Brant Tolsma envisioned how he was going to hand off the Liberty cross country and track & field programs to Lance Bingham — he would continue his symbolic race at a running pace, then easily pass along the baton. In Tolsma’s mind, his entry into retirement would be seamless, with one of his closest confidants taking over the reins of five wildly successful programs with top-notch facilities to boot.
That run, though, turned into a jog and eventually became a walk by the time Tolsma officially handed the programs over to Bingham in the middle of May. The coronavirus pandemic canceled the entire outdoor season. There would be no hoopla or chance to earn a couple more, final conference championships, no thrill of guiding athletes to appearances in the NCAA championships.
But the slow and steady finish to his coaching career gave Tolsma a chance to reflect on his 34-year journey at Liberty.
There were plenty of triumphs, and some tribulations, through the years.
The triumphs are well-documented in the numerous, nearly overflowing trophy cases in the $30-million Liberty Indoor Track Facility. The journey represented by those awards was fulfilling, Tolsma said, as he reflected on bringing to fruition his vision of the program's growth, the one he carried into his arrival to LU in 1986.
“I think I definitely would want people to remember the fact that they were better people when they left the program than they were when they came, and some way or another I contributed to that," Tolsma said as he looked at several handwritten notes and cards from former athletes propped on a window sill in his old office. Those will eventually go into a notebook.
"Truthfully, the trophies, we’ve got trophies we don’t know where to put. There’s a broken one in the closet over there and I have a hard time throwing it away because I remember at the time how much that meant to raise up that trophy.
“The true trophies are the lives of the young people that you get to work with. Those things go on and reproduce."
Tolsma, who officially retired May 11, concluded his career as the most-decorated coach in Liberty athletics history.
His teams claimed 116 conference championships. He won 77 coach of the year awards and added two NCAA district coach of the year honors. Three more coaching distinctions came after his retirement: the inaugural Virginia Sports Information Directors men’s indoor track & field coach of the year for the 2019-20 season, and the title of men’s and women’s indoor track & field coach of the decade (2010-19) from the Big South Conference.
“I hold Coach Tolsma in very high regard. He’s somebody that’s just a very wise person, loves Liberty and has just done a remarkable job with the program,” athletic director Ian McCaw said. “In my view, Brant Tolsma is a legend, and that’s not a term that I use lightly."
“The record books are going to say 116 conference championships and 77 coach of the year awards; those are accomplishments that won’t be matched."
Tolsma’s athletes have become All-Americans (25 of them have combined for 61 All-American honors) and national champions (four). He’s guided conference champions, four-year standouts, and the athletes who find smaller ways to contribute to winning conference titles on a yearly basis.
“He invited you into his family while you were there, and that’s the most vulnerable time of your entire life — you move away from your family, your friends, everything you know," said Holly Deem, a 1998 graduate who competed in sprints. "To have someone like Coach step into your life and make that kind of positive impact was huge on my life, for sure.”
“I think one thing that I appreciated the most about Coach was that he of course wanted to win — that’s obvious from his record — but at the same time he was more concerned on helping you to truly become a better person,” Deem added. “The thing that Liberty says a lot and it’s their slogan, their theme, is building champions, and Coach really did do that. He lived out his Christian walk in front of us every day. He was real. He’s an authentic person. I appreciated his honesty and his integrity."
Tolsma, who was hired by Jake Matthes to run the men’s track & field program in 1986, had to sell a vision to get athletes to come to Liberty.
Matthes said he tried to pry Tolsma away from Campbell for three years — Tolsma said he turned down Matthes’ offer in 1985 because the timing wasn’t right — and Matthes had to convince Tolsma it was a step in the right direction to leave a Division I program in Campbell and come to Liberty, which was still in Division II.
Tolsma was appealing to LU because of his reputation as a winner at Campbell. He helped Orville Peterson become Campbell’s first NCAA Division I All-American when he finished second in the decathlon at the 1983 NCAA outdoor championships.
“I certainly had that in mind because I thought he was one of the best coaches you could get out there to hire,” Matthes said. “He’s a good Christian fellow, and that’s what Liberty always needed, Christian coaches.
"He knew his events and … I thought that he would be able to do basically everything that he has done and maybe more.”
When Tolsma arrived on Liberty’s campus, the program did not have an outdoor track, and athletes trained either in nearby warehouses or at Heritage High School’s track.
“When I went there, the place looked like a run-down high school compared to where I was from,” Deem said.
Matthes, who taught mathematics in addition to his coaching responsibilities, admitted he didn’t have time to recruit. Tolsma took it upon himself to recruit athletes who could help build a foundation for the program.
“Coach Tolsma was always a visionary when it came to building the track program," Rustburg High track coach Gerald Mosley said. "Just watching him build it from the time that I graduated from Rustburg High School in 1988 to where it came through in 1992 was just phenomenal. He built it from the ground up."
Tolsma eventually combined the men’s and women’s track & field programs in 1990 following the unexpected death of Ron Hopkins, the founder of the women’s program.
The Matthes-Hopkins Track Complex was christened in 1991, in time for Mosley’s senior season, which opened doors for Liberty to recruit at a higher level in Division I and Tolsma to identify the athletes who had the ability to compete at the national level.
“I think it's that people have more in them than they realize they do, and they have to kind of catch the vision. That may have come originally all the way down from [the late Rev. Jerry] Falwell. After listening to him, … I started believing we’re going to win a national championship,” Tolsma said as he broke into a chuckle. “I really started believing it. We never did. The best we’ve done is 12th. I kind of still believe it might happen. Anything can happen."
Three of Tolsma’s All-Americans — Heather Sagan, Josh McDougal and Sam Chelanga — combined to win six national championships. Sagan won the 2002 indoor mile title, and McDougal was the cross country national champion in 2007.
“He established the purpose and the vision. Dr. Falwell certainly did, but Coach embraced that and he cast the vision of, 'Why not be able to compete at the national level?'” Bingham said.
Chelanga, who won four national titles, is arguably Tolsma’s most distinguished athlete.
He finished as a runner-up in cross country as a sophomore in 2008 before breaking through with the cross country title as a junior in 2009. In the spring of 2010, he won the 10,000 outdoor national championship — which, in turn, created added plenty of weight on Tolsma's shoulders.
“He came back his senior year and I felt so much pressure because everybody was like, if he doesn’t win, if he gets second, he’s a loser, because he’s the defending champion," Tolsma said. "There’s been many, many athletes that won one year and they don’t win the next year."
“I was reading too much into it and hearing all the naysayers, and I’ve got to stop doing this because you can let people inside your head, and that’s dangerous. You’re much better working for an audience of one and just know if I do right and I do my best, that’s all I got to do.”
Chelanga delivered with a second straight cross country national title in 2010, then added his fourth crown in the 5,000 at the 2011 outdoor national championships.
Chelanga was consistently a threat at national events, finishing with five runner-up finishes in track & field events to go along with his second-place cross country finish as a sophomore.
“Doing things excellent, doing it with a purpose, doing it and realizing — regardless of your facilities, regardless of what your travel budget is or whatever — you can go and train hard and compete hard and train with the best,” Bingham said of Tolsma’s message to his athletes. “How many schools have had multiple national champions in cross country?”
Tolsma, in addition to his coaching accolades, was one of the top decathletes for his age over a 10-year stretch soon after his arrival in Lynchburg. He won the 45-50 age group at the USA National Decathlon Championships in 1993, finished second in the same age group at the 1993 World Championships, then set a world record for the over 50 age group in the double-decathlon in 2002.
He was inducted into the Lynchburg Area Sports Hall of Fame in 2002.
Tolsma’s background as a decathlete prepared him to work with the men in the decathlon and the women in the heptathlon.
“He brought a wealth of knowledge. He is one of the smartest people I have ever met in my life, and if you have a problem with something in an event — whether it be technical or mental — he’s going to figure out a way to help you get over that hump,” said Kylie (Polsgrove) Waldroop, who won the ASUN Conference heptathlon outdoor title as a senior in 2019.
“With his background in doing the decathlon, and even the double decathlon, he understood each and every event. Not only the mental capacity and strength to do those events, but also how important the technical aspects of those things are. His experience really got to be displayed not only in coaching, but in how he would compete, too.
“I would say his experience was really pivotal to how well his athletes do, because he knows so much and has so much knowledge and is so creative. He will literally stay up all night trying to figure out how to fix one little thing of what is wrong in an event for you. He’s definitely passionate about what he did, and he worked really hard for his athletes.”
Tolsma’s plans for retirement including spending time with his 16 grandchildren, tinkering with projects and writing. He is rewriting his first book, “The Surrendered Christian Athlete,” that came out in 2001, and is in the process of penning a second book, titled “The Surrendered Christian Coach.”
He said he will be Liberty’s biggest supporter during retirement and plans to attend the upcoming season’s ASUN cross country championship at Lipscomb University.
“We never won one of those. We lost by a point this year,” he said. “The girls team definitely has a team [that] if they’re running well they should be able to take it. I’d like to go out and see that. I think that’ll keep me busy.”
Bingham admitted he’s not going to fill Tolsma’s shoes in leading the program — “I’m going to try to step along and see where the path leads,” — but he plans on continuing the vision Tolsma had for the program.
Bingham, like Tolsma before him, initially was hesitant to take over at Liberty. Tolsma, who finished his three-year contract in May, reached out to Bingham to ask about whether he'd consider leaving Abilene Christian to return to Liberty during the 2018-19 season.
It took nearly a full year before Bingham got back to Tolsma; ACU, Bingham initially thought, would be his final coaching stop — but Bingham decided to return to a program he helped build alongside Tolsma.
“God was very gracious in that whole process,” Bingham said.
Because of the coronavirus pandemic, Bingham arrived in Lynchburg much earlier than scheduled. Abilene Christian was scheduled to host the Southland Conference outdoor championship, which would have made the handoff between Tolsma and Bingham look more like a run than the stroll it turned into.
Instead, Bingham was at Liberty in time to work with Tolsma on getting the 2020-21 roster set, finding ways to ensure Tolsma’s vision for the program continued.
“I thought this handoff was going to be at a sprint pace, and I was looking to have a great handoff between Coach Bingham and I,” Tolsma said. “Instead, we’re just walking. There’s no chance of dropping the baton on this one, because it’s easy.