Golden anniversary for Ryan's Ulmer

Ed Ulmer, coach of the boys' and girls' teams at Ryan, officiates during a recent meet.
Ed Ulmer, coach of the boys' and girls' teams at Ryan, officiates during a recent meet. (LOU RABITO / Staff)
Posted: April 13, 2014

To last as a coach for a half-century, you have to learn to adapt.

For Ed Ulmer, in his 50th year of coaching track and field and cross-country in the Catholic League, one of those times came way back in 1980.

Ulmer had headed the Archbishop Ryan boys' program since the school opened in 1966, and 14 years later he was asked to take over the four-year-old girls' team. Ulmer had never coached girls. He assumed he would coach them the same way he had coached the boys.

Then came the first bus ride to Belmont Plateau for a cross-country meet. On the bus, Ulmer found decorations and singing, chanting girls. They didn't have that same vitality on the course. The first Ryan finisher came in about 60th place. Ulmer was livid.

"Girls, this stuff has to stop," he yelled at them. "No more cheering. I need you to focus on what you're doing and stop that cheering on the way out, and that's it."

The girls cried.

"I didn't know what to do, so I walked off the bus," Ulmer recalled. "I told my wife, 'What am I going to do? They cried.' She said, 'Well, you're mean. You shouldn't have yelled at them. They're girls.' I said, 'But they have to learn what to do.' "

They learned, all right, going on to finish third outdoors in the Catholic League that school year. And so did Ulmer, who ended up apologizing to the girls for yelling.

Now, he says, the girls have grown accustomed to him. They've had a lot of time, after all.

After 34 years of coaching the girls, and 50 years of coaching boys, Ulmer still is going strong at age 71, still coaching six teams each school year - six teams! - both genders in cross-country, indoor track, and outdoor track.

Ulmer has the longest tenure of any head track coach in the Catholic League. And he has no definitive plans to stop.

"What I hope to do is coach two more years, which would be 50 years at Ryan," Ulmer said. "And then - I won't say retire; I'll say reevaluate, probably retire - because I'll be at that point going on 74 years old.

"My problem is that I run, I feel good, I do yoga with my wife [Mary Ann] on Friday, so I'm afraid, kind of - what about retiring? And then I hear people fall apart. You know what I mean?

"I feel good. And I love being with the kids, and I think I help them a lot - not just in coaching but in their life. That's what I do. . . . So at what point do you retire?"

Ulmer, who lives in Feasterville and retired from teaching four years ago, competed in track and cross-country for Cardinal Dougherty, ran on scholarship for St. Joseph's University, and returned to Dougherty as an algebra teacher and assistant coach in 1964.

He was still at Dougherty when Ryan was opening in 1966 and new athletic director John Quinn asked if he could help launch a cross-country and track program there. Ulmer ended up being both the head coach of Ryan and assistant at Dougherty that school year.

The next year, he got a job teaching history, his preference, at Ryan and abandoned the dual-coaching role.

Since then, Ulmer has won 29 Catholic League titles. He has won three state indoor titles with the boys and guided two boys' distance medley relays to national championships, in 1976 and 2008.

"I am proud to say I'm one of his proteges," said Mike Meistering, a 1979 Archbishop Ryan graduate and the head coach at Holy Ghost Prep, who was on the Raiders' cross-country team that compiled a 108-meet winning streak.

"Part of the reason I went into teaching and coaching is because of the example he set."

The next Catholic League track coach in seniority, Ulmer said, is St. Joseph's Prep's Curt Cockenberg, who has helmed the Hawks since 1975. Cockenberg joked that Ulmer was coaching while Cockenberg was still running for the Prep. It's true.

"He's very knowledgeable of events," Cockenberg said. "He lives and breathes the Philadelphia Catholic League."

A lot, obviously, has changed over the years. Back in the 1970s, Ulmer recalled, Ryan had 2,500 boys and 2,500 girls and he had to compete with only the baseball team for male athletes in the spring.

Today, he said, the school population is about 1,300, and he has to vie for talent with baseball, lacrosse, rugby, and sports such as soccer and basketball that go year-round more than they once did.

Ulmer has become more tolerant because of that. He recalled when one of his top sprinters, also a top football player, had to miss a meet recently because he had been invited to a special football camp.

"In the past, I would have cut him," Ulmer said. "Back in the day, I would have said, 'You know what, we don't need you,' because I had 80, 90 kids, tons of kids.

"But nowadays you have [only] so many, and you've got to understand: Football is his main sport; he's going to get a scholarship for football. So I put up with things that I wouldn't have put up with years ago."

Ulmer will experience a hat trick of golden achievements this year. In addition to his 50 years of coaching, he will celebrate the 50th anniversary of his graduation from St. Joe's and, in June, the 50th anniversary of his marriage to Mary Ann.

The 71-year-old isn't slowing down on the road to those jubilees. Well, not much. He still runs three miles many mornings, and he still competes in 5-kilometer races, doing one as recently as January, although he might quibble with the word competes.

"I run like 13 minutes a mile," he said. "I beat people, but I feel bad for the people I beat. It's like, come on."


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