'Dennis made me realize my dreams': University of Windsor alumni remember renowned coach
WINDSOR, ONT. -- Former University of Windsor track star O'Brian Gibbons is still shocked over the recent passing of legendary coach Dennis Fairall.
Gibbons, who represented Canada at the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta, didn't have Fairall as a coach during his Lancer days but was proud to serve the man he calls "The Architect.”
"As a coach with the Lancers, I got to see the behind scenes on putting a team together,” said Gibbons. "His legacy will always live on, and if I can take an inch of what I learnt from him as a coach and a friend, I will be a better person and pass some of that knowledge to my son.”
Two-time Olympian Melissa Bishop-Nriagu adored Fairall and credits him for her success.
During a workout at Alumni Field a few years ago Bishop-Nriagu was pushing through a gruelling session but never questioned her coaches' plan.
"Dennis made me realize my dreams. He made me the athlete I am today. I'm a two-time Olympian because of him. I hold a Canadian record because of him,” said an emotional Bishop-Nriagu.
In 1985, Fairall took over the track and field program and cross country teams at the University of Windsor and created a powerhouse. Under his guidance, the Lancers captured 25 national titles and earned 46 provincial banners.
Fairall alone received 65 nods as coach of the year.
"I look back at my days as a Lancer fondly,” said 2016 Olympian Noelle Montcalm. "Thanks to Dennis. He brought me in as a rookie onto the team and that's one thing that definitely sticks out, the team atmosphere of the Lancer program"
It's a culture that is celebrated by Fairall's former athletes.
"He created an atmosphere where you didn't feel pressure to show up for him,” said Lancer grad Jamie Adjetey-Nelson, who won gold at the Commonwealth Games in 2010. "It was a team. It was a family. We showed up for everyone".
The 67-year olds legacy is not only measured by the success of his athletes on the track.
"On my team alone with the middle distance guys we've had two MP's in the House of Parliament, Giller Book Award finalist, an Olympian, and a schmuck like me,” said Rhys Trenhaile, who was a Lancer from 1994-1999 and is a real estate agent and actor. "That's what Dennis does. He creates greatness.
Fairall helped create a couple of current Lancer coaches. Head coach Colin Inglis was hired as associate head coach in 1995. He soaked in a lot before leaving for the head job at York four years later.
“Reflecting back Dennis taught everybody so much,” said Inglis. "He had a unique way of interacting with everyone. Everybody felt they had a role, a function and a purpose. He knew when to say things, when to do things".
Brett Lumley is still coaching at the university after Fairall lured him in 21 years ago.
"Extremely thankful. I was relatively unknown and untested and he gave me an opportunity to succeed," said Lumley. "His relaxed personality, he gave us anonymity. He was easy to follow. Situations would come up and we'd go to him for advice but he was never controlling.”
Adjetey-Nelson says Fairall was giving. He feels the next generation of Lancers may not understand the Fairall legend but offers this to them.
"Stay engaged in your community. He could have just won meets but there was more than just competing and winning,” he said. “It's about keeping the community involved and growing so grow the sport, grow the environment and give back.”