Dale Kennedy likes to talk.
"Put in a quarter and you'll get out a dollar's worth (of conversation)," he laughs.
Such joking is typical from Kennedy, whose passion and personality have been the heart of Bobcat Track and Field for nearly three decades.
As head coach to some 80 athletes each year, Kennedy holds a job that has touched hundreds of young people since he arrived at Montana State University in 1981.
That job is not always an easy one.
"We don't get the fanfare of football and basketball," Kennedy said. "There are no bugles and no drums. We do this for the love of the sport." Both fans and financial support are less abundant than for other marquee sports.
And though the Bobcats compete as a team, performances are largely personal.
"It takes a special kid to compete in an individual sport," Kennedy said. "Our goal is to develop a strong relationship with our student athletes and coach every dimension of the athlete. We take the whole person to the contest."
For coaches, there's virtually no off-season. Kennedy coaches cross country in the fall while the other coaches are preparing for track and field. Winter brings the indoor track season; outdoor track is in spring. Recruiting occurs year-round, even in summer, when prospective MSU athletes often visit colleges throughout the West.
Then there are the hours. Instead of practicing as a whole team, track athletes meet for individual and small group sessions, which are scheduled around their classes. A coach's typical day might go from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m.
"Most people don't know how much of themselves Dale and his assistants pour into our program," said Peter Fields, MSU athletic director. "On the day of a home event, they begin setting up hours before the meet, coach their student-athletes intensively for many hours, then help tear things down at the end of the day."
"Coaching's really demanding of my time," said Kennedy. "Fortunately, I really enjoy it. But I won't say it hasn't been hard on our family. I was raising everyone else's kids and not my own." Kennedy praises Terry, his wife of 42 years and the long-time administrative backbone of MSU's Mechanical and Industrial Engineering Department, for her dedication to the couple's two children, now adults.
Kennedy's first foray into coaching was due to Terry, when they were high school sweethearts in Spokane, Wash. Terry was an elite athlete; the fastest runner in their school. But it was the 1960s, and athletic opportunities for women were practically non-existent. Terry's father enlisted Kennedy to help make a coaching plan for Terry.
"She's an absolutely terrific partner," said Kennedy.
In high school, Kennedy competed in baseball, basketball and football, but not track. He imagined becoming a high school football coach and teacher.
After graduating from Eastern Washington University, Kennedy's first job was at tiny Pe Ell (Wash.) High School (79 students), where he coached football, basketball and track. Next he coached and taught at Winlock (Wash.) H.S.; and later coached at his alma mater, Spokane's Central Valley High School. Kennedy's first collegiate position was at Spokane Community College.
Kennedy said he enjoyed the junior college, but wanted to develop student-athletes for four years rather than just two. He found that opportunity at MSU in 1981 and has been here ever since.
"Dale Kennedy has been a rock of stability for Bobcat Athletics," Fields said. "He works tremendously hard and gives his student-athletes every ounce of effort that he has. His passion for MSU is surpassed only by his passion for track and field and for the young people in his program."
Kennedy said he's not the only Bobcat coach to put in both the hours and the years. Throwers coach Mike Carignan came to MSU 28 years ago, while jumps coach Tom Eitel has been here 15. Jorah Griffith, the newest member of the staff, coaches javelin and assists Kennedy with sprints and hurdles. Their loyalty gives the program a stability that's rare in college athletics.
"(The coaches) are completely vested in the program," said Lacy (Hinzpeter) Turnquist, a Bobcat sprinter/jumper who graduated in 2000. "Dale thinks about what will help (athletes) in the long run, like a parent." Added Turnquist, who came to MSU from North Dakota, "My parents were eight hours away, and it was like having another dad."
Bobcat Track and Field has produced many well-known athletes, from Olympic silver medalist Lance Deal to two-time NCAA pole vault champion Ellie Rudy. Kennedy, himself has coached more than 200 all-conference athletes, 35 individual NCAA qualifiers and seven athletes who have earned 10 All-American honors.
The Bobcats have seen tremendous team success, as well. From 1996-2009, all of Kennedy's men's and women's cross country squads and men's and women's track have been named Academic All-American teams. MSU conference championship squads include women's cross-country in 1994 and 1995, indoor in 2001 and outdoor in 2003 and men's outdoor in 2005. The 1995 women's team finished 15th in the NCAA Division 1 Championships, and the 2002 men's cross country team finished 11th nationally. Kennedy said both finishes compare to the better-known glory of the "Sweet Sixteen" in NCAA basketball.
Kennedy is quick to share the credit with his staff as well as Fields; the MSU faculty, whom he lauds for their commitment to classroom excellence; and every MSU president under whom he has served. All, he said, set the tone for Bobcat success: "Students first, athletes second."
And Kennedy gives just as much praise to those kids who don't earn All-American honors but rather compete, graduate and give back.
"The department has a very high expectation for community service," said Kennedy. "And track and field is right at the heart of that. We have a sense of responsibility to give something back. We help [the athletes] understand you can't just be a taker."
"Coach Kennedy makes it about the athletes, not just about himself," said Lyle Weese, a volunteer coach and former Bobcat who was All-American in cross country, indoor and outdoor track. "For the entire coaching staff, it's not just about athletic development. It's about helping people be successful and developing their lives."