It was the next-to-last event of the 1989 NCAA Ski Championships at Jackson Hole, Wyoming. After three days of competition (not to mention nine years of near-misses for the national team title), Vermont trailed Utah going into the womens 15-kilometer cross-country race. To eke out the team championship, UVM needed an impossibly strong showing against a tough field.
Coaches and reporters waited at the finish line for the first competitor to emerge from the woods some 200 yards distant. At last, a single skier broke into the Wyoming sunlight quickly followed by another and another and another. Sari Argillander 88, Selma Lie 91, Laura Wilson 91, Brenda White 90 every single one of them wore the green and gold of UVM.
It was one of the most dramatic things Id ever seen in sports, says Don Fillion, who spent some four decades covering UVM sports for the Burlington Free Press. Four Vermont kids, coming out of the woods 1-2-3-4 to clinch the national championship (by the slimmest margin ever) sprinting to the finish to see who wins the individual title.
It was the kind of moment that would have driven loyal fans to a frenzy had there been any. Beyond then-UVM President Lattie Coor wildly rattling a cow bell, there were few. For though skiing is easily UVMs most successful athletic program and one of the most successful programs in all of collegiate sports ski teams largely toil in obscurity on cold, snowy slopes and long, lonely tracks. How many of us, even UVM alumni, can name Íve of the 130-plus Vermont All-American skiers?
Youd think that might bother Chip LaCasse, the universitys director of skiing for more than three decades. But little seems to bother LaCasse. People say hes an intense competitor, but nothing in his bearing suggests that. Perhaps his easy-going nature is born of success: Its hard to stress when you love your job and youve got Íve national titles (and twelve runners-up) on your resume.
If anyone should be stressing, its the UVM athletic department, as it looks to replace LaCasse when he retires after the 2002-03 season.
UVMs greatest salesman
Think of the kind of men who become uncommonly successful coaches in collegiate athletics: Bobby Knight? Woody Hayes? Steve Spurrier? Hypertense, joyless competitors; incendiary screamers, chair-throwers, and worse. Some actually become liabilities for the schools they represent, tolerated because they get results.
Thats never been the UVM way. And though hes enjoyed success comparable to those legendary tantrum-throwers, Chip LaCasse could hardly be more different. To all appearances, hes a laid-back chuckler. A happy-go-lucky back-slapper and comic story-teller. Hes a cherubic-looking guy with a gap-toothed smile, a quick laugh and the ability, it seems, to convince people to do things they didnt think they could do, whether its legging out the last two kilometers of a cross-country relay or making a contribution to the UVM Fund.
As Fillion puts it: The guy could sell ice to Eskimos.
In fact, sales are in LaCasses blood. Its what his dad and his uncle did, when they werent soaring through the air as nationally ranked jumpers in the days when ski jumping drew spectators by the thousands. LaCasse, who grew up in Lebanon, N.H., was also one of the countrys best jumpers, which got him a free ride at the University of Colorado, the nations dominant ski program.
Skiing and sales may be intertwined in LaCasses DNA, but its the latter, the ability to recruit top prospects, that has best served him as hes built the Vermont program.
After taking the UVM job in 1969, LaCasse took his sales pitch on the road, but not very far afield. The best racers in those days came from Vermont and New England; the trick was convincing them to stay home, winning them away from the successful programs at Colorado and Utah. A tough sell, but LaCasse succeeded.
I couldnt understand why we werent getting the good Vermont kids Billy Kidd, Rebel Ryan they were all from here, and they left, LaCasse recalls.
Why? Because UVMs program was mediocre at best. We were always fifth or sixth in those days. Everyone said, Dont worry; youll never beat Dartmouth or Middlebury. Well, I said, Why not? The best skiers are here in Vermont and New England; all I have to do is keep them home.
Gradually, LaCasse began building a credible squad of competitors. The key was Bobby Cochran 76 MD 81, a Richmond kid and star of the U.S. Ski Team. Getting the best skier in the United States gave us instant credibility. Kids would say, Wow, if Bobby Cochran went to UVM, then it must be a good program.
Ironically, Cochran wouldnt compete all that much for UVM. Though he won an NCAA downhill championship on the slopes at Middlebury, the demands of the U.S. Ski Team, the 1972 Olympics, and then UVM med school kept him out of uniform much of the time.
But with Cochran as his calling card, LaCasse went to work, reeling in the top prospects in New England Chris Brown 74, Dave Dodge 78, Dick Erdman 75, Billy Rathbone 76, Stan Dunklee 76, Neal McNealus 80 and others. And using his knowledge and contacts in the Nordic world, he began looking abroad. I took a page out of Utahs book and went to Norway to find good jumpers. Jumping counted more back then, and if you had a powerful jumper, you could score.
Thats how LaCasse landed his earliest, biggest recruit: Peter Kongsli 75, a member of the Norwegian national team who had quarreled with his coach. LaCasse swooped in and sold Kongsli on UVM. This guy won the World Ski Flying Championships, and we got him. Kongsli was in a class by himself, setting records at every hill and laying the groundwork for UVMs coming dynasty.
Opening the door
The Írst breakthrough in team competition during the LaCasse era came in 1971, compliments of Al Merrill, coach of the long-dominant Dartmouth ski team and long-time Friend of Chip (isnt everyone?). Merrill and other coaches made the mistake of taking the rising Catamounts too lightly, sending their B teams to the UVM Carnival.
We won, and that made us believers, LaCasse says. Then the following week, everybody sent their best skiers to the Williams Carnival, and we won again. Everyone was like, Who are these guys? I remember that exact quote from the paper. Well, after that year, we started getting really outstanding people. Al opened the door, and Ill tell you, that door never shut again. Thank you, Al.
Thank you, and on to bigger things. The next major step came in 1980, when the Cats took their first national title. Sweeter still, they did it on home turf.
That was a great team, LaCasse says. John Teague 81, Scott Light 80, Tor Melander 83, Chris Mikell 80, Pal Sjulstad 83, all those guys. We just dominated. And it was on national TV; ESPNs first broadcast of the skiing championships. Fittingly, expert commentary was provided by none other than Bobby Cochran, the guy who helped get it all started for UVM. And there was even a sizeable mob of rowdy supporters the largest to-date to witness an NCAA Ski Championship bused in from Burlington.
The UVM skiing dynasty was firmly in place. In 1981, the women, led by Mary Seaton 83, took a national title. Mens and womens competition were merged the following year, and from 1981 to 1989, UVM would finish second seven times.
Green and gold returned to the top step of the podium that dramatic day in 1989 at Jackson Hole, kicking off true glory years for the next six seasons. UVM would win four team titles, with alumnus Teague as alpine coach and Bruce Cranmer guiding the Nordic squad. Slalom ace Gabriella Hamberg 89, then Laura Wilson 91, and Gibson LaFountaine 95, anchored a womens program that had begun to gel, while Einar Bohmer 92 led the men. Between them, they racked up nine individual titles.
Like having your dad around
LaCasses role for the past twenty years has been largely big-picture recruiting, hiring, scholarships, etc. rather than standing course-side deconstructing his skiers ski technique.
Chips just the most positive individual, says current alpine coach Felix McGrath. Hes been to the NCAAs so many times, he never panics if we have a bad day. He doesnt micro-manage his coaches. Chip just puts the pieces in play: He gets the right coaches and the right athletes to the school and he gets the scholarships in order and gives you the support you need.
Andy Shaw 86, 1984 NCAA champ in the giant slalom, says that support extends to athletes, beyond how they are faring in competition. You knew that you could go into his office without an appointment and talk about whatever was on your mind, Shaw says. Chip would sit you down, and youd work things out. It was like having your dad around every day.
Today, it seems, LaCasses extended ski family is coming back to haunt him. I looked around at the 1999 championships, and there were fourteen coaches who were once my skiers, coaching against me. Now theyre trying to beat me.
That was the first sign it might be time to call it a career. Then came a more disturbing phenomenon. Its one thing to coach against your former skiers; its another to coach your former skiers kids.
First Martin Grimness son, now Dick Erdmans daughter, LaCasse says with a smile. I said Id never let that happen.
So, he wont. This season and next, then retirement golf, boating, duck hunting, fishing, travel. Looking back, LaCasse says he feels blessed to have found the work and the place where he truly belonged. Ive had a lot of opportunities to leave, and Ive always turned them down. There are so few people who can say they really love their job. But Im one of em. Ive had a great run.
Joe Cutts 84 is a senior editor for SKI Magazine. He lives in Burlington.