telling his team the news on Tuesday morning. “If I were to make this emotionally, I would never make it. Every team, I love. Every season, I love. Every class I teach, I love.
“There's no one reason that I can point to. … A zillion things add up. Some of them are small.”
With that decision — one he said he had been wrestling with for a year — one of the most remarkable coaching careers will close in May.
Olsen, inducted into the Quad-City Sports Hall of Fame in 2013, started at the school in 1966. When he retires, he will have been the head coach at Augustana for 102 seasons — 52 in cross country and 50 in track & field.
“Some of the reasons for this decision are ambiguous,” said Olsen, who turns 75 next year. “It makes me say, 'Is this the only thing I want to do in my life?' Probably the answer is no. It's been a great ride. Every minute of every year has been awesome. But I'm going to see what else I can ride.”
Olsen says he and his wife, Jeanne, will remain in Bettendorf.
“We're not moving. I'm a Quad-Cities guy and I love it here,” he stated.
That next ride, he says, will literally include many on his bike and boat as well as trips to California to see their four grandchildren.
It will also include work revolving around two interests in which he is especially passionate — the environment and racial justice, a topic he covers in his African American/Black Studies classes.
He also noted that he hopes to make himself available to help at local track and cross country meets “without getting in anyone's way.”
“This is my next now and I will embrace it,” Olsen said. “I'm not afraid of what I don't know.”
In the 118 seasons Olsen has coached (cross country, indoor track, outdoor track) the Vikings have finished first or second in CCIW championships in 94 of them. They have never been lower than fourth place in any CCIW competition under Olsen’s direction.
Olsen has coached 25 teams to the NCAA Division III National Cross Country Championships with 11 top 10 finishes. Augie placed second in 1980, fourth in 1979 and fifth in both 1974 and 1992. Augustana runners have earned 25 NCAA Division III All-American certificates and won three individual national titles under Olsen’s tutelage.
In track and field, the Vikings have been in the top 10 a total of 15 times outdoors and four times indoors. Twice (1975 and 1981) his teams finished second in the national outdoor meet. He has coached 22 individual national champions and one relay national titlist. A total of 240 All-American certificates have been won by Augustana athletes.
This spring, the defending CCIW champs return 10 individual champions to a deep and talented squad.
As is fitting for someone who made as big an impact on the academic side of Augustana as he did in athletics, Olsen’s athletes excelled in the classroom, too.
Of the 38 Vikings who have earned NCAA Postgraduate Scholarships, 14 have been members of the track & field/cross country teams. Augustana ranks first in the number of CoSIDA (College Sports Information Directors of America) Academic All-Americans in track & field/cross country with 44.
While those accomplishments are remarkable, the thing that may stand out most for Olsen are the relationships.
His personal stories are as varied as they are intriguing. One that stands out for him was from his early days on campus. After conducting a Black Literature class before it was added to the school's curriculum, Olsen said that one student, perceived to be a “radical” at the time, gave him a key to what on campus was known as the “Black House” and was told he was welcome there anytime.
Relationships such as that have been the norm for the man known simply as “Ols” since then.
Olsen, who is one of the senior-most faculty members, says he is planning on staying on as a part-time professor in the English department until a national search is concluded to find his successor.
His classes in African American/Black Literature and the Sacred and Profane are consistently filled. He is so well-regarded in the classroom that he has been picked by 15 senior classes to give the “Last Lecture” in the week before graduation.