Sure, Al Buehler is remembered for a lot of important moments in athletic history – among them leveraging groundbreaking Title IX legislation to push Duke University to institute a women’s track program in the late 1970s.
But let’s take a moment to remember a particular woman – a girl, really, who first pushed him. Without her, it could be argued that he might not have enjoyed his own career as a standout runner, might not have spent 60 years on the faculty at Duke – the longest tenure of a professor at the university – or coached so many medal-winning athletes at the Olympic Games.
“I’ll always remember Frances Caves,” says the 85-year-old coaching icon from the living room of the cozy Forest at Duke home he shares with his wife of 57 years, Delaina, 82. Sitting in his favorite easy chair, he closes his eyes and lets his lean body drift across the decades of memory to the fields of Woodlawn Way Junior High in Hagerstown, Md.
“She’s the only one who could beat me,” Al adds, winking back to present day with a mischievous grin. “It was embarrassing, but not because she was a girl. It’s because it was a relay. A relay!”
A skinny kid, Al routinely beat every other student in his weight class, and those who were much bigger, until Frances blew past him. “I thought I knew all of Al’s stories, but that one’s new to me,” chuckles Delaina. “It’s funny to think he wound up doing so much to help women runners succeed.”
Al proved to be a phenomenal athlete, playing every sport as the seasons progressed. He was recruited to run for the University of Maryland at College Park by legendary Coach Jim Kehoe. He excelled there, too, staying on for a semester after graduation as an assistant coach.
In 1955, Al was hired by Eddie Cameron to coach the Duke men’s cross-country team; in 1964, he was named head coach of track and field, a position he held through 2000. He trained athletes here and abroad, quietly gaining attention for promoting civil rights at a time when African-American runners were still expected to take their meals without complaint at the back door of restaurants.
In 1968, he was the only one willing to step up and help John Carlos and Tommie Smith leave the Olympic Village in Mexico City. The men, who had won gold and bronze medals in the 200-meter event, were ejected after famously raising black-gloved fists during the playing of “The Star-Spangled Banner” to bring attention to apartheid and other civil rights concerns.
“It had to be done; I just happened to be there,” says Al, who was there as a color commentator for WTVD. “The whole world was down on them. Saw them as bad characters. But I knew them.”
Al made his mark off the track at Duke, too. His “History and Issues of American Sport” seminar was so popular – and continued to be through this spring, 15 years after he retired from coaching – that students routinely signed up for the waitlist, hoping someone would have to withdraw.
In 1977, his routine was interrupted by junior Ellison Goodall. An accomplished high school swimmer, Ellison dreamed of following her father’s path as a college runner. Problem was, the Duke junior picked a school without a women’s team.
Five years after the passage of Title IX, Al didn’t see anything extraordinary about giving her a chance to show him how she could handle the running track at Wallace Wade Stadium. “She was a natural,” he recalls of the woman still hailed as one of Duke’s best female athletes. “She wanted to come and run with me. I could see no reason she shouldn’t.”
Now Ellison Goodall Bishop, she recalls that her father encouraged her to approach the coach; he was confident that his introvert daughter’s love for solitary running would bloom under his guidance.
“Al understood me instantly,” says Ellison, who lives near Charlottesville, Va., “He could see the athlete in me but understood the person within. His insight into the athletic mindset is what sets him apart. It’s why Al’s success is legendary. All athletes deserve support and recognition, and Al has fought tirelessly on all of our behalf.”
Al, who was then serving as the chair of the NCAA Track and Field Rules Committee, recalls the uphill battle of persuading Duke that it needed to create a women’s team – not just to accommodate this one promising athlete but to meet the standards required by Title IX, which guaranteed women equal access to sports offered to men. It became especially contentious when it came to deciding which established men’s sports would lose scholarship money to create opportunities for women athletes. In the end, he cut his own budget to ensure that women got their due.
With his guidance, Ellison’s record-setting accomplishments soon drew worldwide attention to Duke’s new program. While sore knees forced her to give up running and switch to walking years ago, she finds herself continually reminded of his advice, finding ways to apply it to her life off the track.
“I caught myself telling a Coach Al story just the other day,” says Ellison, whose daughter, Elizabeth “Liza” Bishop Janssen, graduated from Duke in 2007. “The message was about digging deep to find that extra bit when you don’t think you have it. I have carried the wisdom of his guidance forward every day of my life.”
In addition to coaching runners at Duke, Al represented U.S. sports on the international stage. Among the athletes he mentored was three-time Olympic gold medalist Jackie Joyner-Kersee.
“I’ve always been proud of Al supporting women,” says Delaina, recalling that he, in turn, was proud of her for participating in Equal Rights Amendment rallies held at the State Legislative building in 1982. “There were plenty of men who didn’t support that, but Al always did. He saw me as a person, not a woman. He treated all women that way.”
The Story Continues…
In spring 2000, Al met another dynamic female, Amy Unell, one of those students who managed to get off the waitlist and into his class. She was not an athlete but had heard the course was interesting. She soon found the instructor even more compelling.
“It was in Coach’s class that I developed a deeper understanding of sports and history and an appreciation for how he inspired and sparked social change on and off the track,” says Amy, a 2003 grad who is the arts entrepreneurship liaison at Duke’s Innovation & Entrepreneurship Program. She also runs StoryTales Productions, a multimedia company that focuses on telling stories that inspire, motivate and educate.
A decade later, the enduring impact of Al’s extraordinary leadership skills led Amy to produce her first documentary film, “Starting at the Finish Line: The Coach Buehler Story.” Narrated by Duke basketball great Grant Hill, who served as one of the project’s key producers and funders, it can be downloaded from iTunes. The film premiered in 2011 at the Phoenix Film Festival and was played at the 2012 Olympic Games in London. It later inspired a book filled with Al’s coaching advice, which Amy co-wrote with her mother, author and parent educator Barbara C. Unell.
While Amy and Delaina cheer him on, Al doesn’t move as fast these days. A benign, inoperable brain tumor has slowed him down, affecting his balance and distracting him when sharing detailed recollections of athletes who ran into the pages of history decades ago. The acoustic neuroma has left him deaf in his left ear, but he sometimes plays that to his advantage, pretending to not hear when they playfully tease him.
Al is modest but pleased to have helped so many athletes, men and women, achieve success. Today, however, no athlete interests him more than a multi-sport player with a blond ponytail and a similar wide grin.
“This is my granddaughter, Julia,” he says, showing off a still-crisp, two-year-old newspaper with a large color photo and story about how the rising sophomore at Appalachian State led her high school basketball team to triumph. It sits next to a snapshot of a younger Julia learning to ride a bike. “Let me tell you,” he says, tapping the newsprint for emphasis, “she’s the best athlete in the family. Way better than I ever was.”