Laurie Schiller, the Most Successful College Coach You’ve Never Heard Of
BLADES OF GLORY: As the women’s fencing coach at Northwestern, the gentle 60-year-old has surpassed 1,000 wins in his career—success that puts him a cut above most other college coaches
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Sabermetrician: Though he admits he’s a “bit of a marshmallow,” Schiller is serious about winning. I think it’s safe to assume you’ve never heard of Laurie Schiller, the women’s fencing coach at Northwestern University, so I’ve compiled a few things you ought to know.
Laurie is a guy. “Laurie” is short for “Laurence.”
His mustache has its own Facebook page, aptly titled “There’s Nothing Quite Like Laurie Schiller’s Mustache.” The page was created by one of his fencers as an affectionate tribute. (Maybe you don’t really need to know this one, but it tells you something about how his athletes feel about him.)
Here’s a fact you really do need to know, though: Laurie, as all his fencers call him, is one of the most successful coaches in collegiate athletics, with a career record of 1,075 wins and 428 losses over 33 seasons. That gives him more wins than most of the big-name coaches in college sports, such as Joe Paterno of Penn State football (401) and Mike Krzyzewski of Duke basketball (900 as of presstime).
How does a coach get more than 1,000 victories? By yelling and screaming? By getting all Woody Hayes (238) in his athletes’ faces? By working his fencers until their calluses have calluses?
Actually, no. “I tend to be a little bit of a marshmallow,” Laurie says.
Maybe he’s being modest. Maybe he’s one of those coaches, like Tom Osborne (255), the former Nebraska football coach, who frightens his athletes with cold, quiet stares, who punishes by withholding praise.
“No, I wouldn’t call Laurie scary,” says sophomore Chloe Grainger, one of his current fencers. “He can be pretty goofy. He’s serious about what he’s doing, but his goofiness still comes out.”
Something tells me no one ever called UCLA basketball coach John Wooden (885) goofy.
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So how does Laurie do it? To see for myself, I dropped by a recent fencing match at Northwestern.
I’d never seen fencing up close before, and I wasn’t expecting much. All I knew was that the competitors came wrapped up like baked potatoes, their faces hidden by masks, and no one seemed to get hurt or even seriously winded. I read up a bit and learned a few things: Nine women start in each match, three with foils, three with sabers, and three with épées. The tips of the weapons are blunted. A fencer needs to score five hits in a three-minute period to win a college bout. A team must win 14 bouts to capture a match.
It sounded complicated. But to my surprise, it turned out to be one of the most exciting sporting competitions I’d ever seen. The women are tremendous athletes. They’re fired up and screaming as they make hits, and even though nobody bleeds, the stabbing is very cool.
The best part is that you and the family can sit about eight feet away from the action. There’s only one other place you can get that close to heavy weaponry in the world of sports, and, unfortunately, the Washington Wizards’ locker room is no place for kids.
The thing that surprised me most at the competition, though, was the sight of Laurie. It wasn’t the bushy white beard and mustache. I’d seen pictures and was prepared for the Captain Ahab thing. When I walked into the gym at Northwestern, Laurie’s team was already fencing, but this highly esteemed coach was wandering around the room like he was the assistant to the assistant—assigning officials to fencing strips, checking on paperwork, and chatting pleasantly with the parents of his players.
Occasionally, he found time to watch his fencers do their thing, but even then he usually stood at a distance. Sometimes he positioned himself behind his reserve fencers, as if he didn’t want to block anybody’s view.
Photograph: Erika Dufour