Legendary IU track coach Ron Helmer dies at 77 (2024)

David Woods| Special to IndyStar

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. – If there was one day encapsulating Ron Helmer’s 54-year coaching career, it was Nov. 3, 2013.

It was the Big Ten Championships in cross-country at West Lafayette.

It had been a year in which the Indiana University track coach endured kidney failure, dialysis, chemotherapy, stem cell transplant, and, finally, depression. Helmer’s former runners called and texted from around the country. They traveled from California and Georgia to sit in his hospital room

Improbably, the Hoosiers won their first Big Ten title in 33 years, ending Wisconsin’s 14-year reign. In a race of eight kilometers, at no point in the first seven did it appear Indiana could win. Then the Hoosiers advanced as if pushed by an unseen force.

“If it was a movie, you’d think it was too corny to be true,” said Fred Glass, who was then IU’s athletic director.

More: Past and present runners help IU cross country coach through illness, back into NCAA meet

Helmer, who retired a year ago after 15 years as men’s and women’s coach for the Hoosiers, died Thursday, the university announced. He was 77.

More: Ron Helmer to retire as Indiana University track coach after 2022-23 season

Even after retiring, he stayed in the sport, helping his son, Justin, as a volunteer assistant at Bloomington North High School. Bloomington North’s boys won an indoor state championship at March’s Hoosier State Relays, featuring the fastest 4x800-meter relay team in the nation.

Helmer coached four teams to Big Ten championships in track or cross-country and, as impressively, 11 more that finished second. In 2019, the Hoosiers won the women’s 4x800 relay at the Penn Relays for their first women’s relay victory at the 125-year-old meet.

“He kind of tells you how it is,” former IU runner Andy Bayer said in an interview last year. “But that just means when he tells you he’s confident in you, you know he really means it. I think it’s that consistency. He also knows how to push an athlete, find those limits.”

Hoosiers on Helmer’s teams included: Canadian high jumper Derek Drouin, a five-time NCAA champion and Bowerman Award winner who was gold medalist at the 2016 Rio Olympics; three World Championships qualifiers in Bayer (steeplechase in 2019), Molly Ludlow (800 in 2015) and Warren Central’s De’Sean Turner (steeple in 2013); Carmel’s Ben Veatch, a five-time Big Ten champion; Lawrence Central’s Kind Butler, a world indoor champion in the 4x400 relay, and three other Olympians, discus thrower Jayden Ulrich, Canadian pole vaulter Kelsie Ahbe and Nigerian triple jumper Olu Olamigoke.

“Outside of my family, he played one of the most influential parts in shaping the person I am today,” Veatch said in text message. “How much I learned from him about running was dwarfed by how much I learned from him about life.

“One of the most important things I learned from coach Helmer was the value of doing difficult things. Life is hard and full of difficult things.”

In recent years, Helmer kept coaching despite life-threating health issues. In December 2015, he received a kidney transplant. The organ donor was his daughter, Victoria Arther.

In an interview last year describing career highlights, he was as likely to reference overachieving walk-ons as he was national champions.

“It’s easy to coach the ones where everything is going well and all you have to do is just line them up,” he said. “But to continue to challenge people and stick with them and support them and tell them what they don’t want to hear sometimes. and then get the results, that’s the part that still keeps me going.”

Helmer learned how to work in Lyons, Kan., where he was raised on a wheat farm. His formative years were spent riding a combine, singing in the church choir, playing football and basketball, and running track.

He graduated from Southwestern College in Winfield, Kan., where he was captain of the track team and was followed by seven Helmer family members. The track there is now the Helmer Family Track Facility, and Ron Helmer belongs to the school’s hall of fame.

He became a high school coach in Kansas and Virginia, winning 10 state championships and sending 13 runners to the Foot Locker cross-country nationals.

That led Helmer to Georgetown, where he stayed for 20 years as a head coach or assistant. His runners had seven NCAA top-four trophies and four national event champions, two in the indoor distance medley relay.

Just as rewarding were ascensions of Zach Mayhew, a 4:30 high school miler who won the 2012 Big Ten cross-country title over Canadian star Mo Ahmed and Bayer, and stepson Teddy Browning, who was part of a 1-2-3 Indiana sweep of the mile at the 2018 Big Ten indoor meet.

“He’s got that Zen, Phil Jackson, Yoda thing going on,” Glass once said. “He doesn’t say a whole lot. But when he does, people listen.”

Helmer’s influence extended to coaching colleagues. Some of his former athletes and assistant coaches – including former Georgetown runner Mike Smith, who has led Northern Arizona to five NCAA cross-country titles since 2017 -- traveled to Bloomington in September 2022 for a Coaching Tree Invitational meet.

Helmer is survived by wife Rebecca (Browning) Helmer; his children, Victoria Arther (Jay), Justin Helmer (Shannon Glenn) and Kari Helmer (Justin Fitzgerald); stepsons Charles (Allison), Robert (Jenn) and Theodore Browning; grandchildren Sydney, Rylee, Brody, Hazel, Layla, Donovan and Brooklyn; brother Jim Helmer (Deborah) and sister Lynette St. Vrain (Brad). He was preceded in death by his wife, Mary C. Helmer, father Ralph and mother Mildred.

The family will receive visitors from 4-7 p.m. Tuesday at The Funeral Chapel, 3000 E. Third St., Bloomington. Funeral services will be at 1 p.m. Wednesday at Sherwood Oaks Christian Church, 2700 E. Rogers Road, Bloomington.

In lieu of flowers, donations may go to Miles for Myeloma-IU Simon Comprehensive Cancer Center, c/o IU Foundation, Box 7072, Indianapolis, IN 46207.

Contact IndyStar correspondent David Woods at dwoods1411@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidWoods007


Legendary IU track coach Ron Helmer dies at 77 (2024)
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