Adam Baum, email@example.com
The first footrace Frank Russo ever ran in competition, he won.
That was four decades ago, and “it was the 800 meters on a cinder track at Colerain Junior High and I will never forget that.”
Little did he know, it would be the catalyst for a lifelong love affair with cross country and track and field.
Russo, who’s been La Salle’s cross country coach since the fall of 1983 – as a 23-year-old – and the Lancers’ track coach since the spring of 1985, will on Jan. 26 be inducted into the Ohio Association of Track and Cross Country Coaches Hall of Fame.
A 1979 Colerain High School graduate, Russo, who with his twin brother Ron, now the head coach for McAuley’s cross country and track programs, won the cross country state championship in 1978, breaking the state record for lowest points scored. His time in Cardinal red would be invaluable to the rest of his life.
“Those years in the Colerain program really created my coaching DNA, my vision, my philosophy, because we not only learned how to win state, we lived it,” said Russo, who knew as a high school sophomore that he wanted to be a coach. “So I knew all the elements involved in winning a state title. I knew the type of athletes you needed, the type of workouts, the intensity of the workouts and the type of attitude you need on race day.
“It all started back under a great coach, Ken Meibers (who today coaches Mount Healthy). He was the one who really had the greatest influence on my life and the direction in which I went and the impact I had. I got to see the power of the sport itself and the opportunities it created for me. I never thought in my wildest dreams, coming from a blue-collar family where no one had ever gone to college, that I would compete at the Division I level and graduate from Ohio State.”
In his four years with the Buckeyes, Russo was a top-seven runner every year and a captain his senior year. Russo began applying for coaching jobs his senior year and eventually he got a call from La Salle.
“The interview went well and they sent me down to Bob Krueger, who was the athletic director at the time. He said to me, ‘Anything you ever need to win, just let me know,’ and as a 23-year-old that’s all I needed to hear.”
So in the fall of 1983, Russo’s coaching career began and it’s never ceased.
“It was a rough first year, but what we were able to do in that first season was build an expectation of we were gonna train hard each and every day,” said Russo.
In the fall of 1984, a sophomore named Dan Fulmer showed up for cross country, and by the fall of 1986, La Salle “finished third in the league, third in the district, third in the regional and second in the state. His brother, Dean, would come in a decade later and become an All-American for us and helped lead us to the school’s first state championship in track,” Russo said.
Individual stories could be written about a number of Russo’s La Salle teams. Like that team in 1986 — the Lancers’ first appearance as a team at the state cross country meet.
Or, in 1994, when La Salle utilized the strength of its distance runners to win a state championship in track and field.
“That was really special and it was the school’s first state championship (as a team) in anything,” Russo said. “So, I was part of Colerain’s first state championship in school history and then here at La Salle as a coach.”
It would be another decade before Russo and his Lancers would get back to the top of the podium.
From 2000-2003, La Salle’s cross country program finished state runner-up four years in a row. In 2005 and 2006, the Lancers won back-to-back state championships.
“The most gratifying and memorable moment in my career was in 2005,” said Russo. “We had finally won the state title … as we’re getting up on the podium to get the trophy, it was really an emotional moment for me because I looked out and saw a generation of guys that had built the program and invested their heart and souls into it. They were all a part of that. Just looking out and having no idea that they were gonna be there. We had finally gotten to the top as a program. All of those guys were part of winning that title, from 1983 when I was first came in as a kid, to 2005.”
In 2008, La Salle’s track team finished state runner-up. Russo said they finished second because they didn’t have a 4x400 relay team in the final event, something he obsessed over the next three years.
His obsession paid off in 2011, when the Lancers won another state title in track thanks, in part, to that distance relay.
“In the last five decades I’ve had the opportunity as either an athlete or a coach to be a part of a state championship, with the exception of the 1980s. In ’86, were state runner-up,” said Russo, who as a head coach has won 28 district championships, 10 regional titles and four state championships.
In vivid detail, Russo can recall things that were said decades ago or tiny moments that everyone else likely missed. He remembers them as if they’re written down somewhere, in some big, dust-covered book, only there is no book, just the memory of a man who refuses to forget.
When Russo’s inducted in the Hall of Fame, he’ll have a list of people to thank. It will be a long list, filled with lifelong friends and mentors, some of whom are still around and some who’ve passed away.
As he speaks about the honor, gratitude and nostalgia can be heard.
“I’m grateful to all the guys who’ve run in the program, literally every one of them,” he said. "You can't get to the top without everyone being on board."
One person he won’t forget to thank is his longest running partner, his twin brother.
“Growing up in the same household and training together … our paths have been very similar,” said Russo. “From that end, it’s been a special experience and Ron was actually coaching with me when we finished state runner-up in 1986. That first year we got on the stand together, that was really special. Having that experience of winning a state championship with your twin brother and the rest of those guys, who can say that?”
When spring arrives, it will be Russo’s 70th season as a high school head coach.
“It’s been an amazing 35 years,” he said. “I can’t believe how quick it’s gone.”