The man who has a track named after him is 91 years old and is a legend to those who had the good fortune to compete under him. Put simply, he was Super Coach
It was the early summer of 1976 and more than just the muggy lakeside air of Sault Ste. Marie was heating up.
Teachers and the Sault and Area Board of Education found themselves embroiled in a contract dispute. As a result, teachers elected to work-to-rule, which led to one of then seven public high schools scrapping their respective track and field seasons.
Six schools, including Sir James Dunn, continued plodding along the local tracks, appointing student-athletes as interim coaches.
“I may be running the show at Sir James Dunn (SJD), but Jo Forman has helped me a great deal,” senior athlete-turned-coach Mike McWatters told The Sault Star in 1976.
“Whenever I need some advice, I can go to Mr. Forman and get the answers.”
Truth be told, Forman gave high school athletes much more than answers for 38 years, including 1976.
Forman literally gave kids track and field time and time again.
Exactly 146 competitors qualified for the Northern Ontario Secondary Schools Association (NOSSA) track and field championship that summer, and Forman eventually crossed the invisible picket line, driving Dunn athletes east to Sudbury for NOSSA.
It marked the second time in seven track seasons that Forman sidestepped toeing the union line and allowed kids to participate in the championships.
“The teachers went work to rule (in 1971) and he still did his stuff. I think he suffered a bit (at work) for it,” said Doug Richardson, a pole vaulter who graduated from SJD in 1973. “He even took kids down to OFSAA on his own. He truly did live for the athletes.”
Forman left a teaching position in Leamington and arrived in Sault Ste. Marie in 1952.
He took a job as a commercial teacher at Tech (later named Lakeway).
The gig annually paid $200 more than any job in southern Ontario and it pushed his yearly gross earnings to $16,200.
“A lot of money back then,” said Forman, now 91 years old and living in a quaint, scantly decorated one-bedroom unit at Pathways Retirement Residence.
Only one photo adorns any of the walls in Forman’s home. Just above his telephone, a newspaper’s yellowing photo of his 1958 Sir James Dunn Eagles senior boys basketball team is tacked to the white wall with tape.
When SJD opened for business in 1956, Forman became the school’s first head of physical education and coached basketball and football.
The first two years of SJD’s athletic participation were trying times. Offering just Grades 9 and 10, junior-aged players were forced to play senior teams from Tech and Collegiate.
“The first basketball game we ever played against Collegiate, we had Grade 9 and 10 players and they had some players in Grade 13,” Forman recalled, vividly. “They beat the hell out of us.
“But like the elephant, I never forgot.”
In 1958, with his first crop of players finally in Grades 10 and 11, Forman exacted revenge.
“It was the only time in my coaching career that I ever left my first-string players on from start to finish,” said Forman, who couldn’t believe the competitive nature of the Sault’s sports scene. “It was dog-eat-dog (world). I’d never seen anything like it.
“I felt so sorry for those parents who would come and watch their kids sit on the bench.”
Forman graduated from Windsor’s Kennedy Collegiate in 1932, and Assumption College, now the University of Windsor, in 1937.
“Coming from Windsor, we had everything,” Forman remembered. “High diving, low diving, track, you name it. Every school had a pool.”
Forman was shocked to learn that only basketball and football were played in Sault high schools in 1952.
And so he brought track and field among other sports to the Dunn in 1956.
“I came along and buttered things up a bit,” joked Forman, who also implemented gymnastics and wrestling at SJD. “We started everything we could, to hell with the other schools if they didn’t want to follow.”
While Forman coached teams to city basketball and football championships, it was the track on which he reigned supreme.
He and his Eagles won the first 13 consecutive city track championships and went to five straight NOSSA meets. The boys team won 22 consecutive city championships from 1957 to 1978, inclusive.
His record and contributions as coach earned him the 1977 H.P. Broughton Memorial Trophy as the Sault’s sportsman of the year. And, in 1980, the Jo Forman Track held its first event.
“I found that he was the best fundamentals coach I’d ever seen,” said Bill Siegman, Forman’s record-breaking hurdler, who landed a track scholarship at the University of South Dakota. “For kids just beginning he’s the guy. I don’t know where he picked it up . . . but with all the basics he knew about field events and running, he was out there day in and day out.”
Amazingly, Forman never “picked it up” anywhere. As an athlete, he was never a member of any track team. Although, even at 91, he’s quick to point out he did run track once.
“I got myself a trial run in the 400 metres at Kennedy,” Forman said. “I didn’t make it.”
Legendary Hec Creighton cut Forman after one subpar lap of the track.
It was a move in stark contrast to how Forman went about the business of coaching.
“If I saw a kid who was six-foot-10, I’d have him in the gym playing basketball the next day,” Forman said. “What’s that? You’ve never played before? Well, get in there and give it a try, you just might like it.”
He approached track and field the same way.
“I knew if you were 300 pounds, you wouldn’t be in the high jump,” he said.
But Forman would quickly find two sports in which you had a chance to compete.
“I hate coaches who only want winners,” snapped Forman. “I don’t care if you come in last, just improve yourself.
“I got more joy out of seeing a kid finish sixth, improve himself and get me one point in the standings.”
Tirelessly dedicated, Forman would practise indoors, setting up three hurdles in the empty hallway after school.
He once had a hurdler who flailed his left arm each jump. So Forman placed the hurdles snug against the steel locker doors.
“That fixed him,” Forman said with a wink.
“He was demanding, but very fair,” said Linda Vetrie, who ran track for Forman and later taught with him for a year. “He always wanted you do to your best. He gave you a lot of incentive and encouragement. I appreciated that.”
As did Siegman, who once made the mistake of telling Forman he was “running for second place” against a heavy favourite at OFSAA.
“He went up one side of me and down the other,” Siegman said. “The bottom line in that was that if you’re running for second, why even run at all? That made me think. You run your hardest to try and win. That’s what came to light. I thought of that blast before future races.”
Oh, sure, people still think of Jo Forman; his cries of “Holy bald head, my grandmother can run faster than that!” or his annual springtime tirade of snapping a clipboard over his knee and storming out of practice, loudly vowing to never return come to mind among the elders.
But often kids today likely think Just who is Jo Forman and this track of his?’
“They should know who he is,” Richardson said, “because track, and its revival, is based on the legacy he left as a coach.”