Fledgling to Dynasty, Jorgensen Still at the Helm

By Beacon Staff

Paul Jorgensen didn’t write the book on cross country success. He just wrote one of them. It’s not huge and it’s not for sale – it’s for his kids.

For the past decade Jorgensen, the Flathead High School cross country coaching legend, has distributed a book to his runners for them to log their progress. Also within its pages are tidbits on proper training techniques and helpful running hints.

Runners would do well to take the advice to heart – Jorgensen has plenty of wisdom to dispense. In his 37 years as head coach, he has won 24 state championships – 13 for girls and 11 for boys – and produced several of the biggest names in Montana cross country history, including 2002 national champion Zoe Nelson. Several of his teams have been ranked highly at the national level.

Among his many accolades, Jorgensen has been named the Montana Coaches Association cross country coach of the year 25 times, is a member of the National Coaches Hall of Fame and was selected as the national cross country coach of the year in 2008. Only Cut Bank’s Mike Reynolds, at 45 years, has been a cross country head coach in Montana for longer than Jorgensen.

It’s a pretty good resume for somebody who didn’t run long distance in college or high school and had little clue what he was doing when he took over the boys program in 1972. At that time, the team was about a decade old and not a powerhouse by any standards. He took over the girls team in 1979 and today he also coaches the long distance events in track.

The motivation for Jorgensen to begin coaching, at its heart, was simple: He had developed a love of running in his personal life and hoped to pass that on the kids. His first challenge was to figure out what this strange sport called cross country actually was.

“I didn’t even know how they scored it,” Jorgensen said.

Jorgensen’s not sure exactly how he built the greatest long distance program in Class AA history. But Whitefish cross country coach Bill Brist has an idea: “It was both by accident and design.”

Brist ran for Jorgensen between 1978-1981, when the boys team was still struggling with numbers and failing to make a presence at state. He watched Jorgensen experiment and tinker with his coaching strategy daily.

Brist said Jorgensen understood early that learning from the best was easier than figuring out everything on his own. So he read everything out there on cross country, which, at the time, wasn’t much. Brist recalls the coach distributing this reading material to his kids, as he still does with his own books.

“You could see him picking up ideas from that; you could see him grabbing for information and implementing it,” Brist said. “Although it didn’t pay a lot of dividends at the time, it laid the groundwork.”

That was the “design” of his coaching vision. Then came the “accident,” though even that was rooted in strategy. Jorgensen began riding his bike with the runners during practice, which Brist said turned out to be the “real secret.”

For one, it showed the kids that their coach cared enough to be by their side instead of simply giving instructions and then sitting back. Secondly, the runners couldn’t rest when they were out of sight, because they were never out of sight. This was “creating an expectation,” as Brist puts it. That expectation became a trademark of Jorgensen’s teams.

“It’s just engrained that when it’s time to run, it’s time to run,” Brist said. “They don’t look for the shortcuts.”

By the mid-1980s, the girls already had developed a winning tradition and the boys were on their way – they earned their first state title in 1985. Since then, the success has remained uncannily consistent, including stretches in which the boys claimed six straight state championships between 1997-2002 and the girls won four straight on two separate occasions.

A major key to that consistency, Jorgensen said, has been coaching stability. Not only has he been there the whole time, his wife Jeannie has been the cross country coach at the middle school. By the time the runners come to high school, they have already received years of knowledgeable tutelage.

Jorgensen has been retired from teaching biology at the high school for 12 years. Instead of relaxing on his coaching duties during retirement, he has instead found more time to focus on cross country. He has increased his off-season presence for the runners and compiled more literature. His teams are still among the best and he has no immediate plans to retire.

At the Flathead Invite earlier this year, the boys turned in a nearly flawless performance, claiming the top four spots at the 12-team meet, as well as sixth place. It’s a remarkable feat at such a large meet – nearly 100 runners participated. Flathead freshman Zach Perrin came in first with a time of 16:01.

The boys haven’t won the title since 2005, but they appear to be the team to beat yet again this year, with multiple candidates for the individual title. The girls, meanwhile, have a strong group of younger girls who are expected to make a splash on the state level in the coming years, if not this fall.

Among the stars on the boys team is senior Leif Castren. Castren, who describes Jorgensen as a “mellow guy,” said his coach’s style is one of stoic guidance, not forceful demand. He explains what it takes to be the best, but he leaves it up to the runners to get there, with some gentle prodding. Castren said he is honored to run for Jorgensen – who the kids call “J” – and to be part of an illustrious tradition.

“It’s really cool coming to a place that has so many running legends that you can look back to,” Castren said.

Sometimes, Castren said, the team might not immediately understand one of Jorgensen’s new talking points, or his latest workout quirk. But they never question it, because they know Jorgensen never lets them down.

“It always works out right when J’s at the helm,” Castren said.