After 45 years and countless miles, Coach Mike Bain said he might be closing in on the finish line.
“I’ve been coaching for a long time, and God has blessed me with some great kids who have influenced me tremendously,” said Bain, 69, as he leaned on the fence of the Warriors’ track and field facility, three weeks after helping bring home the school’s thirteenth state championship. Pontotoc hosted several, regional meets leading up to state, and the infield was still pocked with divots from discus throws, and the sand in the long-jump pit showed the landing spot of the last competitor.
Bain wiped sweat from his eyes, having just finished some routine grounds-keeping, one of the many ways he has quietly nurtured his beloved sport for more than four decades. He parked the Gator in the aluminum shed, on the side of which were painted the victories and champions that have delineated his career like mile markers on a long run.
Bain looked northwest, over the circular track and home stands, and said running and coaching have always been spiritual exercises for him.
“I remember those long runs, in high school, when I was alone, usually at night, and having conversations with God,” said Bain. “Those runs were special.”
Bain started his coaching career at Pontotoc in 1976. A less determined man might have considered junior high football and track an inauspicious start, but Bain quickly got Pontotoc involved in new opportunities. In 1978, the MHSAA added boys’ cross country to its state championship sports. Bain assembled nine young Warriors to take a shot, and they won state the first two years they competed. Mississippi added girls’ cross-country in 1982, and Bain gathered the Women of the Tribe for the inaugural campaign. Bain went on to lead Pontotoc to 37 cross-country and 13 track and field championships--44 as head coach and six coaching distance-running and pole vault. Bain has been Mississippi Coach of the Year eight times, Regional Coach of the Year twice, National Coach of the Year in 2003, and was inducted into the Mississippi Coaches’ Hall of Fame in 2010. Quick to shrug off his numerous accolades, Bain said that coaching, especially as the years wear on, is mostly about encouragement.
“It’s not that the kids need me, but I get a lot out of watching them achieve,” he said.
Bain graduated from Pearl High School in 1970. He ran track there, then ran at Hinds Community College as part of a state championship team. He went on to compete in the steeplechase in the NAIA national championship while at Mississippi College. His roommate at MC was a fellow runner from Pontotoc named David Whiteside. Bain often accompanied Whiteside on weekend trips home, and he fell in love with the small town.
The rest, as they say, is history.
That history, painted on the walls of the shed at the Warriors’ track and field facility, includes names of state champions, like Amanda Easterling (Stark).
“Coach Bain taught me how to be a runner, and instilled in me competitiveness I never knew I had,” said Stark, who won state in girl’s cross-country in 1997, and was part of four state championship teams Bain coached. “I still carry those ideals with me today as I continue to run in my adult life. Coach Bain was more than a coach to me. He was like a second father. He cared for his runners. He would listen whenever we needed someone to talk to, and he prayed with us as a team. When he came to me, wanting to hold the Pontotoc cross country invitation on my property (Cherry Creek Orchard), I was so excited and honored to be able to continue being a part of the cross country program. Even today, I know Coach Bain is always there to help me with races I host. The time I spent running for Coach Bain represents some of the best memories I have from my teenage years, and I am proud to have had him as my coach.”
Ben Hill ran track and cross-country for the Warriors under Bain from 1997 until 2002. He said that the coach’s combination of Christian values and passion for the sport had a profound influence on his life.
“Coach Bain is such a kind person, and he really cares for the kids, not only how they’re doing on the track but in other sports and in life in general,” said Hill, who won four, consecutive state championships in cross-country under Bain, from 1998-2001. Those titles included the two-mile, for four years, the four-mile, for four years, and the half-mile in 2000 and 2001.
Bain’s commitment runs bone deep, Hill said.
“He has always been really invested in his athletes,” said Hill, adding that, as to his mentor’s Zen-like approach to the sport, insanity and transcendent wisdom might go hand-in-hand.
“Running is a punishment in every other sport, so those of us who do it for fun have to be a little crazy,” said Hill. “Coach Bain’s Christian faith shines through in all he does. I was proud to have the opportunity to run under him. I appreciate the impact he had on my life, as I’m sure other athletes do. He’s done a tremendous job, not only for our city and sports teams but for the state as a whole. He’s well respected, statewide.”
Those who have coached alongside Bain said his work ethic and his unassuming demeanor have been inspiring.
“I had the honor to know Coach Bain as a teacher, a coach, a mentor, and now as a colleague,” said Pontotoc Track and Field Coach Brian Morgan. “He has, and always will be, one of the most influential people in my life. He is hands-down the most loyal and dedicated coach I’ve ever known. He has a special way of bringing out the best in his runners and those around him. He has 50 state championships with cross-country and track-and-field combined, and yet he is still a humble man. I couldn’t ask for a better role model, not only in coaching, but in how to live.”
Bain has put a lot of miles behind him, and it might be time for him and his wife of 36 years, Brenda, to do some cheering from the sidelines, and watch their grandkids run, he said. Running, Bain said, like life, is more about commitment and endurance than raw talent.
“The thing about distance running is that you can overcome a lack of natural talent,” said Bain. “A talented athlete can be a great runner, but so can an average athlete who is willing to put in the miles and hard work. I am thankful for each of the kids I’ve coached, and I’m looking forward to one, last season with them.”