Boulanger retiring after spring season

DURHAM – Ed McCabe intended to try out for the University of New Hampshire basketball team when he arrived on campus in 1983. Instead, he wound up being one of the school’s most accomplished track and field performers ever, an All-American in the 35-pound weight throw.

That’s the way Jim Boulanger rolls.

“I’ve been lucky with that,” said UNH track and field head coach Boulanger, the local guy who went to Dover High and UNH, class of 1975, and stayed and became a teaching and coaching legend throughout New Hampshire and well beyond the state’s borders. “I consider myself the worst recruiter in the world, until I get you in my office. I don’t want to talk to you on the phone. I’m awful at that. I feel if I can get you in my office, I can get you to feel what the program is about. If you come in, you’ll be successful, as long as you do the right things.”

McCabe did the right things. So did Randy Hall. And Alison Poulin. Ditto for John Prizzi and Drew Piazza and Michael Shanahan. They were All-Americans.

Boulanger gets athletes through the blue office door – first floor on the righthand-side hallway out to Wildcat Stadium, second door on the right – and shows them what his program is all about. He coaches them up, inspires them, teaches them about much more than track and field.

He’s been doing it since he stepped up from the volunteer role he had held for a few years to lead the program when John Copeland, one of his mentors and still a close friend, moved on to the University of Rhode Island in 1982.

Boulanger, just shy of four decades in the post, is retiring after this spring season.

Athletes by the boatload have come through his office and learned about his program, signed on and done the right things and have won a long list of conference races and events, New England and regional competitions, collecting team and individual honors.

But it’s not all about winning. Far from it.

Boulanger believed that from an early age.

“The winning and losing thing?” Boulanger said. “That’s only a piece of it. Either way, the sun’s going to shine tomorrow. You’ll take that with you out of college and on to your work and how you treat people, I think.”

A little over 20 years ago, Boulanger sat in this office, jam-packed then as it is now, with trophies and certificates, plaques and throwing implements – a newly rediscovered javelin that dates back at least 60 years stands by the doorway today – and delivered the same message.

“I love to win as much as the next guy,” Boulanger said then. “But I really think it’s very important also to know you can tell the kids that a loss is in the past. Start clean the next day, and then go on.”

McCabe was one of Boulanger’s early successes.

“Jim laid out a training program for me, and I just got hooked,” said McCabe, who came to UNH out of Bishop Guertin High School in Nashua and now lives in Amherst and manages a sales team.

“It was a lot of fun, and I saw improvement in a short period of time. He has a way of instilling confidence in you that you can do well.”

Do well in life, do well in athletics. Boulanger continued to coach McCabe as he competed for a dozen years after college and later advised him further when he took up coaching.

“Jim’s had a big impact on both my athletic career and also in life,” McCabe said. “He taught me a lot of values. He was very committed to all his athletes. He’d help them get better, and he’d always look to improve himself and he’d learn from any source. That’s something that carried through in my life. I learned how to be committed to learning to do things better.”

Poulin, an All-American in the 400-meter hurdles in 1993 and now Alison Leveh, also credits Boulanger with helping shape her life.

“Working hard together with Coach B were the best years of my life,” she said via email from her home in Arizona. “He taught me how to set goals, and work hard to achieve them, and then set new goals.

“He taught me that whatever the mind can conceive, the body can achieve. He didn’t laugh when I set high goals, and I respected him for that. … He was very humble, yet proud, and instilled a very strong work ethic in me that has served me well over my life.”

Always the Educator

Boulanger played football, basketball and baseball in high school, but was never a track athlete.

He is the director of UNH’s cross country and track and field programs and focuses on the men’s teams. Rob Hoppler is the head coach of the women’s cross country group and Hoppler and Casey Carroll share head coaching duties with women’s track and field. Both have worked with Boulanger for more than two decades.

Hoppler, but for a two-year stint at the University of Vermont, has been by Boulanger’s side for the last 28 years, and still marvels at how he goes about his business, from incessantly wanting to learn and his ability to pass on what he learns to his athletes, from his knowledge across all events to his overall people skills.

“He has never gotten away from his roots as an educator,” Hoppler said. “It’s simple to him: He’s providing an education for these kids, not only the academic education they get in college, but more importantly, he is using track and field as a learning opportunity.”

Hoppler and Carroll work out of an office directly across from Boulanger’s.

His is a hopping place – a not-so-secret shortcut to the indoor track – and it’s often filled with athletes, with fellow coaches and staff people from around the building, stopping for a chat and to catch up throughout the day.

“Jimmy’s office door is always open,” said former Londonderry High School coach Larry Martin, the dean of high school running and track and field in the state and another of Boulanger’s mentors. I’d say 99 percent of the time I stop in, there are kids in the office talking to him.”

Martin gives huge props to Boulanger for tirelessly providing the indoor track as a place for high school athletes to compete, and thus for the healthy state of track and field in New Hampshire.

Paul Sweet to Jim Boulanger

They are bookends to nearly a century of Wildcat track and field success.

Between them, Paul Sweet and Jim Boulanger have been in charge of UNH cross country and track and field for 85 of the past 96 years. Sweet started the program in 1924 and held the reins for 46 years before retiring in 1970. Billy Phillips took his place for three years, and John Copeland was the boss from 1973 until 1982.

Larry Martin ran for Sweet and was an assistant to Phillips and Copeland. Martin also was a coaching rival of Boulanger – Boulanger at Oyster River and Martin at Raymond High School and then Londonderry – before the two worked together for decades to promote and support both high school and UNH cross country track and field.

“Paul Sweet and Jim had some things in common,” Martin said. “First, was their love of UNH. Everything they did was about UNH. As far as technical stuff, they were able to watch a kid in the throws or in the pole vault or the high jump and find one little thing, and they’d want them to concentrate on this one point. They picked up on it. Jimmy sees things other people don’t see.”

Both had great rapport with their athletes.

“Their biggest strength was their ability to work with kids,” Martin said. “In the ’60s, Paul would write letters to us in the summer. I still have a couple of personal letters he wrote, asking how we were doing, what we were doing. Jimmy’s like that, too. He just likes working with kids. He’s like a big Teddy Bear. The kids love him.”

Boulanger takes pride in his ability to coach the fundamentals and adjusting to whatever the strengths and styles his athletes might have.

“Many young coaches nowadays don’t want to do the hard work, and Jimmy’s always done that, and that’s the reason the kids have been so good,” Copeland said. “I hate to boil it down to that, but it’s the old hard work thing. If you’re going to put in the work, you’ll get results. If you don’t, you won’t get the results.”

The Kids

Boulanger’s big into golf, and he plans to do plenty of that in retirement. He wants to do more fly fishing, too. And traveling.

“I want to travel again, once we can travel,” he said. “I’ve never been to Canada. I have to go to Canada. I’d like to go back to Europe and drink wine. I’d like to go on some of those old-people tours. With people.”

He said he’s not sure if he’ll continue catching. But it’s hard to imagine that he won’t get back to watching kids throw something – a hammer, a 35-pound weight, a shot or javelin – and pick up a pointer here and there that will help him or her throw a little bit farther.

He knows he can reach kids. His cross country and track and field kids. Other kids he has worked with through the years: Athletes from the UNH football team or other teams at the school, looking to pick up a little speed or increase their agility; guys like Sam Fuld, the former Major League Baseball player and now general manager of the Philadelphia Phillies, who grew up in Durham and wanted help with his footwork.

“I think I’ve had more kids believe because of my positive attitude,” Boulanger said. “Why can’t you beat that kid? Why can’t you jump higher?”

Boulanger answered two questions during a lengthy interview much more quickly than any others, each with the same answer.

What’s been your favorite part of coaching at UNH? What are you going to miss most?

“The kids,” he said.

Favorite part? “The kids. People. No matter the level. Trying to get kids to be better athletes than they are.”

Miss most? “The kids. The preparation. How to get them better. Like last Saturday’s meet. The middle-distance kids ran great.”