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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He’s 60 years old—a smallish man with a crooked smile and a quizzical expression. On the day of the match I attended, he wore sweatpants and a purple-and-white Northwestern fencing shirt, reading glasses dangling from the neckline. The gym was a beehive of activity, with 14 schools and dozens of fencers competing at one time, yet Laurie never once raised his voice.

At one point, when it became clear that his team had lost its match against Ohio State, he yawned and looked at his watch. “No point in getting upset,” he said with a shrug. Somewhere, Bobby Knight (902) sensed a disturbance in the cosmos and tossed a chair across his living room. But Laurie’s players clearly don’t mind his mellow groove.

“A lot of fencing coaches are European, and they take a more intense approach,” says one Northwestern fencer, 19-year-old Dayana Sarkisova. “Laurie’s gentler. My coach before was more intense. He took a stricter approach. Actually, that was my dad.”

The guy clearly loves what he’s doing, and that rubs off on everyone around him. You forget sometimes, as you watch him, that he’s a certified fencing master, the highest level possible for a teacher. Even so, he’s not getting rich by coaching. He says his salary is somewhere between $50,000 and $60,000 a year, and he works about 70 hours a week throughout most of the fencing season, which runs from fall through early spring. By way of comparison, the women’s basketball coach at Tennessee, Pat Summitt (1,037), makes 27 times more than Laurie, or $1.5 million a year.

Never in his wildest imagination, though, did Laurie think he would wind up with a career in fencing. “It’s still kind of amazing to me,” he says. “It just happened. You know what I’m saying?”

* * *

Laurie was born in Brooklyn and raised on Long Island, where he started fencing on his high-school team because one of his brothers did. He was good enough to compete for four years at Rutgers, but he says he was “never more than an adequate fencer.” He arrived at Northwestern in 1972 to get a doctorate in African history and did a bit of fencing in his spare time. After going to England and Kenya on a Fulbright Scholarship, he returned to Evanston in 1978 to write his dissertation and teach classes.

Though he intended to become a professor of African history, the job offers never materialized. So, while he waited for something better to come along, he coached the Northwestern men’s and women’s fencing teams. For the first three years, the job was unpaid. Fencing was a varsity sport, but no scholarships were offered. The teams traveled in two vans, Laurie driving one and a student driving the other.

To help make ends meet, his wife, Cathleen Weigley, signed on for a part-time job as the team’s armorer, which meant she took care of the sabers, épées, and foils. She and Laurie have been married 36 years now and live in a condo in Deerfield that they’ve filled with a lot of Bolivian pottery and some swords and guns from the Civil War era. They have a 20-year-old cat named Sheba. Cathleen has been to almost every college competition, home and away, these past three decades.

“They’re inseparable,” says Northwestern’s athletic director, Jim Phillips. “They’re just wonderful people.”

They have only one car, a 2004 Taurus station wagon, so when Cathleen is done working on the team’s weapons, she sits in the gym’s office for hours, waiting for her husband to finish running his practice. On days when they have a tournament at Northwestern, they’re up before dawn. Then they drive to the campus to unlock the gym and make preparations. They usually go to the grocery store the night before to get snacks and bottled water for the fencers and referees.

“You never see the basketball coach running out for bottled water,” Cathleen says—with pride, not resentment.

After all these years, she still marvels at her husband’s incredible passion for the work. “He doesn’t know how to relax,” she says. “When he has time off, he makes lists of things to do. . . . He likes to do everything well.”

Laurie laughs and admits it’s true. Though his manner may be mild, he detests losing.
 

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