Creating Coaches

Creating Coaches: From ‘Average at Best’ Jumper to Division I Coach

Steve Woltmann | Loyola AthleticsBob Thurnhoffer cheers on his athletes during a meet.

It was the summer of 1992 in Lombard, Illinois. Bob Thurnhoffer — Loyola’s track and field and cross country coach — was 11 years old, and the Summer Olympics were in session. He said he found himself in front of the TV, obsessed with the rivalry between American athletes Carl Lewis and Mike Powell — who had just set the long jump record of 29-4 1/2. Thurnhoffer said it was the focal point of the Olympics that year.

He said he was amazed by the idea of a human jumping 29 feet, likening it to something seen in a comic book.

He said he begged his mom to take him to a hardware store to buy a tape measure. Then, he said he went in the backyard, measured out 29-4 1/2 and looked at the distance.

“I’m a little 4-foot tall kid and I’m just looking at the distance,” Thurnhoffer said. “I was blown away by it.”

He said the tape measure spent the rest of the summer in the ground. His youngest brother, Dan Thurnhoffer, remembers the tape measure and his brother’s obsession with it.

Thurnhoffer put his toys at each foot marker and jumped over them. At around seven or eight feet, he could no longer make the distance, face-planting into the ground and suffering a bloody nose.

From there, the sport manifested into a high school passion. He ran track and field for all four years.

The Beginning of it All

Thurnhoffer said his family wasn’t well off. His parents divorced when he and his brothers were kids and Thurnhoffer, now 38 years old, said his mom often worked three jobs in order to afford food. 

“Even though he was in a different socio-economic class than some of his classmates, he still found a niche in sports,” Dan Thurnhoffer said. “Because of that network, that group, he really developed a passion for it.”

As the oldest of three brothers, Thurnhoffer became a role model to the younger boys, Ben and Dan, according to their mother, Leslie Gouty.

Thurnhoffer’s love for the sport even translated to his brothers said, Dan Thurnhoffer, 31. Thurnhoffer talked about professional jumpers — such as Jonathan Edwards and Bob Beamon — so much that it sparked an interest for the younger brothers.

“[Bob] would grab me if I was just sitting around, and we’d go to the track,” Dan Thurnhoffer said. “His passion and excitement for it certainly got me and my other brother Ben to sign up for track.”

Thurnhoffer called his high school performances “average at best” and after competing all of high school, he wasn’t offered any college scholarships. Despite the lack of offers, he took a different route to keep jumping, entering the junior college level College of DuPage in Glen Ellyn, Illinois.

Jumping At the College Level

Thurnhoffer said his community college experience wasn’t a home run. On top of competing collegiately, he was also taking a full course load and working about 25 hours a week at a local Target store.

He said junior college was the only form of college he could afford and it was the only path he had to potentially becoming an amazing jumper.

There were two things that drove him — improving as an athlete, and his mom.

“I’m a mama’s boy,” Thurnhoffer said. “My mom worked endlessly. Work ethic-wise, [I] learned that from my mom more than anybody. She just did that solely for her sons and that got instilled in me.”

After competing two years at the junior college level, he received a scholarship at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC). Majoring in exercise science, he said he was able to focus on only school and running for the first time.

“It was a dream come true,” Thurnhoffer said. “I worked really hard for that, too. I made a lot of sacrifices to do that. … I had purposely said I’m not going to go down [a bad path] solely because I want to continue in track and field.”

At the end of his time running at UIC, he knew one thing for sure — he wanted to pursue coaching.

Adventures in the Coaching World

Following the end of his collegiate career, his coach at UIC, Jim Canadle, asked Thurnhoffer to start as a part-time coach at UIC. Throughout his four years coaching at UIC, he focused on the long jump and triple jump.

“I just appreciated the head coach that he saw enough in me to give me that opportunity,” Thurnhoffer said. “This could be the start of something special.”

A couple years after coaching at UIC, he decided he wanted to pursue a graduate degree. In 2009, he said he inquired about graduate assistant programs that would allow him to coach while also paying for his masters degree — one of those programs was at Loyola.

Thurnhoffer said he knew the head coach of Loyola’s track and field team, Rick Wemple, at the time because they were both in the same conference, the Horizon League. He said his success building a jumps program at UIC caught Wemple’s attention. At the time, Loyola didn’t have one.

Thurnhoffer said he was told he wasn’t the leading applicant and waited five months before hearing anything.

In December 2009, he got a call from Wemple with an interview. At the end of the interview, he walked away with a new job to begin in three weeks.

Building Up the Jumps Program

There was one catch to his graduate contract: both the athletics department and his masters of philosophy program gave him a semester to prove he was able to make a difference on the jumps program while also doing well in school. If he didn’t, he couldn’t continue at Loyola.

He said he nixed his doubts on the track as well as in the classroom. After coaching Candice Carajohn, who became a two-time Horizon League record holder in indoor and outdoor jumping in 2013, Thurnhoffer said he had proven himself.

“I had this idea that I really wanted to build a tradition that didn’t exist from literally scratch,” Thurnhoffer said. “Because how many people really get to do that? I found that very attractive.”

Enter James McLachlan, a highly touted long jump recruit from Great Britain, who was a Loyola athlete from 2012-15. Thurnhoffer said Wemple wanted someone to coach McLachlan and knew Thurnhoffer could be that person.

While Thurnhoffer passed on a love for the Chicago Bears and a hatred for Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, his impact went beyond that, McLachlan said.

“[Thurnhoffer] is not interested in chasing glory or winning conference points,” McLachlan said. “He’s interested in developing the athlete and producing well-rounded people off the track.”

Thurnhoffer went on to help McLachlan rise to All-American status with five school records and the indoor and outdoor long jump records.

Using the success of McLachlan and Carajohn, Thurnhoffer worked toward building a full-fledged long and triple jump program at Loyola.

While building the program, he went from graduate assistant, to a part-time assistant coach, to full-time assistant to finally head coach in 2016 — a title both his brother and his mom said was deserved.

“I always felt like anyone should have a job that’s not just a job — it’s something they’re passionate about,” Gouty said. “That he’s achieved that and he’s done so well … and [when I go to the meets], I get marvelous feedback from the parents about what a great role model he is for the kids. Just to hear how far he’s come and how well he’s doing … it’s just what it’s all about.”

Thurnhoffer’s been coaching for almost 16 years, 10 of which have been at Loyola. He’s been an employee for Loyola Athletics the third longest — only behind Sister Jean Delores-Schmidt and Tom Hitcho, the senior associate athletics director, who are both considered Loyola legends.

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