Once a Jayhawk, Always a Jayhawk: Bob Timmons

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Travel out to Lawrence’s Rim Rock Farm and a couple of things will stand out. The first being how beautiful the setting is and the second being the giant statues of the University of Kansas’ track legends. One of those legends is former head coach Bob Timmons who was not only a legendary coach but an extraordinary man who has left quite a legacy.

Timmons’ coaching days began in 1950 at Caldwell High School located in Caldwell, Kansas. He continued that career at other Kansas schools including: Emporia, Wichita West, Wichita East and the University of Kansas. He won numerous championships and awards in his 24 years as the Jayhawks’ leader, but the most prominent were the four track & field NCAA Championships, 12 Big Eight Outdoor Championships and two cross country national titles. He coached several tremendous athletes along the way, the most noteworthy being Jim Ryun. Timmons began coaching Ryun at Wichita East High School in the early 1960’s and knew he had a star in the making.

Walking the halls of Wichita East, Ryun was not the atypical superb-looking athlete. He was fairly skinny and a novice runner at the time. However, Timmons saw the potential in Ryun and ran with it.

“Coach used to do these things we called ‘Timmie talks’,” stated Ryun. “He would have each athlete sit next to him on the bus ride home and go over goals and school, etc. On our way back from a meet at Washington High School, Timmons called me up and told me he thought I could run the mile in under four minutes.”

Ryun went back to his seat surprised and somewhat stunned after Timmons’ comments. Timmons was right, however, Ryun would break the four-minute-mile mark not once, but twice, in his high school career; the first being a time of 3:59. The second came a year later at the state track meet in Wichita as he finished with a time of 3:58.3. Though Ryun was blessed with the ability and talent to finish in record time, it was Timmons who brought out the best in not only Ryun, but in everyone around him.

“He gave each athlete a different challenge,” said Ryun. “He took such a personal interest in everyone around him. He would consistently ask athletes how their grades were or how they were doing outside of school. He was just that kind of guy that truly cared for everyone.”

Timmons became the head track coach at KU in 1965 and not only won many championships, but did so the right way. He ran grueling practices and preached discipline, which was fitting as Timmons is a World War II veteran.

In Ryun’s book detailing his career, he described being too exhausted to eat after Timmons’ practices and even becoming physically sick. Timmons didn’t make practices difficult in a mean manner, more so to push every single athlete to their best ability each and every day.

“Our practices were tough, but he was creative,” Ryun said with a laugh. “He would find ways to make practice fun. For example, we would do a run at the end of each practice and Timmons always said if we ran it in under 30 seconds, he would do 10 pushups. Of course, we all were running as fast as we could hoping to break that time. Coach Timmons had big demands, but he always produced great results.”

Ned Ryun, Jim’s son, distinctly remembers hearing stories of his father’s achievements while driving home from Rim Rock Farm in the back of Timmons’ truck. Ned was born and raised in California but came to Lawrence in 1982, where he would essentially gain a grandparent-like relationship with Timmons.

“Timmons is my godfather,” Ned said proudly. “He and his wife, Pat, are just wonderful people and I was lucky to spend a ton of time with them when I was little.”

Timmons and Ned would enjoy lunch on Sunday afternoons after church and he would often take Ned to work on the farm (Rim Rock Farm) with him, something both were extremely proud of. One day after working on the farm, Ned said Timmons was taking the short three-mile trip to take him home when Ned asked about his father’s record.

“Timmons was so proud of him,” said Ned. “He told me about how the race was amazing and he said all records are meant to be broken. But he said my father’s record may be one that is never broken.” 

Jim Ryun wasn’t the only one breaking records and having success at KU. Timmons led KU to various accolades and kept a program growing into a dynasty while being the man in charge. He never asked for praise or anything along those lines, but Ned says the recent advancing improvements around the KU track & field program is something Timmons deserves some credit for.

“He’s such a great guy that he would never ask for praise,” stated Ned. “But he really helped build that program. The new renovations and the building of Rock Chalk Park is something Timmons is very proud of. Knowing he had a large part in the success of the program is something that means a lot to him.”
Don Steffens was a student during the time Timmons was the track & field coach at East High School. In fact, Steffens was a manager for the team.

“Coach always had guys who were straight-A students be his managers,” said Steffens. “I, however, wasn’t that type of student, but he still picked me. To this day I’m still unsure how I landed the manager position, but it worked out unbelievably.”

These kinds of actions made Timmons the man he is today. Ask anyone close to him and they’ll tell you the same thing: he is a classy guy who genuinely wants the best for everyone around him.

“He touched so many lives at East,” Steffens said. “Usually when you go back to reunions, it’s about the students you were there with. But everyone wants to know how Bob is doing because he is such a wonderful person.”

For Steffens, Timmons not only guided him as manager at both East and KU, but led him down a career path that has paid off immensely. Working as a writer in 1974, Steffens went to a meet that Timmons happened to be at. Timmons told him he should get into announcing and had him announce in the press box at the Kansas Relays.

“I had never really considered that as an option in my life,” said Steffens of public address announcing. “But Timmons believed in me and pushed me toward it. Since those days, I’ve covered 19 NCAA Championships, 40 Kansas Relays and around 26 Big Eight and Big 12 Conference meets.”

The bond that Steffens and Timmons share is so strong that Steffens felt he had to do something to honor his old coach and mentor.

“My wife and I named our third child after him,” Steffens stated after a pause and holding back tears. “He played such a big role in my life and I respected him so much that I thought this would honor him.”

With Rim Rock Farm thriving and the addition of Rock Chalk Park, the Kansas track & field and cross country programs are bigger than ever. Though Timmons is no longer on the sidelines of the track & field courses he loves, his footprints remain strong around Kansas’ athletic success.

Once a Jayhawk, Always a Jayhawk