News and Events
A Lasting Trail
Coaching for more than half a century, 80-year-old Richard Kampmann still manages to inspire his students.
By Katie Clary, Senior Journalism Major
Running three miles is a feat for anyone. Running three miles at 80 years old is remarkable. And coaching nearly 20 college girls to race three miles at 80 years old? Well, that takes a special person: Coach Richard Kampmann, Pepperdine’s head cross country coach.
“So he’s got a hearing aid, big deal,” says Calabasas attorney Dale Reicheneder, a Pepperdine runner who graduated in 1989. “He’s got more focus and ability to coach than other coaches I’ve seen in the” West Coast Conference and beyond.
Don’t let the wrinkles fool you. Kampmann’s perceptive blue eyes and firm handshake have greeted runners through 55 years of coaching, the last 16 at Pepperdine where he won the WCC Women’s Coach of the Year in 1999.
Just celebrating his 80th birthday, Coach “K” is still darting across campus, wrapping up the recently concluded cross country season and planning ways to improve his quiet, sometimes quirky and often demanding regimen.
“You’ve got to make it a game and make it fun,” Kampmann says. One practice he devised a run that concluded by surging from Alumni Park up the steep hill to the Theme Tower, where a surprise box of lollipops awaited his runners.
Coach K undoubtedly has his idiosyncrasies. A former men’s captain once joked that understanding instructions for workouts requires fluency in “Kampmannese.” Try translating this: “Run past the Stick Tree, up SLO hill, past Three Flags, up the Dirty Hill, around the Four Corners, to the Dog-Cat and back.”
But despite, or perhaps because of these quirks, Kampmann has a reputation for knowing his runners inside-out and for tailoring a program to their needs.
“That’s why I came to Pepperdine,” says freshman Taylor Carroll, a consistent top three finisher for the Waves women. After speaking with coaches at the University of Southern California and Santa Clara, she was won over by Kampmann.
“He’s what a coach needs to be: inclusive. He believes in every single one of his runners,” she says. Pepperdine’s cross country program doesn’t cut; compare that to when she saw the USC coach at the Stanford Invitational with only one runner, she explains.
Cross country is a non-scholarship sport at Pepperdine, a handicap in a sport where tuition-breaks attracts greater talent. However, in past years the women’s team has consistently achieved upper-division finishes at the conference championship.
“I don’t think the measure of a good coach is someone who can run a bunch of high school blue-chip athletes because they go to school for free,” Reicheneder says. He asks whether it isn’t rather someone who takes a less prepared group of runners and makes them race-ready for NCAA Division I competition.
Consequently, this year’s disappointing seventh place finish made Kampmann pause. “I learn something new every year,” he says, already planning to revise the program.
Assistant coach Roman Chavez, who trains the men’s team, notes that Kampmann walks a difficult line between keeping his athletes healthy and injury-free and making sure “everybody gets what they need out of workouts.” Next year, Kampmann says he plans to work the varsity squad separately and take competition up a notch.
Yet the season still had successes. On the bus returning from her last race of the season, freshman Lauren Carfioli reflects on her improvement. She ran her first five-kilometer time trial in 22 minutes; today she clocked a 19:51.
“He cares more about you as a person than you as a runner,” she says. But Carfioli adds that Kampmann’s encouraging coaching style “pushes you to the point where you want to run faster.” She says had someone predicted what she’d achieve in nine weeks, she wouldn’t have believed it.
People say trials lead to perseverance. With a life traversing more decades than Pepperdine’s history and his fair share of bumps along the way, cross country coach Richard Kampmann knows this endurance well.
Born in Phoenix, Arizona in 1924, Kampmann quickly recalls living through the Great Depression. When he was 10 years old, his father died of double pneumonia, and his mother, younger sister, two younger brothers and himself moved to California to seek a better living.
Kampmann calls his childhood “a blessing,” but says like a military family, they rarely stayed anywhere in Los Angeles for more than one year. His mom had to move from neighborhood to neighborhood seeking work. Likewise, Kampmann says he’s held a job for as long as he can remember.
An active youngster, “Dick” loved football first (he played through high school). Then in junior high he was introduced to the sport that would be his career, although Kampmann says his initial response was: “Track? What’s that?”
Recovering from pneumonia and weighing only 110 pounds, the young Kampmann was placed in the “corrective” or handicapped squad because he was so underweight. By high school, however, he won the conference championships in the 75-meter high hurtles with a time of 9.4 seconds, and placed third in the city championship. Kampmann kept racing through college, eventually competing in the 1949 Friendship Games (a predecessor to the Pan American Games), placing fourth in the 400 meter dash.
“I knew I had speed,” Kampmann says. “I’d race anybody, anyplace, anytime.”
After a stint in the Navy, Kampmann pursued his teaching credential at the University of California Santa Barbara, graduating in 1950 with a degree in physical education. Since junior high he’d aspired to coach, football especially, because “I thought you played all the time,” Kampmann says. Instead, his first post-college job was teaching geography and coaching gymnastics at a Los Angeles high school.
Front handsprings and cartwheels didn’t turn out to be his specialty. Coach “K” turned to coaching running sports and teaching at numerous Los Angeles schools—from Gompers Junior High to Dorsey, Gardena, Excelsior, and then University High, the final where Kampmann says for “26 years I found heaven.”
As fate would have it, Kampmann’s brother coached a rival track team, making Sunday night family dinners a little tense. His mother dreaded it, Kampmann recalls, “She didn’t know who to root for.”
University High School won 11 Los Angeles City cross country team championships and had a combined cumulative record of 1,049-223-3 (.824) under Kampmann’s direction.
Kampmann credits his wife Deb, who passed away two years ago, for much of his success. “I just had a wonderful lady who really believed in what I did and saw it made me happy,” he says.
The briefly “retired” schoolteacher came to Pepperdine to teach PE in 1988, and began coaching the cross country team during the 1989 season. Things have changed since his first season, including the work load and the number of prospective athletes interested in the program. “I used to get four letters a year [from interested runners]. Now I get over 300!”
Back in 1989, he earned $4,000 for his coaching. “If I wasn’t on teachers’ retirement, I couldn’t live,” he says. Although Kampmann’s salary has increased twice since athletic director John Watson took over in 1998, he still receives $23,000 as Pepperdine’s head cross country coach.
“But I have never worked for money,” Kampmann says. “That is why it will be so difficult to replace me when I leave.” The grandfather coach says he plans to continue coaching until he “can’t do it” anymore, or, admitting a streak of perfectionism, until he gets a negative response.
Sitting in an armchair in the modest Santa Monica apartment that he and his wife bought in 1974, Kampmann exudes contentment. “I appreciate what I have,” he says. “I feel like I’m in the lap of luxury.”
Kampmann says he’s grateful for the opportunities afforded him as a coach: “I really think I’m a teacher and teachers teach life.” The nineteen girls he trained this fall are just one batch in a lifetime of runners.
“I don’t think I could go anywhere in the U.S. and not hear, ‘Coach K!’ It’s the most pleasing thing,” he says.
This story first appeared in the Fall, 2004 Currents Magazine, a student publication.