The way Jim Koterba remembers it, the South Pointe cross country head coach came across a musty, crumpled red hat at a county track meet a year ago.
Its owner, Bob Jenkins, had likely tossed it for Koterba to hold while Jenkins mentored a young sprinter or scored a long jump competition. In his later years, the twice-retired coach Jenkins tried to keep his regular visits to area meets quiet.
Impossible, Koterba said. Jenkins was just too popular.
“He’d be out there, doing his thing, trying to be inconspicuous,” Koterba said. “But everybody saw him. He’d go around to every coach and they’d love it.”
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Over a year later at York Comprehensive High School, few things have changed at the Bob Jenkins Memorial County Track meet. Runners still sprint at the pop of a gun and pole vaulters still take their time on the approach.
But Bob isn’t here anymore.
Koterba remembers that every time he touches Jenkins’ old “Stallions Cross Country” hat inside the small, yellow book bag he carries with him at meets.
At the age of 79, Jenkins passed away after more than 40 years of coaching runners and jumpers who ranged from no-hopers to Olympic hopefuls.
Everyone was an all-star in Jenkins’ eyes, said Northwestern coach Calvin Hudgins.
“By profession, he was also a guidance counselor, which speaks volumes about how he wanted to teach kids,” Hudgins said. “He had a passion for helping kids, as well as coaching track.”
As one of the founding fathers of track in South Carolina, Jenkins became synonymous with track and field and cross-country throughout York County. The two-time national track coach of the year began coaching at York Comprehensive and Rock Hill High through the early 1970s, before spending a quarter-century building the program at Northwestern.
Current York coach Eddie Sanders won three cross country and two track state championships under Jenkins before joining him at Northwestern the between 1987 and Jenkins’ first retirement seven years later.
“I miss him,” Sanders said, looking out at his competing Cougars fromoutside the track. “I miss him a lot. He was one of a kind. I remember when I competed, other schools would come and (Jenkins) would help them get better. And I do the same thing, I never turn anyone down, because he did things the right way.”
After a short-lived retirement, Jenkins returned to start up the South Pointe Stallions’ cross country and track program in 2005, when the school opened. By then, Benjy Young had been on the coaching trail for six or seven years after running for Jenkins as a Trojan in the early 1990s. When Jenkins called for him to help run the Stallion program, Young couldn’t turn it down.
“He was grooming me to be head coach after he stepped down and it felt good to be a part of starting something with him, a legend,” said Young, who now works as the sprints, jumps and relays coach back at Northwestern. “It’s a little eerie to be back here. I saw him at the county meet last year, but I didn’t get the chance to talk to him. I didn’t know that would be the last time I’d see him.”
In his office, Young keeps a letter from Jenkins wrote to him in 2010. In it, Jenkins congratulates his protege for winning that year’s region meet. Young’s boys’ team had won the meet, while the girls came in second and if Young put enough kids into the state meet, they had a shot to win.
“Turns out, he was right and we were in the mix,” Young said. “We came in second by a point, but he was always right. I told my wife and kids, ‘I think I’m gonna get it framed.’ ”
The years will pass and countless track athletes will come and go in York County. If there’s a chance that at least a few of them will carry on the generous spirit of Bob Jenkins, South Pointe senior Michael Cranford can give his teammates a primer. Cranford came out for the team in seventh grade, Jenkins’ final official year as a head coach.
Often last in his team’s races, Cranford said he often found it a struggle just to survive the season back in 2008. Yesterday, Cranford ran as a senior captain, anchoring the Stallions in the 4-by-800 relay and 1,600 races.
“It makes me think back, starting out with him, I’ve come a long way and I’m sure he’d be proud,” he said. “I just want to keep up that memory and strive to be the best I can.”
Bob couldn’t be here for the annual track meet Thursday night at York Comprehensive. But every coach in the county can attest that his spirit, in a hat, a letter or just a memory, lives on.