By Jason Haddix
Three steps past the finish line.
It’s just a group of words to most, but to those who Jim Tate has coached at Mobile (Alabama) St. Paul’s Episcopal School, it is a symbol of the expectations he has for his track team members – finish strong.
“It is a competitive hint that everybody is sprinting to the end of any race,” Tate said. “We try to remind kids that the fastest three steps of their race need to be the steps at the end of the finish line.”
Finishing strong and posing with champions is something Tate has become accustomed to. But, before a finish can occur, there has to be a starting point – with a clear goal set.
Since Tate, a member of the 2013 National High School Hall of Fame induction class, began coaching in 1972, he has started each season with state title aspirations for each of the six teams he leads
(boys and girls indoor and outdoor track along with both cross country squads). Tate has become highly successful at reaching that championship goal — 89 times to be exact.
With that number of Alabama High School Athletic Association (AHSAA) titles, it is doubtful that any coach in the United States has hoisted a state championship trophy as many times as Tate has.
With his 2013 enshrinement, he adorns the walls of three halls of fame, joining the Mobile Sports Hall of Fame and the AHSAA Hall of Fame. Tate said being inducted into any hall of fame is a compliment but, quickly added that he is just one person and his success is largely due to an enormous supporting cast.
“It is the people that are around you that make it possible,” he said. It’s the kids you worked with, like Neal Tisher for example, it’s the parents, it’s the school administration, it’s the whole community that has been behind you and supported you. We have a great coaching staff of people who have been with me through the years. It’s and honor for all of them and it just happens to have my name on it. I’m honored beyond words.”
People have come and gone from the St. Paul’s track program, but one thing that has been a constant has been Tate.
Tisher, one of his former track stars, said she believes it’s his ability to find talent in just about any athlete that sets Tate apart. She added when he sees other St. Paul’s athletes he will, in his mind, place them in a track event. If Tate felt they could help the team he went out and “recruited” them by selling them on the idea that running track could be a part of the athletes’ “off season” conditioning program.
The idea of that style of conditioning program and eye for talent developed prior to Tate landing at St. Paul’s, when he coached football and basketball at Greenville (South Carolina) Christ Church Episcopal School. He said his early involvement with track was a result of seeing kids who were not interested in football, baseball or basketball as well as he was looking for an off-season program for the athletes he coached in other sports to follow.
Once Tate’s teams are assembled, he places the athletes in the events they can succeed in and provide the team with the highest point totals.
“He used me in five events because he saw points out of each one,” Tisher said. “He thinks things through and is very organized.”
Tisher, a redshirt senior at the University of Mississippi, once held several AHSAA state records. She is the record holder in the indoor pole vault for the Rebels, and credits a lot of her success to being part of the St. Paul’s track program under Tate’s leadership.
“I did not have a hard transition going into college athletics,” Tisher said. “I was so thankful to have a coach to push me as much as I needed to be pushed. He definitely prepared me.”
Much of Tate’s philosophy on leadership came from his years in a military prep school and The Citadel, the Military College of South Carolina, along with serving five years in the Army. He said that his time serving the country helped him immensely in becoming the coach he is today.
“Discipline and military were a huge part of my upbringing and my experience,” Tate said. “The leadership, the relationship with kids and setting an example went hand and hand with what I was trying to do as a coach.”
What he has done as a coach has paid off for him and his student-athletes. He was honored when St. Paul’s named the track building, the Jim Tate Track and Cross Country Field House. The building was erected on the south side of the football field which is surrounded by the track that has been home to so many champions.
“It is a huge compliment and I was flattered they saw fit to put my name on it,” Tate said. “It is a home for us. Up until that point (of building the field house), the kids were changing clothes in the trunks of their cars.”
For Tate, the Saints are more than track or cross country teams filled with student-athletes, they are an extension of him and are part of his family. Part of his coaching philosophy is to cultivate a family atmosphere and he said that is a reason why he does not separate them in a boys and girls team when he talks about them. They all are part of the track team — and his grandchildren.
“I have sort of joked to people and said, ‘If the good Lord saw fit that I would not have my own grandchildren then I’ll just take these youngsters that I work with almost year-round and just adopt them for the five or six years that I am privileged to have them.’”
About the Author: Jason Haddix was a 2013 spring/summer intern in the NFHS Publications/Communications Department. He is a senior at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis studying journalism and medical imaging.