Leo Long, the legendary Los Altos High School track and field coach for whom the school’s track is named, died March 9 after a short illness. Mr. Long, a resident of Lincoln, was 88.
Known as a supreme motivator, Coach Long led Los Altos High to 15 state titles, two Central Coast Section championships and a 1970 state championship while serving at the school from 1956 to 1963 and again from 1969 to 1981.
His students admired him for his fair-mindedness – the coach cared equally for benchwarmers and star athletes. The relationships forged with some students lasted lifetimes.
Coach Long, who grew up in Nyssa, Ore., was a track star himself in high school and at Stanford University, where he earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees. He was the individual javelin champion at the 1954 NCAA Men’s Outdoor Track and Field Championship and is a member of the Stanford Athletics Hall of Fame.
In 2008, Los Altos High renamed its track in his honor.
Fred Behrmann, a former member of one of Coach Long’s track teams, talked with him the night before his passing.
Behrmann, now a high school track coach himself, told Coach Long he was implementing Long’s ideas with his team. The always-positive Long said he was proud of him.
“(Among) all the things Coach taught me was that no matter what I did, who I became, he loved me,” Behrmann said. “I hope I can pass that along.”
The beloved coach had a way of “psyching” up his athletes “to run through the proverbial brick wall,” as Behrmann put it.
The humble coach told his athletes to let their performances speak for themselves.
His dual meet record of 128 wins and 3 losses is a case in point.
“In my mind, his greatest trait was that he genuinely loved every student at the school, even if you just had him for driver’s ed,” Behrmann said. “It didn’t matter who you were – one of his varsity stars or a new, scared freshman – he truly cared about you.”
Behrmann also praised Coach Long’s ability to motivate students.
“He could look deep within a kid’s soul and see how great that kid could be, and then he set about working you out and helping you believe that you could go higher, farther or faster than you even thought you could. He was a master motivator,” Behrmann recalled. “He could motivate you to go above and beyond what you thought was possible. … He was so confident in you that his confidence transferred back to you and your performance always got better. And he always gave you the credit.”
‘He gave us belief’
Former track team member David Kaye said Coach Long “didn’t inspire, encourage, cajole, manipulate. He gave us belief.”
Kaye reminisced about a 1979 meet against a tough Gunn High School team. Coach Long said of the Gunn athletes, “They put their pants on one leg at a time, too.” Los Altos High athletes put on “epic” performances, leaving the Gunn coach “shell-shocked,” according to Kaye.
“They really thought they had you,” Kaye recalled Coach Long telling his team afterward.
The overarching lesson learned from the coach, Kaye said: “If you put your mind to it, it can be done.”
Kaye recounted another inspiring story of a former team member on the front line in the Vietnam War.
“The kid recalled coach’s exhortation to get up if you’ve fallen,” Kaye said. “Kid went to Vietnam, was wounded or down in the mud under heavy fire, and was ready to give up. Coach’s voice in his head yelled at him, ‘Get up!’ He did, and that saved his life.”
“Greatest father and coach ever,” wrote his son Brian. “He had a passion for building up others and competing at all levels, from track and field to Scrabble to putting contests at his home, where he consistently showed us how to putt a ball to a chair leg. He was one of the greatest storytellers ever, and also a kind and understanding grandpa and great-grandpa.”
Coach Long’s survivors include wife Nancy and son Brian.
A private graveside service is scheduled Sunday. Plans for a public memorial are pending.