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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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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.”
 

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