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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Laurie Schiller, coach of the Northwestern fencing team
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.

* * *

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

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comments
3 years ago
Posted by TurboDave

One thing that struck me about Laurie during my time as a student on his team was his insistence on integrity on and off the fencing strip. The few times I have ever seen him really angry were all the result of bad behavior by student athletes, never because of poor performance. This is a strong contrast to coaches in other sports (particularly big money sports) who routinely look the other way when athletes break rules or act in an unsportsmanlike manner or do things that could hurt the reputation of the team or school. Even other fencing coaches don't insist on the level of respect for other teams' players that Laurie does.

The author of the article should have attended a practice and maybe an individual lesson -- the effort expended at those times does more to explain Laurie's success than anything you can see at a tournament.

I only wish that Laurie had a Varsity men's fencing team -- his win count would certainly be higher if the men's victories were a part of it.

3 years ago
Posted by TomCF

Turbodave, the Men's team was varsity back in the early 90s. Other than that, I agree with everything you wrote.

3 years ago
Posted by NUMBSpiritLeader

Laurie is someone who made a difference in my life when I was a student. I fenced for Laurie his first few years as head coach. He turned a group of (mostly) geeks and nerds into a winning team. He was (and is) a great teacher, leader, and coach. Laurie made it clear that we were students first and athletes second - he expect our very best at both. He encouraged all of us - no matter the skill level. It's nice that they are naming part of the gym after him, but I'd like to see the gym renamed as Patten-Schiller (or Schiller-Patten) Gymnasium. Laurie also deserves to be in the Northwestern Athletics Hall of Fame. I'm glad that Cathy got a mention too - she kept the team operating on a shoestring.

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