Staff Photo: Brandon Brigman Grayson biology teacher Rick Wood, a former cross country coach at South Gwinnett in the 90s and namesake of Saturday's Coach Wood Invitational.
Rick Wood, 52, has been an AP biology teacher at Grayson since the school opened in 2000. Wood led South Gwinnett to a cross country state championship in 1992 and Saturday's ninth annual Coach Wood Invitational is named after him.
Wood graduated from Battle Ground Academy (Tenn.) in 1977 where he won a state title in the 3,200-meter run in track and field. Wood received his bachelor's degree in biology from Furman University in 1981 and later received his master's from Emory University.
Wood was married to his wife, Michelle, this summer. He has two daughters, Allie, a junior at Georgia College and State University and Anna, who is a freshman at Georgia.
In this latest installment of "Getting to Know ... ," Wood talks to staff writer Brandon Brigman about having a road race named after him, his friendship with Mill Creek cross country coach Andy Christie and meeting Steve Prefontaine.
BB: What's it like to have a cross country road race named after you?
RW: It's a great honor. It feels good to know that some of the kids you coached got something from that experience. They remember you fondly. I don't even have to be dead. That's the question that comes up every year. It's not a memorial race or anything like that.
BB: Do you go to the race every year or have any duties?
RW: Yeah, I go. I don't get any credit for organizing it. I do help start a lot of the races each year.
BB: Are you surprised how much it has grown and the level of competition it has every year?
RW: Yeah, it started with a meet with four teams. With Andy's team, Josh Crowfoot's team, Dan Monroe's and Matt Johnson's team. I either coached them as runners or Matt worked with me as an assistant coach. They brought their teams over to Tribble (Mill Park) and they handmade four T-shirts and that was the begging of it. After that they decided to make it a bigger meet.
BB: The race is unique in that it collects canned goods, correct?
RW: We do. It was Andy's wife Katie that said we ought to do something for some cause that we should attach to the meet. I thought that was a great idea. I've had a connection with the Southeast Co-Op and so that's what we do now. We collect cans for the Gwinnett Co-Op.
BB: You coached South to a state championship in 1992. What do you remember about that year and that team?
RW: It was the coming together of a number of really talented kids. I remember that team had two kids on it I kicked off as sophomores because they were acting out. That was a good thing for them. They needed to grow up a little bit. They came back the next year and were better for it. It was a fun year for a bunch of really talented kids. You remember the state meet teams. Of course, you remember the excitement of all that. I'm pretty competitive, too, but you also really remember the teams in how they gelled and came together.
BB: Josh Crowfoot was a two-time state champion for you. Where does he rank among the county's and state's all-time greats?
RW: I think it's hard to narrow it down to one top runner. You can go to the fastest time. I would say he's in the top five of the all-time best runners that came through Georgia. He qualified for Footlocker championships, which I think is a big measuring stick for quality of runner.
BB: How much was it his athletic ability or your great coaching that led him to a state title?
RW: Oh, you usually have coaches that know about training, but it's usually about their dedication. There's a lot of talented kids out there, but very few that are willing to put the amount of time and consistent effort in to be as good as they need to be. That's one of the things in Gwinnett County, the level of coaching across the board is outstanding. You look at the schools we don't think of as top tier teams and they still have great coaches. There's just amazing coaches out there working with kids.
BB: What was Mill Creek cross country coach Andy Christie like in high school?
RW: Andy was really determined and really dedicated. He was captain of the team and was one of the few captains I've had that he took how the team performed as seriously as I did. After the meet, he would come to me and say 'What happened?, Why didn't we do as well?, What can we do to get so-and-so to run better?' and that's what real captains are supposed to do, feel that accountability for how the team performs. I've had a few runners that always have questions. He was one of those runners that was always asking questions, trying to figure out how he can get better.
BB: What kind of honor was it for Andy to ask you to be in his wedding?
RW: Oh, that was a great honor. I've just developed good relationships with these kids. I feel I've been fortunate. There have been nice kids I've coached and he's just one of the really nice kids. He was interested in doing well and doing the right things as well. We just became close over time.BB: You stopped coaching to spend more time with your daughters. Was that tough to do?
RW: Well, yes and no. I missed that kind of competitiveness, but I was frustrated I was missing their sports. I was missing their competitions on Saturday mornings. I kind of decided to do that, but then I ended up coaching their soccer teams. I traded in one coaching hat for another coaching hat. I really just enjoyed seeing them growing up.
BB: I hear you like still like to run and do triathlons.
RW: I do some. I like to do all the exercising I can. I can't do as much as I used to.
BB: What's been your favorite race?
RW: I did a triathlon with my wife a few years ago and that was real fun. Doing a triathlon with your wife is pretty cool.
BB: Is it hard to wrap your mind around riding a bike for 100 miles and then to run a marathon?
RW: Oh no, this isn't an Ironman. This is Olympic distance. Mile swim, 10K and then a 24-mile bike ride.
BB: Oh, that's nothing, right?
RW: (laughs) It all feels like something.
BB: What kind of runner were you in high school?
RW: I was pretty competitive. I was a state champion in track. I think my best time for two miles was 9:19, so it's not as good as some of those really top guys.
BB: Did you get into running because of the whole Steve Prefontaine phenomenon?
RW: I was already running before Prefontaine, but he was during my time. I saw him run his senior year at the NCAA Championships in Knoxville. I got his autograph and my mom threw my guide away when she was cleaning out my desk.
BB: You went to seminary school and are a reverend. What made you take a different path and pursue coaching and teaching?
RW: Yeah, right out of college I went to theology school. When I first started teaching, I wasn't sure if that's what I wanted to do full time. Once I got into teaching, I decided I could have a bigger impact than I could in other places and I enjoy it. I enjoy teaching things to people. I enjoy coaching. I miss that part, but teaching in the class room is kind of like coaching in a way. You're trying to motivate kids, trying to get them to do their best. I do miss the competition.
BB: What was your first car?
RW: My first car was a '65 Mustang.
BB: Do you still have it?
RW: I wrecked it. (laughs)
BB: Were you racing?
RW: No, it's kind of an inglorious things. They were re-paving the road and there was no sign and I dropped a tire off and it was such a big drop off that when I tried to correct it I over steered and started swerving back and fourth. There was a car coming, so I went in a ditch and hit some concrete and that was then end of the car.
BB: Any chance we could ever see you coaching cross country again?
RW: (long pause) I don't see right now. I really like to teach as well. Right now seems like the time to focus on some of the academic goals I have. It seems like my time for coaching has passed. I still like to follow my runners who are coaching. I can do it vicariously that way.