Coaches Zupanc, Vercauteren announce retirement - UW Oshkosh Today
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John Zupanc and Deb Vercauteren

John Zupanc and Deb Vercauteren, a husband-and-wife team that is responsible for 24 of the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh’s 42 national championships, have announced that they will retire from their coaching, teaching and administrative positions with the school in January.

Zupanc and Vercauteren have each totaled 30 years of service with the UW Oshkosh cross country and track and field programs. They will close an era that is marked by numerous individual and team championships, academic awards and countless other milestones and accolades.

“Deb and John epitomize the Division III philosophy,” said UW Oshkosh Chancellor Richard H. Wells. “They made sure that their student-athletes took full advantage of everything that our academic community has to offer as preparation for a full and rewarding life in service of others.”

Zupanc and Vercauteren found the right match with each other at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, and soon after, the couple became a perfect fit for UW Oshkosh. The two met while in graduate school before Vercauteren was hired to be the Titans’ head women’s badminton coach in 1980. UW Oshkosh dropped women’s badminton from its sports module one year later, leaving a space for Vercauteren to head the school’s women’s cross country program.

Vercauteren began her inaugural season as the head women’s track and field coach at UW Oshkosh in 1982. The Ashwaubenon native resigned from her head women’s track and field coaching position following the 2009 season to become an assistant to current head coach Pat Ebel.

“This is both a sad and happy time,” Vercauteren said. “John and I are excited to be moving on to a new chapter in our lives. We take many fond memories with us. For 30 years we looked forward to coming into work each day. I love working with young women and will miss their enthusiasm and energy for life.”

Zupanc became a volunteer assistant coach with UW Oshkosh’s men’s track and field team in 1981. The Monroe native then took over as the school’s head men’s cross country coach in 1982. Zupanc served as an assistant track and field coach until becoming the head outdoor coach in 2005 and the head indoor coach in 2006.

“One of the greatest things about coaching is knowing you have the opportunity to make a lasting impact with the student-athletes,” Zupanc said. “To be able to mold them and watch them mature over their time at UW Oshkosh is very gratifying. Then to continue to observe them as alums, parents and lasting friends makes you feel that you have had a positive impact. You can always look at winning and losing, but ultimately it’s about being the best you can be every day. I believe I have passed that on to each team.”

Coaching three collegiate sports every year could take a toll on many marriages, but Zupanc and Vercauteren have been successful because they share many of the same work hours and travel plans. They said their close relationship and family values set an example that their teams follow. Zupanc and Vercauteren believe athletes can be successful as long as they emphasize communication, a winning attitude and a sound training program.

“If I could pick two people who exemplify UW Oshkosh athletics, they would be Deb Vercauteren and John Zupanc,” said Allen Ackerman, UW Oshkosh’s Director of Athletics from 1991-2010. “They have been tremendous ambassadors for the University and great role models for our student-athletes. Their accomplishments speak for themselves, but more important are the lives they have touched and helped mold into mature and confident adults. It has been a pleasure to be associated with both of them as a colleague and friend. They will truly be missed.”

Since 1981, Vercauteren has guided UW Oshkosh women’s cross country teams to 23 appearances at the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Division III Championship. The Titans captured four national titles (1987-88, 1991, 1996), while finishing second, third and fourth in the country three times each. Vercauteren, who also coached her teams to 15 Wisconsin Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (WIAC) titles, led 24 cross country runners to two national titles and a total of 41 All-America awards. She was selected the NCAA Division III Cross Country Coach of the Year twice (1985-86) and the WIAC Cross Country Coach of the Year 10 times.

Vercauteren, who the United States Track and Field and Cross Country Coaches Association named in 2005 as its NCAA Division III Women’s Cross Country Silver Anniversary Coach, also shaped UW Oshkosh’s women’s track and field program into national prominence.

Indoors, UW Oshkosh teams won six NCAA Division III titles (1984-86, 2004-06) and 11 WIAC championships under Vercauteren’s leadership. The Titans also placed second at the NCAA Division III Indoor Championship four times and both third and fourth twice. Vercauteren had 13 athletes win a total of 23 individual national titles and 51 athletes gain a total of 117 All-America distinctions. She also coached three national champion relay squads. Vercauteren, a nine-time WIAC Indoor Track and Field Coach of the Year honoree, was named the NCAA Division III Indoor Coach of the Year in 2006.

Vercauteren’s outdoor track and field teams were her most successful, winning eight NCAA Division III titles (1990-91, 1995-97, 2004, 2006-07) and 10 WIAC championships. She tutored 16 athletes to a total of 29 individual national titles and 67 athletes to a total of 173 All-America citations. Vercauteren, who also coached one national champion relay squad, was named the NCAA Division III Outdoor Track and Field Coach of the Year in 2004. She was named the WIAC Outdoor Track and Field Coach of the Year nine times.

“Deb was an incredible coach, mentor, friend and mom away from home,” said Liz Woodworth, a nine-time track and field national champion and three-time cross country All-American at UW Oshkosh. “She had a great mixture of competitiveness and fun. Once Deb got to know her athletes, she could pinpoint certain mannerisms and know how that athlete would perform that day. She also knew how to get the most from each athlete, and the teams’ accomplishments reflect that. Deb once told me that the men and women on the teams were her and John’s children. Their children will miss them greatly, and they will forever be a part of the UW Oshkosh family.”

Prior to the 2008-09 school year, the USTFCCCA created an award to honor Vercauteren and the all-around success that her UW Oshkosh women’s cross country and track and field teams achieved. The Deb Vercauteren Program of the Year Award recognizes the institution that achieved the most success in cross country, indoor track and field and outdoor track and field at the NCAA Division III championships. UW Oshkosh was the winner of the 2009-10 award.

During his 29 years as the head men’s cross country coach, Zupanc has led UW-Oshkosh to 19 appearances at the NCAA Division III Championship. The Titans claimed four national titles (1988-90, 2002), while placing third in the country three times and fourth once. Zupanc, who also coached seven squads to a WIAC title, led 20 cross country runners to a total of 36 All-America awards. Zupanc, a seven-time WIAC Cross Country Coach of the Year selection, was named the 2002 NCAA Division III Cross Country Coach of the Year.

Zupanc was as an assistant coach with the UW Oshkosh men’s indoor track and field team from 1981 to 2005. Since becoming head indoor coach in 2006, Zupanc has led the Titans to five top-four finishes at the NCAA Division III Championship. UW Oshkosh won the national title in 2009 while placing third in the country three times and fourth once. The 2001 NCAA Division III Indoor Track and Field Coach of the Year has had five athletes win a total of seven individual national titles and 30 athletes gain a total of 50 All-America distinctions. The 2010 WIAC Indoor Track and Field Coach of the Year award winner has also coached three national champion relay squads.

The Titans have been fortunate to have Zupanc as their head men’s outdoor track and field coach the past six years. He was on the UW Oshkosh staff as an assistant outdoor coach from 1981-2004. UW Oshkosh’s last three seasons have been its best at the NCAA Division III Outdoor Track and Field Championship, with a first-place finish coming in 2009 and a seventh-place ranking coming in both 2008 and 2010.

The 2009 NCAA Division III Outdoor Track and Field Coach of the Year has coached nine athletes to 11 individual national titles and 32 athletes to 65 All-America listings.

“John’s legacy is so much more than just a coach to all of his runners,” said Iowa State University Director of Athletics Jamie Pollard, who earned UW Oshkosh’s first All-America cross country award. “To me, he was a brother, father, teacher, coach, colleague, fellow runner — and most importantly — a very dear friend. I owe so many things in my life to the lessons I learned from John. I would not have become the runner, person or professional that I am today if it weren’t for John’s influence and guidance.”

Vercauteren received a bachelor’s degree from UW-Stevens Point and a master’s degree from the University of Wisconsin in Madison. The UW-Stevens Point, National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics
(NAIA) District 14 and USTFCCCA Hall of Fame member also serves as the assistant director of athletics at UW Oshkosh.

Zupanc received both his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from UW-Madison. In addition to his two head coaching positions, Zupanc also teaches in UW Oshkosh’s Department of Human Kinetics and Health Education.

“John and Deb brought prominence to our athletics program,” said UW Oshkosh Director of Athletics Darryl Sims. “They are among the most respected cross country and track and field coaches in Division III and their legacies have resulted from a lot of hard work and dedication. John and Deb have had a positive impact on thousands of student-athletes and coaches, and it’s that mentoring which might be their greatest contribution to UW Oshkosh.”