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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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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