If you get up early enough in the morning, you might see the silhouette of a dedicated man slicing the darkness in the crisp, pre-dawn air. While most Fort Collins residents are still snug in their beds at 5 a.m., Del Hessel is out biking or jogging every morning.
As the head coach of CSU’s track and field program, it is not so much a matter of choice for him, but of necessity. Between paperwork, recruiting, registering for track meets, setting aside time for athletes, practice and, of course, the meets themselves, it is the only time Hessel has to exercise. Soon, this will all change.
After spending the last 50 years immersed in the world of track and field, Hessel will retire from coaching at the conclusion of this season.
“I coach cross country, indoor and outdoor track, so there are very few weekends I’m actually home,” Hessel said. “That’s just the way track and field is – year-round. You get to a point where the travel will really wear on you.”
At 66, Hessel is as enthusiastic about the sport as he has ever been, he said he just feels now is the right time to step down.
“When I leave, I want to leave the program in a good position, and I think I’ll have done that,” Hessel said.
He will walk away from the sport having accomplished things he would have never imagined. Hessel can sum up what he has learned from a lifetime in track & field with three simple words: “Never give up.”
Hessel learned this important lesson early on in his career as an athlete. Despite winning state championships as a Colorado high school student, he was not recruited by any colleges. He could have given up and pursue something else, but quitting is just not in Hessel’s nature.
“I won state in the 400 and the 800, then I wasn’t recruited,” Hessel said, “but I kept at it and three years later I ran in the NCAA (Championships). I ran in U.S. Championships and Olympic Trials as well.”
While Hessel performed exceptionally as an athlete, his resume as a coach is even more impressive.
He has been the president of the NCAA Cross Country Association and the U.S. National Chairman for Olympic track and field development for 12 years. Hessel also took teams to Europe for 12 years in a row and was on the World Cup staff and the Great Britain Duel Meet Staff.
But before he rose to the highest levels of coaching, Hessel got his start at the bottom rung of the coaching ladder.
“My first coaching job was at a school for delinquent boys. One of the first things they told me was don’t turn your back on them, because you could get hurt,” Hessel said.
From his time as head coach of delinquent boys to his CSU coaching days, not giving up on athletes has become the norm for Hessel
“When he says never give up, it’s because he sees potential in you and he wants to get you to the next level,” said one of Hessel’s current athletes, junior Janay Deloach.
Under Hessel’s tutelage, Deloach found a place in the record book. Deloach has set the school record in the long jump, and has earned all-conference honors in both the long jump and 60-meters. Deloach said Hessel’s vast knowledge of track & field allows him to coach multiple events, and also brings a mental aspect to his coaching.
“He taught me to be mean in everything you do,” Deloach said. “Not mean like a bad sport, just be more aggressive and don’t settle for less.”
Hessel did not always have the caliber of athletes like Deloach. In his first tour of duty as coach at CSU, the track and field program was in a completely different state.
“When I started coaching here in 1970, I hate to say it, but we were probably the garbage pit of track and field,” said Hessel.
Using the same desire and dedication that made him successful as an athlete and a young coach, Hessel turned things around for CSU track and field.
“We worked really hard during the 1970s and went from never qualifying to finishing eighth in the nation with all Colorado kids,” Hessel said.
Hessel views that accomplishment as one of the most satisfying moments in his career. “Nobody really knew who we were or expected much from us,” Hessel said. “They thought we were just some agriculture school, but we walked away from that meet with some respect.”
Hessel’s passion and enthusiasm for the sport hasn’t gone unnoticed by the man who will replace him as head coach at CSU, Brian Bedard.
“He’s never content, he’s always looking to improve in every area,” Bedard said. “I’ll remember Coach Hessel’s passion for coaching and his relationship with his athletes. He generally cares about kids and wants to see them succeed.”
Athletes coached by Hessel have rarely seen anything but success. Hessel has coached more than 65 All-American athletes during his career. He’s coached several individual national champions, and has also won team conference championships.
“It’s truly exciting if you know where CSU has been and where we are today, it’s remarkable,” said Hessel. “I have so much pride in the program.”
After spending half a century pursuing his dreams in track & field, there is simply nothing left to accomplish. None of this would have happened had Hessel taken the easy road and given up when nobody recruited him.
Hessel’s favorite saying throughout his career has been: “Don’t ever allow anyone to tell you how good you can or cannot be.”
Hessel has applied this lesson that he learned as a young man to every day of his coaching career, inspiring several generations of CSU athletes to never give up.
“You don’t know what’s in somebody’s heart, so don’t judge somebody because they’re not running that fast or jumping that far,” he said. “Get the right person, get them motivated, then we’ll see who’s good.”