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University of Minnesota
University of Minnesota

A legendary figure

July 12, 2011

Roy Griak.

Roy Griak was a letterwinner in both cross country and track and field during his running days at the University of Minnesota. He earned a bachelor's degree in 1949 and added a master's in 1950.

Photo: courtesy University Athletics

Roy Griak's time at the University spans eight decades

By Rick Moore

Heading into an interview with 87-year-old Roy Griak, I knew little more than the basics: Griak was the head coach for the Gopher men’s cross country and track and field teams for more than three decades, from 1963 to 1996, and the nation’s largest annual cross country meet bears his name—the Roy Griak Invitational.

Within a couple of hours, a fuller picture of Griak emerges, complete with happy childhood memories and arresting war stories.

He still comes to the University almost every day as an administrative assistant for the track and cross country teams. And he still works out most of those days, according to office colleague Jo Rider, who has a Roy Griak bobblehead doll perched above her desk.

“When I first started working with him in 1998 he was still running the steps of the bleachers” [behind the Bierman Building] over the noon hour, Rider points out.

As tireless as he has been, one thing is even more certain: Griak lives and breathes Gopher Athletics. His main focus lately has been fundraising, and by his estimate he’s helped raise $1.5 million in scholarships for track athletes.

“I have a deep association with and feeling for the University of Minnesota,” he says. “It’s given me many opportunities and it’s given me an opportunity to give other people those opportunities. … Being involved on this campus since 1949, it’s like home—it’s a second home.”  

Roots and memories in Duluth

Griak grew up during the heart of the Great Depression on Duluth’s west side. His Morgan Park neighborhood, home to the steel mills and a concrete plant, was “a conglomeration of all types of people from the old country”—Poles, Finns, Serbs, and Slovenians among them, he says.

As kids in the ’30s, if they broke a baseball bat, they’d nail or tape it back together. They’d play basketball all winter long outside, and the modified Depression-era equipment for hockey included wooden pucks (a slice from a birch log sails nicely) and a garbage can lid for the goalie’s blocker.

“It’s a life you have to be pretty tough to endure; it’s not a fun thing,” he says of the war. “The only thing that really kept me going was that I’d eventually get back to see my family, and particularly my mother.”

They were challenging times, to say the least, and scratching out an existence for the Griaks meant producing their own food. But the recollections of his sweat equity in the garden are flavored with at least one prized memory.

His mother would get up early—4 or 5 in the morning—and make bread dough, then wake Roy to go out to the garden.

“We’d get about an hour and a half in the garden before 7 o’clock hilling potatoes or whatever we were doing. Then she would go [inside] and bake the bread and I’d continue working,” he says. “Then she’d come back with that whole loaf of bread, a jar of strawberry jam, and quart of milk. And she and I would sit down there and eat that whole loaf of hot bread and strawberry jam. That was unbelievable, you know. It’s little things like that. …”

From the hills of Duluth to the jungles of New Guinea

The innocence of Griak’s youth disappeared like the first hunk of fresh bread. Soon after graduating high school in 1942, his number was called to serve in World War II. After basic training and a quick trip back home, Griak found himself at sea for a week and a half on a converted freighter. Destination: New Guinea.

“We didn’t have any jungle training,” he says, “but that’s where they sent us.”

His first impression was of the native grasses, six to eight feet tall, with wide sharp blades that could cut you as you walked through.

He remembers not being able to see the sky, and “ant hills probably eight feet high covered with white ants—millions of them,” he says. And “in the morning you’d wake up and you couldn’t see out of your eyes from the mosquito bites.”

It was virtually impossible to stay dry, and that was even before the dysentery. “You’re crapping your pants all the time and you can’t do anything about it,” he sighs.

Griak is forthcoming with his war stories, and they’re stark and sobering. He had his share of near encounters with death, and remembers one soldier—a redhead from West Point—who arrived one day and was killed that night.

“It’s a life you have to be pretty tough to endure; it’s not a fun thing,” he says. “The only thing that really kept me going was that I’d eventually get back to see my family, and particularly my mother.”

The most beautiful sight, he adds, was when he returned to the United States and sailed under the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco.

“I looked up at that baby and said, ‘I made it,’” Griak says.

Inspired to teach, driven to coach

Griak was inspired by a teacher and coach he had in junior high, and the whole time he was in the Army, he dreamed of following in those footsteps. He went to the University of Minnesota Duluth for two years, then transferred to the Twin Cities campus, where he lettered in track and cross country and earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees.

“At the time, half the enrollment here at the University of Minnesota was GIs,” he laughs. “We were going to school with 17- and 18-year-old girls in angora sweaters. We were 23 or 24 years old, had been around the world and seen more than we should have.”

After three teaching and coaching stops—in Nicollet, Mankato, and St. Louis Park—he came back to the U in 1963. Despite 33 years of coaching the Gophers, including three Big Ten titles and dozens of All-American athletes, Griak is not one to recite accomplishments, at least in terms of numbers.

“The thing I remember most is the friendships [with athletes] that were formulated during my tenure at the University of Minnesota that have continued to this day,” he says. “It’s not how fast you ran or how high you jumped. I remember individuals for being human beings and how they handled themselves.”

Those memories, it appears, go both ways, as a number of Griak’s former athletes are in touch with him regularly, even offering to come over to his house to help with any work that needs to be done.

In addition to having the cross country meet named after him (“Not my idea,” he insists), the Athletics Department this spring honored Griak with the Frank Kara Integrity Award, named after the U’s late director of athletic compliance.

“I think Roy has, over the years, carved out a place for himself not only in track and field history but in University of Minnesota Athletics history,” says Steve Plasencia, the highly successful current track and cross country coach whom Griak recruited to the U as a runner in the early ‘70s. “His love of everything [about] the Gophers and the U of M is so deep. I think it’s unique.”

Through it all, he’s developed an ability to convey support, “snotty-nose toughness” (his term), and pass-me-the-handkerchief tenderness alternately and effortlessly in the same conversation. Perhaps that’s come with age or reflection, but one guesses he’s always had that ability, and that it’s what sets him apart as a teacher, coach, and mentor. 

Tags: Athletics

Related Links

Gopher men's track & field

Gopher men's cross country