It was 1986 when Ivan Huff first heard his former high school was looking for a part-time running coach.
Back then, Huff was trying to make his mark as a professional runner coming off a successful college career at Cal Poly, where he was a three-time Division II All-American. Two years before, he finished in fifth place in the steeplechase at the 1984 U.S. Olympic Trials.
But professional running wasn’t paying all the bills, so he gave coaching at Paso Robles High School a shot.
“They needed a coach, and I said, ‘I think I can do this.’ It wasn’t as easy as I thought,” Huff said with a smile Thursday.
It was never the plan to become a coach, he said. But as his running career wound down, he poured himself into the cross country and track programs at the school where he held the mile and 2-mile records and was named Athlete of the Year in 1977.
Now, 31 years later, Huff is the school’s longest serving coach and the head of one of the most successful running programs in the area.
The boys cross country team has won five straight SLO County Championship titles and four-straight titles in a league filled with strong programs like SLO High and Arroyo Grande. On Saturday, when the team heads to Riverside for the CIF-Southern Section Prelims, they will be competing as the No. 5-ranked team in Division 2, the highest division in the school’s history.
It probably wouldn’t have happened without Huff.
“Huff is the crown jewel of athletics at Paso Robles,” said cross country coach Jon-Paul Ewing, who shares duties with Huff.
Unmatched Work Ethic
San Luis Obispo High School coach Steve Boaz and runner Avery Blackwell were at the school getting ready the CIF Finals in 1996 when Huff came walking onto the track.
“What are you doing here?” Boaz asked.
“I thought you might be doing a workout today,” Huff said. “You mind if I jump in?”
Huff laced up and ran alongside Blackwell. When the workout was over and Huff went home, Blackwell turned to Boaz.
“Who is that?” Blackwell asked.
Boaz, a successful SLO High cross country and track and field coach for nearly 30 years in his own right, couldn’t help but laugh as he told the story Wednesday. He’s not the only one with tales of Huff’s work ethic.
“Everybody respects him as a runner, and he has accomplished a lot himself,” Boaz said of Huff. “I think his athletes kind of look at him and say, ‘He came out of Paso High, we can do this too.’ He understands the Paso mentality, and he works really well with that group.”
Ewing sees it every day, whether Huff is sweeping water from the track after a storm or up on a ladder fixing whatever needs to be fixed.
“Huff brings a level of commitment that is unseen,” said Ewing, who ran for Huff at Paso Robles in the 90s. “Everybody knows, if it’s pouring rain or Huff has the flu, he’s still there. He literally lives and breathes the sport.”
Huff is more connected to his team than ever. As the Paso Robles boys team logged 6.7 miles Thursday, Huff was running right by their side.
In the past few years, he’s helped the program reach a new level of success. In 2015, both the boys and the girls cross country teams competed in the state meet. And five runners — Trad Berti, Luis Armendariz, Annie Meeder, Ashley Davis and Zach Chamberlain — have recently gone on to run at Division I colleges.
“Success breeds success,” Huff said. “We have always had a couple of kids who have been a part of those good teams. It makes things easier when you have been through the pressure. They bring the newer ones along.”
Senior Ian Young describes Huff’s coaching like a magic trick.
“We show up (after running 500 miles during our summer program), and we have the endurance and he just pulls the speed out of thin air. It’s really cool,” Young said. “He cares for the team and the individual even more. He gets to know everyone on a personal level.”
Huff has adapted with technology, too, using GPS apps to track each runner’s progress throughout the year.
“Before, I had to run with them,” Huff said. “Everyone had different abilities, so I had to choose, and I usually chose the top guys. That told me how their run was going. Now everybody has a smart watch. It tracks the run, every mile, pace. I can monitor everybody now; I don’t have to be with them.”
With all the recent success, Paso Robles cross country has moved up to Division 2 and faces a tough road to the CIF State Finals. The girls squad will attempt to become the first Bearcats team to qualify for the Section Finals in Division 2 next weekend. The boys team, led by junior county champion Pablo Cortes and sophomore Damian Gavilan, should make the Section Finals race next weekend and has an outside shot at qualifying for the state meet — something that’s never been done in school history.
They will need to place in the top 26 this weekend and top 7 next weekend to accomplish that.
“Everything is clicking,” Huff said of the boys team. “Workouts look good, everybody is healthy, but it is extremely competitive.”
Huff knows making history won’t be easy, but he will be right there with the team in Riverside, just as he has been for so many years, running around the course and calling out splits.
“He really helps us and gives us advice on how to run,” Cortes said. “He’s a very experienced runner, and its just a blessing to have him.”