The Hillsdale College women’s track and field team was off to a strong start shortly after its founding in 1977, taking second place at the 1981outdoor track GLIAC Championship meet. A year later, however, the program was taken over by a 22-year old with no athletic experience at the college level, other than her routine workouts in the sports complex.
Nevertheless, the Chargers’ momentum kept on rolling after the coaching transition. In fact, they went on to win 16 consecutive regional championships and 17 conference championships. This new coach with no experience quickly earned the respect of her competitors, so much so that she won the GLIAC Coach of the Year award 20 times between the cross country, and indoor and outdoor track seasons. Beyond the conference, she was recognized at the national level. She coached professional teams for the United States and was even inducted into the NAIA Coaches’ Hall of Fame.
This award-winning coach was Diane Philipp, Hillsdale College’s current dean of women.
She was working out as she normally did during her senior year at Hillsdale College when she was provided with an unexpected opportunity.
“The athletic director, Jack McAvoy, came up to me and asked if I would be interested in coaching,” she said. “I ran in high school, but I didn’t know hardly anything. The first year I was coaching my peers. Some of them were even my friends.”
After graduating in 1982, Philipp began her career as the new head coach of Hillsdale’s track and cross country team.
“It was still fairly in its infant stages, so we had nowhere to go but up in a sense,” she said. “We had a team of talented runners. We just kind of grew.”
The key to growth was great recruiting. Despite being a young coach of a young program, she didn’t back down from recruiting the best.
“I wasn’t shy about recruiting elite athletes,” she said. “I went after anybody who won state championships. When we had kids choosing us over Big 10 schools, we could keep the momentum going.”
One year, Philipp recruited the Michigan state champions of the 100m hurdles in all four divisions of high school track.
“We beat U of M with those four girls in the shuttle hurdle relay,” she said. “It made you feel confident that there was a lot of potential to do a lot of things.”
Her secret to recruiting?
“I just loved the school and told the story,” she said. “There’s a small part of me that thought ‘I’m going to change their life a little bit because they’re going to come to Hillsdale College.’”
Philipp’s goal in recruiting wasn’t only to get the best athletes, but also the most. She wanted a team with depth so when it came time for conference championships, she would have options.
“My strategy was to fill all the events,” she said. “Sometimes two or three couldn’t score, but they were there, feeling it, watching it, and competing, and it gave them desire to get to the conference championship.”
One of Philipp’s favorite memories comes from a girl who had that desire to compete.
“Debby had walked on, and it was her senior year,” Philipp said. “I needed someone in the 10k. Darned if she didn’t score. She got sixth. She scored a point and the whole team just erupted. She was the sweetest, greatest girl. That gave us momentum to do well for the whole meet.”
Philipp’s talent for recruiting wasn’t unnoticed. Ed Carleton — or “Coach C” as his many athletes called him during his 44 years of coaching high school track and cross country in Michigan — met Philipp when he decided to visit Hillsdale.
“When I met Diane, I had two girls two years in a row go to Hillsdale, and I had nothing to do with it,” Carleton said. “When girl number three decided to go, I thought ‘It’s about time I go down to Hillsdale.’”
Carleton liked what he saw when he first visited the college. He got on board with Philipp’s coaching and wanted to help her team, so he would talk to the girls he coached about going to Hillsdale.
“I just loved the school, it was just a great school,” he said. “I helped Diane recruit for the years she was involved. I thought she was a good coach and she did well. She had a knack with the girls and a knack for recruiting.”
The two became friends who still get together each spring at the Hillsdale Gina Relays.
“Coach C helped me a ton,” Philipp said. “Any kids in the Detroit area, he’d give me a call. We’d have fun trying to find freshmen that had potential, the two of us together.”
With great success in her years of college coaching, Philipp was asked to coach at the national level for the United States. She coached the Olympic Festival Team in 1989, the women’s Ekiden Distance team in 1990, the 1995 women’s World Cross Country team, and the women’s track and field team at the World Junior Championships in 1998.
“It was awesome, so much fun,” she said of the World Cross Country Championships. “I got to meet these incredibly elite athletes. It was kind of a whole new world for me. It was really just a bigger scale and there were a lot of unknowns. I wasn’t nervous, but I was excited.”
When Philipp arrived in Durham, England, with her team, their transportation to the course was delayed. They finally arrived to find a course gated off and guarded by security.
“I’m totally a rookie but we need to get on this course,” Philipp said. “I decided we’re going to ask for forgiveness instead of permission. We’re just going to go.”
And so her team jumped the fences so they could practice and preview the course before their upcoming race.
“We just kinda acted like we knew what we were doing. It was a little bit of a risk, but I had to let them on the course,” she said. “But they did really really well.”
Her team went on to finish fifth out of 30 international teams.
Philipp was inducted into the NAIA Coaches’ Hall of Fame in 1996 before retiring in 1999. She was the first female to be inducted, as well as the youngest hall-of-famer at that time.
The Hillsdale College president at the time, George Roche, wrote in a letter to Philipp published in the 1996 Hillsdale Alumni Magazine.
“The honor you received speaks volumes to your career as a coach, a teacher, a recruiter and dedicated alumna of the school. Your students, their parents, your colleagues and all of college athletics are learning a great deal from you about the rewards of self-discipline, the meaning of leadership, and how genuine love of athletics is an invaluable part of a broad foundation for life. I have no doubt your talents will continue to transform many lives.”
Roche’s faith in Philipp wasn’t misplaced. After her retirement, she went to the Hillsdale Academy to help with the foundation of its athletic programs. A year and a half later, President of Hillsdale College, Larry Arnn invited her to assume the Dean of Women position, where her lessons as a coach translate to her new position as she continues to impact the lives of her students.
“This job is very similar. It’s just that we’re not in a locker room, it’s an office instead,” she said. “Working one on one with students, keeping them focused, motivated, inspired, healthy, and happy so they can do well in school and the athletic field.”