By Andrew Gardewine, Contributing Writer
Michael Mendez, head coach and former member of the McKendree Cross Country and Track and Field programs, is quite possibly the most hard working person on campus. If he is not coaching a practice he is in a meeting, if he is not in a meeting, he is in his office working late at night and in some cases into the early morning. On top of it all, he still manages to find room to maintain his physical shape with bike rides and runs as well as manage his own running club, The Lebanon Project. He has a full plate and a bright future as a coach, however this article is not about his future, rather it is about his past. Coach Mendez has overcome countless obstacles in his life, obstacles that he considers “a series of fortunate events,” but what he would call an event, I would call an opportunity.
Mendez was always an athlete but not always a runner. He had no real desire to run cross country or track, but was persuaded into joining the team by a couple of his friends his sophomore year of high school. Through his running career, he developed relationships with many people but the most significant person to him was the assistant coach for his high school cross country and track and field teams. “He is the reason I stayed and ran period,” Mendez said. He managed to influence him enough to instill a commitment for running which turned into a very successful high school running career. First opportunity taken, first opportunity successful.
For Mendez there was no real future goal in mind after high school. He had no plans to go to McKendree or any college for that matter. No one in his family before him had gone to college, therefore in his eyes, college was an option but not a necessity. However, his old coach’s daughter was currently attending McKendree University. He knew the cross country/track and field coach fairly well and told Mendez he would talk to the coach to schedule a visit. He drove down to McKendree, had a great experience, and was given the opportunity to attend McKendree University as a student athlete. One opportunity had turned into another opportunity.
Mendez had great success in his athletics at McKendree, however his success on the track is not the main focus to his story. His performance in the classroom is what opened Mendez up to yet another opportunity. When he started at McKendree he began to figure his life out, he was not focused on anything other than success.
He had first been an art major but later made the change to psychology. For the back half of his college career he had consistently been earning 3.9-4.0’s in his classes and his advisor told him he had great chance of going to graduate school if he kept up the good work. The now young man, who in high school had no plan for college, was now considering the thought of going to graduate school. He kept his grades up and decided to take another opportunity – again.
Mendez applied for two different graduate programs. The first program was a five-year doctorate of psychology program and the second was a psychology masters program at Eastern Illinois University. The first program was very expensive, but his option for Eastern was a shot in the dark after being waitlisted. He seemed to be SOL, but yet again was given an opportunity.
On April 15th, the last day for graduate school acceptance, he received a phone call at 8 a.m. with news of a spot being opened for him if he wished to take it. He had to make the decision by 11 a.m. Pressed for time, Mendez decided to call his coach and ask for advice. There were many different personal issues turning him away from Eastern but no matter what he said, his coach, time after time, told him to take the opportunity at Eastern. So he did.
He went to Eastern with no graduate assistantship and therefore had to take out loans more expensive than his four years of undergraduate at McKendree University. In October of his first semester, he received a call from the student success center at Eastern presenting him with another opportunity to possibly attain a GA that would help pay for his tuition. He had already had another GA position lined up that he knew was going to be miserable and pay poorly, therefore he accepted the opportunity and scheduled an interview for the position. “I killed the interview,” Mendez said as he was later called and given the opportunity to take the position. This position paid a stipend of nearly $400 or more than any other position on campus and took care of his tuition. He went from no opportunity to one of the greatest opportunities available. At 22 years of age, he was teaching two college courses in the spring of his first year as a graduate student and was in a mentorship program for the student success center at Eastern. On top of it all he was hitting 4.0’s in all of the classes in his graduate program and was still training three days a week as a runner. However, after all of his success his first year, he was faced with another issue going into his second year of graduate school.
Mendez had thought he had an internship lined up with Eastern in the counseling department, but was beat out of the position by another student that was already in their program. “I was definitely a better candidate, I was already teaching courses at the university,” he said in regards to losing the position.
He again was stuck with no options and was being hounded by his professors to find an internship until one day a professor mentioned internship positions at Indiana State. He decided to take the opportunity and scheduled an interview with both Indiana State and another counseling business in Terre Haute.
Mendez first interview was with the counseling business. His interviewer offered him the job on the spot and explained that if he did not accept the position at Indiana State he would always have the position with their company regardless. Mendez could not help but wonder why the man liked him so much and even ended up asking the interviewer to explain his reason for hiring him so hastily. “You don’t seem like the kind of person I need to keep away from people,” the man said. “I still tell that story to people and still today think about what he said to me,” Mendez said while thinking back on his experience.
He ended up declining the position and was offered an internship at Indiana State. He was the only male counselor in the program and the only person from Eastern to ever have earned an internship at Indiana State, which he attributes to the driving that is required to get there every day. As we all know there is a time change from Illinois to Indiana and therefore to get to his internship at 7:30 a.m. he had to leave at 5:30 a.m. to make it on time. He had no opportunity for an internship and was now given one of the greatest opportunities in his professional life.
This time in his life was the most hectic that it had ever been. Money was tight, he had to pay for gas, which was around five dollars a gallon at the time and was helping his mother pay for school and other things she needed. He was helping his sister with college prep and ACT prep classes, and had two days of counseling at Indiana State each week. Only two days of counselling did not seem too crazy at first – until he explained the situation. “There were ten people in my cohort in which I had twelve clients in two days compared to their one to two clients in the whole week,” he explained.
.” He was driving two hours for his counselling internship, was studying for comprehensive exams, teaching courses, was involved in workshops, was trying to apply for other grad schools, and was working on his thesis. During this time, he was occasionally sleeping in his car, yet he made the most out of his opportunity.
Finished with grad school, Mendez went back home and volunteered as an assistant coach at a high school near his home town. “I was there from June to August and developed a great relationship with some of the kids,” he said. In late August, he received a phone call from the new athletic director at McKendree University explaining that they would like to interview him for a temporary head coaching position for the cross country and track and field programs. They told him that he was one of few people that the old coach had referred them to, but in reality Mendez was the only option they had. He decided to take the opportunity and drove down to McKendree for the interview.
In the interview they explained that the he would coach for two months and his job was only to keep the boat floating. Due to his lack of experience as a head coach, they claimed he would not be given the opportunity to apply to be put on for full time. They also did not have room for any more assistant coaches on payroll; therefore, he was left with two choices. He could stay at home with his volunteer coaching job or he could take a job that seemed to pose no future benefits or opportunities. He decided to go to his parents for advice on the situation and they wholeheartedly believed he needed to take the opportunity at McKendree University and accept the position.
He gave his own terms for coaching. “I wasn’t going to be a two month intern coach, I was going to go all in with the intent to run this program the way it should be run,” he explained to the athletic director. Mendez already had plans for the future of the program. He had plans for cross country meets hosted by McKendree, something that the school had never done until Mendez finally got the go ahead to put a meet together this year in late August. He set up weight lifting programs for cross country which had never been done before, and he pushed the first practice from November to September.
However, this ended up upsetting quite a few people. The team was small in size and not very talented. The expectation was set low yet he raised the bar, which angered athletes that were used to practicing months later than what he expected. For some people he got great feedback, they saw his effort to change the program for the best. He was holding people accountable for going to class and practices, was setting up weight programs to benefit his athletes, and truly cared about the future of the program.
About three months later the school had finally conducted a search for a new head coach and Mendez decided to re-apply for the job he already had. Many of the candidates had the same background as Mendez, in addition to that the pay for the position and talent on the team were low. “There was no real distinct difference between me and other candidates, everyone had similar backgrounds. Our school had less funding, and less money for scholarships. Yet I, at 24 years old, was here saying let’s go, whatever we have I’ll make it work,” he said.
His interview was held over phone while other possible candidates were taken to lunch, given a tour, and met with the president for interviews. However, eventually he was given the opportunity to meet with the president and a board of representatives for an interview. In his interview, he was much more prepared than any other candidate was. He had a folder filled with countless documents explaining what he had done, what he needed from the school, and what he planned to do with the future of the program. Mendez had been there for only three months and already knew what the program needed to be successful in the future.
His confidence and preparedness seemed to impress the board. He went from the temporary guy; to the man for the job. The school renewed and altered his contract and now, five years later he sits with a conference title, conference coach of the year award, and countless All American athletes that he personally coached all under his belt.
Many things can be learned from his story, but the most important lesson would be that with any opportunity, no matter how big or small, embrace and make the most of it. Whether it be a small opportunity like joining a high school cross country team or a bigger opportunity like going to college and grad school, every opportunity has the potential to make a huge impact on your life. Such a small decision brought Coach Mendez to where he is today. If he had not joined the cross team he would have never developed such a strong relationship with his coach, would have never gone to McKendree, never gone to graduate school, and never led a team to a first ever GLVC Conference title in school history. Be a beacon of your own success, get out there, and make the best out of the opportunities you are given.