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'Mack' of all trades is hanging it up

When Neil McCormack arrived in Rochester, the population was 39,000, John Marshall was the only public high school and varsity girls athletics did not exist.

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Neil McCormack spent a lot of time at Eastwood Golf Course (here he's on the tee box at No. 12), but he was involved in numerous other Mayo High sports programs and was a key player in its science curricula.
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When Neil McCormack arrived in Rochester, the population was 39,000, John Marshall was the only public high school and varsity girls athletics did not exist.

A great deal has changed since then. But McCormack's unparalleled passion for this community, teaching, students, activities and athletics did not.

McCormack, now 75, has been the only boys golf coach in Rochester Mayo High School history, starting the program 48 years ago. That, however, will change this spring.

Due to major back surgery, McCormack retired as Mayo boys golf coach in January. "Mack" had back surgery the day before Christmas and will not be recovered in time for the spring golf season. He's currently doing physical therapy at his winter condo in Florida.

The news saddened Mayo activities director Jeff Whitney, who said McCormack was "like a second father" to him.

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"I grew up right across the street, and his son (Steve) was my best friend," Whitney said. "Neil would always take care of you. He was like a dad to a number of kids at that time. He's a guy who, no matter what was going on, there was never a negative moment, he always saw the good side of everything."

McCormack was one of only two coaches who had been with Mayo High School since it opened in 1966. Boys hockey coach Lorne Grosso is the last remaining member of the school's original coaching staff.

Though he retired from full-time teaching in 1998, McCormack remained on with the golf team for another 16 seasons.

"You have to enjoy what you're doing to stay around for 48 years," McCormack said. "I had great players, great parents and support from everyone in the community and the school. That kept me going."

In his 48 years, McCormack had a team or individual at the state golf meet 31 times. Five of his teams went to state.

But McCormack wasn't just a golf coach. Far from it ... light years, actually.

In fact, it could be argued no person was more influential in helping Mayo High School develop into what it is today.

Multi-faceted impact

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On the academic side, McCormack was an incredible teacher. A brilliant and innovative man, McCormack started many of the biology courses and curricula in place today at Mayo.

McCormack graduated from Bemidji State University in 1961 and later that year took a job teaching at John Marshall High School, at that time the only public high school in Rochester.

McCormack's thirst for knowledge didn't end there, though. He attended graduate school at Mankato State University. McCormick secured his first masters degree from Mankato, then another from Purdue University. He later did graduate work at Indiana University.

"I remember when I was young, he would drive to Mankato a couple nights a week to get his masters," said Michael McCormack, one of Neil's sons. "After that, I think our family spent the next four summers living in student housing at Purdue while he was getting another masters. Then it was Indiana. I think I was 13 before he had a summer off."

When he first arrived at John Marshall, McCormack taught physics and chemistry.

"My graduate work was in bio-chemistry and I started gravitating toward biology," he said. "Then the environmental movement started in about 1970. At that time, John Kudlas and I developed a sports biology and environmental awareness program and I taught those courses for about 12 years. After that, I ended up teaching (advanced placement) biology for the final 18 years.

"Over the years, I taught pretty much all the sciences. I enjoyed going back and forth, having the variety. The last part of my career was AP biology, and that interested me a lot."

Though he retired from full-time teaching in 1998, McCormack couldn't stay away. He was a long-term substitute teacher and helped with a mentorship program at Mayo. He also taught classes at the University of St. Thomas. "I stayed busy with education for about 12 years after I retired," he said.

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Whitney said McCormack's influence on Mayo academics is undeniable. "He started a lot of things here, a lot of bio courses that are still going today," Whitney said. "He was heavily involved in making Mayo High School a unique educational school. He always promoted everything and always made sure the kids had fun doing it.

"I had him for a teacher as well. I went through from 1977 through 1980, and he was always one of those teachers everyone enjoyed. He made things fun, he made things connect. You always remember those teachers later in life."

Multiple sports

As far as athletics go, McCormack had his hand in just about every sport imaginable.

When he arrived at John Marshall in 1961, activities director Wendell McKibben asked McCormack if he could coach.

"I felt like I would be too busy so I resisted right away," McCormack said. "He said that was fine, but he wanted me to be around the coaches to learn from them. Little did I know, all of those coaches at the time would go on to have Hall of Fame careers. When I got there it was guys like John Drews, Evar Silvernagle, Kerwin Engelhart, Wally Brunswold and Alt Bjurquist. I learned so much from those guys."

Golf was something that interested McCormack instantly. His father, Foster, was a good golfer. "He won the big Smokey Bear Invitational a number of years in (their hometown) International Falls," Mike McCormack said.

So coaching golf seemed to come naturally for Neil.

"I felt I was a good golfer and knew the mechanics of the swing well," Neil said. "Alt Bjurquist was the coach at the time, so I agreed to help with that. Alt was very good at the mental side of things. He knew how to help a player who had a down week, how to get him to bounce back, get that confidence back."

When Mayo opened in 1966, McCormack took a job at the new school and guided the first boys golf program.

He didn't stop there. McCormack was a man who never liked to sit still, so he got himself involved with almost every activity at Mayo High School over the years.

He worked as a boys hockey assistant coach under Grosso for three years. He also coached youth hockey for 10 years.

Intramurals too

At the time, there were no "open gyms" for athletes. So McCormack started several intramural sports programs.

"I was involved with almost every sport," he said. "We had probably 50 guys playing IM hockey. I ran intramurals before open gyms were around, stuff like basketball, volleyball, touch football, softball. The IM sports were basically keeping all the athletes busy when they were in the offseason."

One of McCormack's most notable accomplishments was starting the girls hockey program at Mayo. He teamed with Bart Grafstrom to form the first team in 1995. McCormack coached that team for 11 years, helping it to three state tournaments.

"That was very interesting, starting a program from scratch," he said.

This winter, McCormack took a great deal of pride in seeing his son, Mike, take over the program he started back in the 1990s.

"When they started the program in 1995, I had just moved back to Rochester," Mike McCormack said. "I had always known my dad as a head coach, never as an assistant. Well, Bart Grafstrom took on the role as head coach and my dad was the assistant. I remember asking dad about it, and he said, 'I get to do all the fun stuff, and Bart has to do all the hard work.' Dad got to pat the kids on the back and do the stuff he enjoyed."

Mike McCormack said his father also was involved in starting soccer at Mayo. "He started the IM soccer program at Mayo when I was a student there," he said. "My dad and Ken Johannson got Charles Abboud involved, and he obviously went on to help shape Rochester soccer. A lot of athletes were using soccer for cross-training at the time."

Other contributions

On top of the myriad activities, McCormack donated his time at countless athletic events. For 48 years, he ran the scoreboard at Mayo football games. In the 1970s and '80s, he was the public-address announcer at boys basketball games. McCormack said he remembers volunteering at swimming, cross country, soccer ... the list is seemingly endless.

"I did as much as I could, and I enjoyed it all," he said. "I enjoyed being around the players."

When it came to his own kids, McCormack had the same philosophy. He wanted them involved with as much as possible.

"He wanted us to play everything," Mike McCormack said. "He was my coach in hockey and golf. He would play baseball and football with us around the neighborhood."

Mike McCormack said the father-coach relationship created some interesting memories. One he'll never forget — the day his dad had to cut him from the golf team.

"My senior year, I couldn't keep it in the fairway," Mike McCormack said. "Back then, as the season winded down, the golf team lost tee times, so you had to cut things down. I just had a mental block and couldn't get it figured out.

"I'm not sure how many fathers have had to cut their kids. But what made it hard was we had a rule in our house, when you start a sport, you have to finish it. You don't get to quit. I didn't want to put him through that. I think that would have been harder for him than it was cutting me."

Many stories

Mike McCormack also remembers when Mayo played its high school hockey games outdoors. "Dad would wear a sweater in a windbreaker outside; the cold didn't bother him," he said. "Most of us would have dressed like the Michelin Man.

"But I can't go anywhere without hearing a story like that about my dad. People hear my name, they ask if I'm his kid, and they have a story for me about my dad. Everyone loved him as a teacher and a coach. I was pretty fortunate to have him for both. I think the thing I learned from him the most is that when you're a coach, you're also a teacher, a cheerleader and a counselor."

That he won't be coaching for the first time in 48 years this spring hasn't hit Neil McCormack just yet. It could hit during the Mayo Invitational, an event he started in 1977.

"Yeah, it's been a special event to me," McCormack said. "At the time when I started it, there weren't really invitational events for kids. They mostly just did dual meets. But I felt it was important for their success to be playing with other kids from other teams, so that's how the Mayo Invitational started."

Whitney said there will never be another Neil McCormack at Mayo High School.

"There aren't many left like him, with that kind of passion and willingness to help out with everything," Whitney said. "He's the epitome of a high school coach. He totally promoted every kid. He was always a positive individual that loved Mayo High School and put every kid first. He's always been a Mayo supporter. He couldn't have been a better staff member or coach."

Related Topics: GOLF
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