Former Howard University track and field/cross country star Desmond Dunham was recently named National High School Coach of the Year by the U.S. Track & Field and Cross Country Coaches Association.
The Howard University graduate, originally from Gary, Indiana, has been a leader from the time he was in school. Dunham was named the captain and MVP of the cross country team during his final season as a Bison. Also contributing to his leadership skills, Dunham was a resident assistant and became a member of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc. during his matriculation at Howard in the 1990s.
Dunham’s path to becoming a great coach strays from what many would call “the blueprint.” Dunham grew up in Gary, Indiana, which at the time was the “murder capital of the United States,” he said. Sports was a logical escape from that harsh reality, so Dunham wanted to play basketball in high school. He said that participating in cross country or football was required of anyone looking to make the basketball team and that he was far too skinny to play football, so by default he was forced into cross country. Having already been cut from both cross country and basketball teams in middle school, Dunham entered high school on a mission.
As is the case for many athletes, Dunham’s first cross country practice was a hellacious experience, making him question if he was cut out for the sport. After deciding to stick with it no matter how challenging it was, Dunham fell in love with distance running. “Cross country helped me develop a certain grit, determination, and stick-to-itiveness. When I was running it brought a sense of euphoria that I didn’t get from other sports,” Dunham told The Hilltop.
Aside from building his character and resilience, track and field/cross country provided Dunham with invaluable relationships. “My father was an alcoholic and could get abusive. Gary was by no means the safest place. My coach became a father figure to me, and my teammates were like brothers and sisters. It was a safe and fun escape,” recalled Dunham.
Dunham has “paid it forward” as a coach, as he has made it a big point of emphasis to be a mentor to the athletes he coaches, and make sure that as well as achieving their athletic goals, the athletes have a good experience.
Dunham started coaching by volunteering at a youth track club during graduate school at Howard while he was on a pre-medical track. He fell in love with the impact he was able to make and never strayed from coaching. Dunham credits his medical studies for giving him an upper hand, as he had an advanced understanding of the human body and how to manipulate energy systems.
During his coaching career, Dunham has produced over 100 Junior Olympic All-Americans, coached relay teams to Penn Relay titles, won the Brooks Inspiring Coaches National Award, coached 17 indoor and outdoor national girls relay championships, produced the first woman to earn All-ACC honors as a part of the University of Maryland’s staff, and claimed a myriad of DCIAA and DCSAA championship titles on the boys and girls side. He attributes much of the success of his programs to synergy and chemistry. His teams have several meetings and team activities to build a real bond and make sure everyone gets on the same page. Dunham said, “These things we do get the athletes to understand how to sacrifice for each other. I think that’s the main key to our success.”
These principles led to Dunham being honored as the 2022 USTFCCCA National Coach of the Year earlier this year. This is of course a tremendous honor, but Dunham has not quite taken the time to step back and take it in. “It’s still sinking in a bit. I’m honored to be mentioned among some of the greats, and of course when people throw the ‘G.O.A.T.’ title at me. My philosophy hasn’t changed though, I feel like I am only as good as my last meet or my last championship… I have too many athletes coming up now to relax,” said Dunham.
To complement his illustrious career as a coach, Dunham has authored a book titled “Running Against The Odds.” This book details his own track and field career, Howard experience, family life, and coaching career including a pinnacle achievement that took place at the 2007 Penn Relays. Dunham credits the student-athletes he has coached as the inspiration for writing the book, saying, “What’s always been different about me is I don’t tell my athletes stories of triumph. I tell them the low points, the struggles. Because so many of the stories started in Gary, IN, they became fans of my ‘Gary-isms’ and after a while I had collected a lot of suggestions to write a book. I got the time during the pandemic and thought it would be a great way to cement my legacy. My great-great grandkids can have an idea of who I was and hopefully learn a thing or two from me.”
Outside of track and field, Dunham is very active, calling himself a “serial entrepreneur.” He is currently an Under Armor brand ambassador, working on a second book, and the owner of a prominent camp in D.C. called “Kids Elite Sports.” He is also a big family man, having come from a large family in Indiana and currently having two teenage children, Niles and Nia. He is also married to Jami Dunham, a former Howard University soccer player. Jami is a member of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc. The two met at Howard University and were eventually married on The Yard.
Copy edited by Chanice McClover-Lee