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?
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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.
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.
When Laurie took over as coach, fencing practice was twice a week. He told the captain of the team that practice would now be three times a week. He may call himself a marshmallow, but even marshmallows have their limits. If one of his players shows up late repeatedly or skips a practice, Laurie—in his usual sweet voice—will probably let her know she’s been benched for the next match. No arguments, no appeals.
For the first 20 years, he had no scholarship money to hand out. He worked with athletic kids in the gym whom he could turn into fencers, even if they didn’t know an épée from an epaulet. Gradually, his misfits began to win their share of matches. In 1998, when scholarships finally became available, he began recruiting top-tier fencers and really started piling up the wins. Now he has earned a reputation as one of the nation’s top fencing coaches. He’s been named the Midwest’s fencing coach of the year six times, and his teams have finished in the top ten nationally for 11 consecutive years.
Laurie does his best to shrug off the praise. He credits his wife and his longtime assistant coach, Ed Kaihatsu. Fencing coaches don’t win matches, Laurie says, over and over—fencers do. It’s not like football or basketball, where coaches can send in plays. Though he’s allowed to call time-outs, he seldom does. “What am I supposed to say?” he asks. “‘You’ve got 3 points. Try to hit her twice’?”
After decades of working in obscurity, Laurie has had a small measure of attention recently come his way. Last year, Sports Illustrated ran his picture and a short blurb in recognition of his 1,000th career win. That win felt like something special to Laurie, too. He decided to reward himself by buying something he’d always wanted: a set of Canadian license plates to add to the license plate collection he keeps in his garage. He paid about $100 on eBay.
This year, Northwestern announced that it was naming the lobby of Patten Gymnasium—where Laurie has his office and where his team practices—the Laurie Schiller Lobby. Patten is the university’s old gym. It’s the place where all the fencers come to sweat, where they put in the hard work before competing. It’s also the place where Laurie’s wife sits and waits, usually reading a book, while her husband drills his athletes through another practice.
“It’s funny,” Cathleen says, looking up from her book, no one else around. “It’s hard to think of it as being the Laurie Schiller Lobby.”
Then she smiles and adds, “I’ll get used to it.”