Cross country loses a legend

May 3, 2019

Work wins.

The simple but effective philosophy was a trademark of Mick Cavanaugh, a cross country coaching icon in Porter County who died Sunday at the age of 83.

“It was one of those things where he was just easy to talk to,” Michigan City cross country coach Mike Liss said. “If you had any questions, he would say, I don’t have all the answers, but here’s what I think, if you want to use it. I had a lot of respect for Mick. He was a mentor. I can’t speak for all the coaches who knew him, but there’s a sense of loss in northwest Indiana.”

Liss’ ties with Cavanaugh date back to the early 2000s, when Liss took his first teaching job at Valparaiso High School. A 1953 Valpo grad, Cavanaugh ran track and cross country and played basketball at Western New Mexico, where he relocated after local coaching stints at Wheeler, Hebron and Portage. He later returned to the area and was an assistant on the Vikings’ boys track staff for Brett Polizotto with Liss, the two developing a friendship in the process.

“Mick was a neat guy,” Liss said. “Even though he was years older, I felt like I’d known him for a long time. I was in my early 20s at the time and he was probably in his 60s, but we’d go out for a beer and it was one of those things where age didn’t seem to matter. I had a commonality with the guy. We just sat and talked. It was a lot of fun.”

Cavanaugh laid the groundwork for Portage’s boys cross country success under Bill Wilke. The Indians won the state title in 1974, Wilke’s first year. Cavanaugh had taken over what was a non-descript program in 1968 and raised it to state recognition in a matter of five years.

“He was the primary catalyst to the Portage dynasty,” Liss said. “He got it going and the train kept rolling.”

During a stretch from 1999 to 2006, Valparaiso won five girls cross country state titles and was the runner-up the three years, and Cavanaugh was an integral behind-the-scenes force in that run of success.

“Mick understood his role as an assistant coach,” Liss said. “He stayed in the shadows. Something I remember him saying was, if you’re going to do a 50-minute run, why mess around?, just get something out of it. To win, you have to work at it. A lot of his things were quick-paced stuff. He related well with the athletes he was working with. He’d realize when you broke through your own ceiling and he’d keep pushing you, and the success you started having was phenomenal.”

A few years ago, when Liss had 800-meters standout Jacob Adames, he sought Cavanaugh, who had coached 800 national champion David Krummenacker in high school while he was in New Mexico.

“If I’d have a question, I could just look him up and call, ask him, what do you think?, and he’d lend an ear, give an opinion,” Liss said. “We’d just talk, compare philosophy. Jacob had run a 1:54 as a junior, so I asked Mick if he’d suggest anything. He would go back to asking, what are you doing?, have you ever tried morning workouts? He’d put it on your plate and if you wanted to take a bite, you could. He wasn’t guarded. There were no secrets. A lot of the coaches in the (Duneland Conference) are pretty close, they’d help anybody out, and he was right in with that.”

Cavanaugh had been through cancer treatment and was in remission for a recent period during which he served as an advisor of sorts for the Valpo girls team. After state track last spring, Liss reached out to Cavanaugh through a mutual cross country friend, Jim Arnold of Valparaiso, to see if he had any interest in helping out Liss at Michigan City, where he had an assistant’s opening. The two met for lunch and Cavanaugh expressed interest in the idea.

Unfortunately, before the season, he got back in touch with Liss to tell him he wouldn’t be able to do it as the cancer had returned.

‘Papa C,’ as he’d been called by the Valpo kids, will be missed in running circles, but his impact on the sport and his folksy way won’t be forgotten.

“It’s a reciprocity thing,” Liss said. “He helped me as a young guy and I’ll carry on the legacy by passing on the baton.”