By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa – Track and field, the Iowa Hawkeyes and Joey Woody all have played a significant role in the life of John Raffensperger.
And that’s why at the age of 77 and battling the effects of cancer that Raffensperger cherishes his role as a volunteer assistant coach for the Iowa track and field program.
The former Iowa City High track and field coaching legend is in his 12th season as a volunteer assistant for the Hawkeyes.
Raffensperger gets to come and go as he pleases, but he rarely misses an opportunity to be around the sport, the school and a person that means so much to him.
“As a volunteer, I don’t have to be here every day, but I usually am,” Raffensperger said Wednesday at practice.
Raffensperger and Woody have undergone a role reversal in a relationship that started nearly 30 years ago and was strengthened by their love of track and field.
Woody was a star hurdler for Raffensperger at City High in the early 1990s and now Raffensperger is helping Woody with the Iowa men’s and women’s track programs.
Woody has been the director of both programs since July 2014 after serving as a full-time assistant coach under Larry Wieczorek since 2007.
Wieczorek, who retired as the Iowa men’s head coach in 2014, had reached out to Raffensperger shortly after Raffensperger had retired from City High in 2003 to gauge his interest about helping as a volunteer.
Raffensperger wasn’t ready at the time because he had just retired and wanted to step away from the daily grind of coaching for a while.
But he got the itch to return after Woody became an Iowa assistant coach in 2007.
“When Joey was hired I really thought it was a good time to do that,” Raffensperger said. “And he’s really done a tremendous job and I really enjoy it.
“It’s such a role reversal. I just do whatever he tells me.”
Raffensperger worked with the high jumpers when he first started as a volunteer assistant, but he now spends most of his time, which is about three hours each day, coaching the sprinters and middle-distance runners.
He also compiles statistics for all of the events and does whatever Woody needs him to do on a daily basis.
“I think just my long-time experience working with track athletes is a benefit,” Raffensperger said. “And I’ve said to Joey a couple times; I don’t know if I’m really doing much here. And he said, ‘well, every once in a while you see things that I don’t see.’
“So that’s good, and hopefully, I’ll keep doing this for as long as I can.”
Woody feels fortunate in so many ways to have Raffensperger by his side. Woody benefits personally and professionally from having one of the greatest high school track and field coaches in state history to lean on.
Raffensperger spent 38 year at City High and built arguably the premier boys track and field program in the state before retiring in 2003. He led the Little Hawks to 10 state titles during an 11-year stretch in the 1990s and early 2000s.
He also helped to make Woody one of the state’s best hurdlers, and had the same positive effect on Tim Dwight as a sprinter and long jumper.
“It’s awesome,” Woody said. “Raff is a guy that has the great one-liners and everything and it’s just great for my student-athletes to be able to learn a lot from him.
“A lot of times, when I say something it doesn’t get through their head what I’m trying to say. And then he might say something that they understand a little bit more.”
A distraction from his health issues
Raffensperger has been battling the effects of cancer for several years. It started with a tumor in his skull and then spread to his lungs and stomach. He has had two lung surgeries and currently receives treatment every three weeks.
“I’m doing good,” Raffensperger said. “I have to do several treatments, but fortunately right now, I don’t have to do chemotherapy, which is good.”
The time that Raffensperger spends as a volunteer assistant is a nice distraction from his health issues.
“It keeps me involved every day doing something,” Raffensperger said. “As a volunteer, I don’t get paid, but there are a lot of fringe benefits. I get to travel a lot and I get a new pair of shoes every year and gear that I wear.
“Just the travel part is enjoyable.”
Being a volunteer also keeps Raffensperger close to Woody. They are sort of like father and son who share a mutual respect and a passion for the same sport.
“You can’t even put it into (words),” said Woody, who won an NCAA title in the 400-meters for Northern Iowa in 1997 and just missed qualifying for the 2000 Olympic Games in that event. “What he’s done when I was an athlete at City High and when I was still competing at UNI and post-collegiately, and what he’s done for me now as a head coach; I still learn a learn a lot from him.
“You just can’t put it into words how much my former coaches, especially coach Raff, have done for me and for my career, and just made me a great coach, hopefully, that I can pass on his knowledge to other people.”
Woody gets satisfaction from knowing that Raffensperger can forget about his health issues while coaching the sport he loves.
“We don’t really talk a lot about it,” Woody said of Raffensperger’s health issues. “We just love having him around. I think he probably hears enough about it outside of here, so I try to make this his sanctuary just like I tell everybody here. This is your sanctuary. You get away from class. You get away from the distractions. You get to come here and just be who you want to be and go out and just train hard.
“And for him, it’s an opportunity for him to be around young kids and see some unbelievable performances. Especially when we travel and go to meets. I hope that it is a good distraction for him. He’s a courageous guy and I just love having him around.”
From Panther to Hawkeye
Wieczorek deserves credit for rebuilding the Iowa program and for hiring Woody as an assistant in 2007.
Together, they helped lead the Iowa men’s team to the Big Ten outdoor title in 2010, ending a drought that had lasted since 1969.
Iowa has mostly remained in the upper half of the conference under Woody’s direction and shows signs of getting better.
And in Woody’s case, better late than never.
Woody as a high school senior was the all-time leader in the state of Iowa in the 400 hurdles, and yet, Iowa, which was struggling at the time, only wanted him as a walk-on.
He instead chose a scholarship from Northern Iowa where he became one of the nation’s top hurdlers and an NCAA champion for a program that flirted with elite status.
Iowa obviously missed on Woody the track athlete and paid for it, but they’re now on the same side and the landscaped has changed since Woody became a Hawkeye.
“When I started here and when I was coaching high school at the end of my career there, you’d have to say that UNI actually had the best program,” Raffensperger said. “Even when I started here, if we would’ve had a dual meet with Iowa and UNI, we wouldn’t have been able to beat UNI. We’d have some better individuals. But we couldn’t have beat them as a team.
“Now it’s other way around. And it’s the same with Iowa State. They were really strong for a long time when Bill Bergan was the coach over there. And then they’ve kind of changed their recruiting policies and so on. So I think we’re the top program in the state of Iowa for sure. And we’re starting to get the good Iowa kids, which we weren’t before.”
Iowa fans can see for themselves on Thursday when the Hawkeyes host the annual Musco Invitational from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. at the UI Track and Field Complex. The meet was switched from this coming Saturday night due to expected weather conditions.
Regardless of the time or the day, Raffensperger will be there to support his friend and the Hawkeyes.
Raffensperger grew up loyal to the Hawkeyes as the son of Leonard Raffensperger, who was the head football coach at Iowa in 1950 and 1951.
Raffensperger also until recently was the long-time press box announcer for Iowa football games. His health issues have made it difficult for him to perform that job because of the strain on his voice, so that places even more importance on the volunteer position.
“I’m hoping to continue for a while,” Raffensperger said. “I don’t know. A lot of it is going to have to do with my health and how that goes.”
Woody wants his friend and mentor to stay for as long as he wants because it’s a joy and a benefit having Raffesnperger by his side.
“He’s been working with young athletes for a long time, so he’s got a good vibe with everybody and how to approach things,” Woody said.