Longtime Villanova track coach dies

Posted: July 20, 2007

Jack Pyrah, 88, the dapper Philadelphian who coached 17 Olympians as a longtime Villanova track and cross-country coach, died yesterday at his Gloucester City home.

Mr. Pyrah was the top aide to Jumbo Elliott, the Wildcats' legendary track and field coach, for 26 years. When Elliott died suddenly in 1981, Mr. Pyrah filled in until a new head coach, Charlie Jenkins, was hired.

He also served 27 years as the school's cross-country coach, and his teams captured four NCAA championships from 1966 to 1970.

He was instrumental in developing the stable of Wildcats track stars whose accomplishments made Elliott perhaps the most influential distance-running coach in history. Among them were Eamonn Coughlin, Sydnee Maree, Marty Liquori and Marcus O'Sullivan, now Villanova's track coach.

"Jack was a great example to the athletes on the Villanova team," O'Sullivan said. "He was a huge inspiration to me as both a runner and a coach. His loyalty and dedication to Villanova were unmatched. Jack had a huge impact on so many Villanovans throughout the years, and we will truly miss not having Jack's presence around the Villanova track and field program."

Mr. Pyrah attended his first Penn Relays as a 16-year-old in 1934. He fell in love with track and field and was present for the next 73 relay carnivals in West Philadelphia.

Asked once to cite his favorite Penn Relays memory, Mr. Pyrah pointed to the Wildcats' 4x400-meter victory in 1968, when Larry James, who would be the silver and gold medalist at the Olympics a few months later, ran a 43-second anchor lap.

"Pyrah has the mind of a computer when it comes to track," Elliott once said of his friend and assistant. "He's so nice, so understanding, that some of the runners call him 'Mother Pyrah.' "

A 1937 Germantown High graduate, Mr. Pyrah began coaching track at Philadelphia's Shanahan Catholic Club in 1942. He joined Elliott's staff in 1966. The two men had met the year before while flying to an Ohio track meet.

Mr. Pyrah was inducted into Villanova's Wall of Fame in 2001. The university has named an annual track meet in his honor.

The Jack Pyrah Invitational, the traditional kickoff to the local indoor season, is held the first week of December at Villanova.

Funeral arrangements were pending.

Contact staff writer Frank Fitzpatrick at 215-854-5068 or ffitzpatrick@phillynews.com.

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