Legendary SMC running Coach Ron Gunn passes the baton– 25 years later

Two men met for the first time last week in Dowagiac.  But they already share a legacy going back decades, centered on one of the most unique attributes of Southwestern Michigan College–its cross country running program–now resurrected after a 25 year hiatus.

Zac Sartori is the new cross country head coach at SMC, relaunching the program this fall.

Ron Gunn is the legendary coach who started the program and put SMC on the national map of cross country running in the 70s and 80s.  Gunn came back to the campus to make a $5,000 donation to SMC’s new trophy hall, which displays the Roadrunners’ national titles and All-American accolades.

So, it was fitting that the two men sat down together, shook hands, had a coffee and shared stories  in front of the fireplace in the SMC Student Activity Center .

The face of SMC Athletics for four decades and the founder of Steve’s Run,  Ron Gunn retired in 1996 as the winningest coach in junior college cross country, with five national championships, three national marathon championships, 23 Michigan Community College Athletic Association (MCCAA) cross country and 18 National Junior College Athletic Association (NJCAA) Region XII track championships. His teams finished in the top 10 nationally 28 times in 29 years. Gunn coached at the international level in Ireland in 1979 and in Germany in 1981.

Gunn coached 25 individual national champions, with 142 of his student-athletes earning All-American. He was voted national coach of the year five times and was inducted into both the NJCAA Cross Country Coaches Hall of Fame in Colorado Springs, Colo., and the National Track Hall of Fame in Charleston, W.Va.

Sartori asked about the origin of Gunn’s trademark, “Fire Up!” Gunn always pumps his right fist as he says it because it has to do with railroad steam engines old enough to need their boilers “fired up” with wood or coal.

“It was a silent message I could send when the kids were out on a run that I’m with you and keep up the great work,” he said. “It really caught on, but I got it from trains.”

“I want to make sure I carry on the appropriate traditions,” Sartori said.

“I’ll help you all you want,” Gunn said, “but I’m not going to intrude on you. You’ve got a great smorgasbord of training venues,” from rugged Lawless Park near Vandalia “all the way” to Lake Michigan’s sandy beaches. “I developed some 40 courses and named them after All-Americans.” They agreed to take a drive soon to acclimate Sartori to those training options.

Gunn, a quarterback and defensive back, was best known for football before coming to SMC in 1967 to establish athletics. Dailey was still a gravel road back then.

At Moline High School in Illinois, Gunn was captain of the football and track teams. He held the school record in the mile and was a member of the 1960 state championship track team.

Gunn played collegiately at Augustana College in Rock Island, Ill., where he quarterbacked the Vikings football team and co-captained track, which won its first conference championship in many years.

He graduated from Augustana in 1964 with an undergraduate degree in physical education. He added a master’s degree in physical education from Bowling Green University in 1966.

Gunn recalled that SMC’s mascot became the Roadrunners in a contest before its cross country success. The advent of athletics coincided with Plymouth’s 1968 introduction of the Roadrunner car to the delight of automotive students. Gunn’s own suggestion had been Centaurs, the creature from Greek mythology with a human’s upper torso and the lower body and legs of a horse.

Gunn shared with Sartori the lore of the Green Gorilla, a former Lansing interurban bus painted green-and-gold, with an old engine that started with a spoon. The college acquired it in the early 1970s to transport the team to Hampshire Country Club for home meets.

Sartori and Gunn share a love for Dowagiac as well as Illinois roots.

Sartori ran for the University of Arkansas-Fayetteville and Loyola University-Chicago. He earned a bachelor’s degree in kinesiology and a master’s degree in sport and exercise psychology from Northern Illinois University.

Sartori served as the men’s and women’s volunteer assistant track and field and cross country coach at the University of Illinois at Chicago from 2013 to 2016. He worked as the assistant boys’ track and field and cross country coach at Lockport Township High School in Illinois since 2016 and, since 2019, also served as assistant men’s and women’s cross country and track and field coach at the College of DuPage.  He began his duties at SMC June 1 of this year.

MOTM acknowledges assistance with this story from John Eby, director of media relations at Southwestern Michigan College.


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