Liberty Flames Director of Track and Field announces retirement

Brant Tolsma announced to his team that he would be retiring as Liberty University’s director of track and field and cross-country Feb. 29, following their sweep at the 2020 ASUN Indoor Track and Field Championships. What he did not realize at that time was that he had just coached the final collegiate meet of his illustrious 34-year career at LU — a legacy that has seen Tolsma build Liberty’s track and field team from its infancy to becoming one of the premiere programs in the country .

With the recent cancellation of the NCAA spring sports season due to the rapidly spreading COVID-19, Tolsma’s coaching career with the Flames has ended slightly sooner than expected.

Instead of becoming frustrated or pessimistic, Tolsma accepted the fact that he will not have the opportunity to defend the Flames 2019 ASUN outdoor track and field championship, even joking about the premature conclusion to his coaching career.

“When I announced my retirement, I did not realize it was all history. I thought we had one final (outdoor season),” Tolsma said. “I thought I was going to sprint into the hand-off zone, but I guess I am sort of jogging in.”

People are not going to forget the year that Tolsma retired because of the novel coronavirus pandemic, buthis successful development and discipleship of student athletes at Liberty University  have been the signature of his coaching legacy for the past 34 years.

Before coming to Liberty, Brant Tolsma coached track and field at Campbell University in the early 1980s. He felt fortunate because the school had an asphalt track with four lanes and competed as a Division I program.

When he was offered a position as the interim head track and field coach in 1985 by Liberty Athletics Hall of Famer and first Head Coach Jake Matthes, Tolsma felt the calling to go, but was unsure what to do. At that time, Liberty’s track and field team did not have a track of its own and was a Division II program — seemingly a step down from his current position with Campbell.

“I never saw the team (at Liberty) or the school coming to the level that it is at now,” Tolsma said. “I did see it climbing. I often say, I did not see Liberty as a stepping stone – I saw it as an escalator.”

Tolsma finally made the decision to come to Lynchburg in 1986, and under his leadership, Liberty’s track and field program has not only escalated past his expectations but has ascended to become one of the most recognized Division I programs in the country during his 34 years as head coach.

“I do not think I have applied for a single job since I have been here, even through the rough days,” Tolsma said. “My calling fit under the umbrella of Dr. Jerry Fallwell’s calling, which was to build a school that trained champions for Christ. My calling has been to train track and field athletes to be champions for Christ.”

During his coaching career at Liberty, Tolsma has accumulated many accolades and helped to develop a dominant program in both track and field and cross-country.

Tolsma led the Flames to 116 conference championships, won 77 conference coach of the year awards and was nominated as the NCAA District Coach of the Year twice. He helped grow the program to become NCAA Division I in 1989 and since then has seen six of his athletes become individual national champions and 61 others receive All-American honors.

For Tolsma, however, the reward is not the plaques on the wall or the award ceremonies. Instead, sharing his faith and seeing the personal and spiritual growth of the student athletes is his prize.  

“The thing that has kept me in (coaching) is the love for the Lord that I get to express through this medium,” Tolsma said. “The trophies are not what you see out in the case. The trophies are the lives of the (athletes) that are changed by the program.”

One of the lives that Tolsma has impacted during his coaching tenure at Liberty is a man who he coached as a sprinter who has since gone on to become one of his assistant coaches for more than 10 years—Associate Head Track and Field Coach Pete McFadden.

McFadden excelled as a kickoff and punt returner for Liberty’s football team in the late 1990s, in addition to competing as a sprinter on the Flames track and field team. Despite track and field being his secondary sport, the lessons McFadden learned from Tolsma during his time as a student-athlete are still paying dividends today.

“(Tolsma) has always been consistent with you cultivating (your) relationship with Jesus Christ,” McFadden said. “That was really big for him and that was big for all of us (on the team). We hated it at the time, but I know it helped us grow and mature (from) the men and women who were on the team to who they are now.”

McFadden, who has served under Tolsma since 2007 as a sprint coach, acknowledged he was a little surprised to learn about the longtime coach’s decision to retire late last month.

“(I had) kind of mixed emotions,” McFadden said. “Coach Tolsma has been saying for years that he was going to leave, but we were like, ‘He is not going anywhere.’ When he finally said (he was leaving), he caught me off guard for sure.”

McFadden emphasized that Tolsma is certainly going to be missed by the entire coaching staff and that the transition to a new leadership will take some time to adjust to. He did joke, however, that Tolsma would not truly be leaving for good, saying that he expects the retired coach to still be around the facility to see the team on a regular basis in the future.

As Tolsma mulled the prospect of his retirement during the last several years, he also began the process of preparing the way for the next coach to take his place and continue his legacy of success at Liberty. Tolsma said he has specifically spent the last year trying to put things in place to transition his position to someone who is no stranger to Liberty’s track and field program.

“The last year … I knew I was coming into the hand-off zone and I knew I wanted to hand off to somebody who was going to run the race with the same passion and the same goals and the same mission as I have,” Tolsma said. “The No. 1 guy on my list there was Lance Bingham.”

Bingham coached under Tolsma as an assistant during two separate stints (18 seasons in total) from 1995 to 2001 and from 2005 to 2016, serving as the associate head coach during the latter period. Since leaving Liberty in 2016, Bingham has spent the past four seasons as the head track and field coach at Abilene Christian University.

With his impending retirement, Tolsma said he plans to use his extra free time to continue supporting his children and their families, including his daughter Brenda and her husband Clendon Henderson, who is one of the associate head coaches of Liberty’s track and field team. Tolsma said that his wife Nancy often makes trips to visit their 16 grandchildren, and that he hopes to join her more frequently than he was able to before.

Tolsma’s own personal health and ministry will continue to be his focus as well. He plans to republish his book The Surrendered Christian Athlete, write another book about what he has learned during his years of coaching, and continue working out on a regular basis.

Looking back over his 34 years at Liberty, Tolsma boiled down all of the lessons he has learned into one simple axiom.

“God will use surrendered people,” Tolsma said. “It is not based on your talent alone. You can’t tell (God) how he is going to use you, but if you make yourself available, he is going to show his power in your life.”

Even in 1985, when Liberty had no outdoor track to run on and not much of a track and field program to speak of at the time, Tolsma surrendered his life, took on the challenge, and the rest is history.

Weaner is a sports reporter. Follow him on Twitter.

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