Track legend Bob Timmons dies at 91, pushed Jim Ryun to break 4-minute mile

Bob Timmons, the hard-driving Kansas coach who helped mold Jim Ryun into one of America’s greatest and most celebrated mile runners, has died at the age of 91.

Timmons, who came to regret his sometimes unrelenting style of coaching, died Tuesday, the University of Kansas announced. A cause of death was not specified.

Timmons was the track coach at Kansas for 22 years, turning the school into one of the country’s elite programs. But it was his association as a high school coach with then-teenage Ryun that brought him lasting attention.

After a track meet in Wichita where Ryun posted a 4:21 mile, the coach told the Kansas City Star that he pulled his star athlete aside on the bus ride back to campus.

"Congratulations, Jim,'' Timmons said, "but I think you can run faster.''

"A 4:18?'' Ryun wondered.

"No, much faster, Jim,'' Timmons said. "I'm thinking national record. Not only that, I'm thinking you can do what no other high school boy has done, and that's to run under four minutes.''

The 17-year-old Ryun would blast through that barrier at what then seemed an impossible 3:55.3 minutes. The record stood for 31 years and Ryun went on to compete in three Olympics, breaking and setting records along the way.

At Kansas, Timmons led the Jayhawks to four NCAA titles and 31 conference championships. He was seen as a demanding coach whose style was probably chiseled by his years in the Marines.

"No amount of screaming was as effective a motivator as Bob Timmons putting his arm around a student's shoulder and quietly saying, 'I'm disappointed you didn't give your best effort,'" former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates recalled of his old coach in an interview with the Kansas City Star last year.

But eventually Timmons softened, and said he believed his hard-fisted coaching style was out of date.

Ryun, though, said he had no regrets about running for Timmons.

''There were those who didn't make it under the Timmons program,'' he said, ''but the larger number of us did and became not just better athletes but, more importantly, better human beings.''

After retiring from the university, Timmons gave the school his 96-acre farm outside Lawrence to use as a cross-country course. In 1998, Rim Rock Farm hosted the NCAA cross-country championship for both men and women.

Born in Joplin, Mo., in 1924, Timmons grew up in Kansas and joined the Marines, later being deployed to the South Pacific during World War II.

He is survived by his wife, Pat; three daughters; one son and two grandchildren.

steve.marble@latimes.com

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