Southern Wesleyan's Greg Thiel Knows It's Not About Him
Southern Wesleyan's Greg Thiel is making a difference, one person at a time.
Track and field, academics, personal lives or religious faith, the Southern Wesleyan University coach is your man. When the small, Christian college says its mission is to develop the whole person, Thiel lives it and breathes it.
"Track is just something that we do," he says. "But at SWU, it's more about the entire person. We say, we're not for everybody. But if you want to come to some place where you are truly valued and loved, this is the place for you. You will grow in every area of your life."
Thiel, who built from the scratch the Warriors' men's and women's track and field programs in 2013, is particularly in tune with the school's Christian message. In fact, he has essentially created a ministry within the ministry. Unapologetically, the coach will share the "good news" with anyone willing to listen.
And his own personal story about being "saved" is worthy of a Hollywood script.
A self-proclaimed black sheep of the family, Thiel moved out of his family's home in Grandville, Michigan after high school graduation and headed for Tampa, Florida to exercise his new-found freedom in 1983.
"Mainly, I just wanted to party," he admits. "I really had no direction."
He half-heartedly took classes at the Hillsborough Community College and the University of Tampa once arriving in Florida, but Thiel's lack of focus and behavioral issues ruled those dark days.
"Lots of drinking and very little college" is how he puts it. "I had a really bad temper. It was a wickedness that got the best of me."
A speedy athlete who played strong safety on his high school football team and ran sprints in track, Thiel eventually pursued a Psychology degree in earnest at the University of Tampa, graduating in 2001.
Meanwhile, he was hired as assistant track and football coach at Leto High School, which was located across the street from where he lived. It led to a promotion to head track and field coach the following year. Only working for a small stipend as a non-teacher, Thiel juggled his coaching duties with a full-time job as owner of a swimming pool deck company.
"I wanted to do coaching full-time but my friends were saying 'you've got a business. Don't do it.' I followed my heart and sold the business in '99."
He eventually landed a full-time assistant coaching job with the University of South Florida, a Division I program on the national map. Soon, he was elevated to the head coaching position, where he produced 17 All-Americans and 60 conference champions over his six-year tenure. He also steered the 2003 women's track team to its first-ever Conference USA Championship, as his fellow coaches voted him the circuit's Track and Field Coach of the Year.
While a time of great athletic achievement, Thiel's marriage was tested during this time.
"My wife (Chris) started going to church," he remembers. "She came back home and told me she had talked to Jesus. I thought she had lost her mind, that she had joined a cult."
His wife's conversion began to drive a wedge between the couple. Greg, an open book if ever there was one, readily admits that he had planned to divorce her by 2004. Then, it was the coach who experienced his own epiphany.
"All those years, I sacrificed everything, my family, my friends, for coaching," said Thiel. "I coached a lot of Olympic and All-America athletes. But I was not fulfilled. I was still searching."
His search continued during that 2004 season, and he faced a seminal moment in his life at a track meet in Fayetteville, Arkansas.
"My star pentathlete blew up (a bad performance) and I was struggling with my marriage. When I returned to the team hotel, I felt something very dark and evil in my room. But I also felt another presence in the room. I still can't explain it, but it changed my life."
After virtually a sleepless night, the coach entered the hotel lobby for checkout, where his pentathlete confronted him.
"Are you okay," she asked. "You look different."
"You wouldn't believe me if I told you," Thiel responded.
That divine intervention on March 14, 2004 left an immediate impression on the coach. On that day, he gave his life to Jesus Christ. And soon thereafter, he walked away from a Division I coaching job.
"I wanted Christ out front," explained Thiel. "I left a six-figure job because spreading the word of Jesus had to be part of my experience as a coach. As it turned out, God opened the door at Southern Wesleyan."
While the emphasis on a Christian education satisfied the coach's most important requirement, Thiel soon realized that starting a sports program from square one can be a challenging - and lonely - proposition. All the resources and assistance he readily had at his disposal at South Florida were nowhere to be found at SWU, whose enrollment (1,430) was approximately 1/35th of USF's (50,000).
"I remember shaking my head," he said. "What am I doing here? I was the only coach in the program. You did everything. There was no travel director or chartered buses picking us up at the airport."
And then he faced the hard reality that most of his roster were student-athletes without elite credentials.
"I was used to giving workouts to a certain level athlete," he said. "I remember asking the kids for their best personal times, and then saying 'Oh, mercy!' Don't get me wrong, I loved their passion, but the marks just weren't there."
Within a year, he had signed "some really solid kids." He used his own impressive coaching resume as the primary selling point for joining his program.
But with some spiritual guidance and a different recruiting approach, soon the SWU program was attracting more elite, championship-caliber athletes.
"I was driving home from a meet, where I had scouted some potential recruits," he recalled. "It's raining. God told me to stop telling those kids about you, tell them about me. Share the gospel and what your school stands for."
Thiel took those words to heart.
"Almost immediately, coaches started talking to me, especially in minority communities who wanted to send their kids to a Christian environment."
The flood gates opened, and soon the likes of three-time All-America sprinter Jami Wright and two-time All-America sprinter/long jumper Mycherie Onwuzuruike arrived on campus. In all, Thiel has coached eight All-Americans, 82 NCAA All-Regional athletes and 115 All-Conference performers. He was named 2016-17 Indoor Coach of the Year for Conference Carolinas.
Yet, what Coach Thiel is most proud of is the large number of track and field athletes who have made a commitment to the Lord during their time spent on campus. Thiel regularly conducts bible studies for his student-athletes, sometimes as many as six or seven a week.
"I think it's important for them to discover the bible and learn the Lord's word, not what today's world says," said Thiel. "It may be the first time outside of a church setting for them. It's a practical setting where they can ask questions. The message is we fall short and mess up, but we're trying to grow with the Lord. Part of Christianity is grace and redemption."
Thiel stresses that there is no pressure for his student-athletes to join the Bible sessions.
"Everything is voluntary," he adds. "We don't take roll or anything. Sometimes there are three or four attending, sometimes 20. The ministry is why we're here but we don't push or force it. But we live it. When a young person decides to attend Southern Wesleyan and be part of our program, they will be loved and cared for. That I can promise you."
Thiel says those Bible studies help ground his student-athletes and help prepare them for a life full of adversity. He shares his own stories about overcoming challenges and placing his trust in the Lord.
In 2014, still in the midst of building the Warriors' track and field program as a one-coach operation, Thiel underwent emergency open-heart, triple-bypass surgery.
"It didn't go well," he said. "I had complications and it was touch-and-go for awhile. It gave me lots of opportunity to talk about faith. It was a tough time."
With their coach sidelined, the team was forced to practice without him. While the recovery period should have taken much longer, Thiel returned back to work only two months after surgery and has never looked back.
The Thiel family was tested again recently. This time, it was Chris, his wife, who was diagnosed with a non-malignant, inoperable brain tumor. While the tumor was slow moving, soon Greg could tell something was wrong with her.
"She just kind of checked out," he said. "She just wasn't there. It was kind of like Dementia or Alzheimer's. Some days were great, some days not so much."
Their children, Logan (now 27), Sophie (19) and Jake (12), stepped up to fill the void at home, handling daily chores and providing emotional support for their parents.
Chris experienced a loss of memory, and became dependent on her family during the ordeal that lasted almost two years. She could not drive a car, go to the grocery store, or even go outside. Then last month, a miracle occurred.
"God healed her," proclaimed Greg. "She's back to normal. Her mind is clear. We are so grateful she's back."
That gratitude is also expressed by Thiel's track and field athletes. They simply love their coach.
"I've known coach for five years now," said one of his prize pupils, Jami Wright. "He genuinely cares about me as a person and all the athletes. While he's way into how well we compete, he also wants to know how we're doing. You just don't find that very much in college sports. He just builds such relationships, a real bond. He cares so deeply about me and the other athletes."
Wright, who spurned scholarship offers from NCAA Division I schools Xavier, James Madison and Virginia Tech to join the Southern Wesleyan program, knew she had found a home when she visited the Central, South Carolina campus.
"I had already visited five or six other schools," she said. "It immediately felt like I could be safe and belonged at SWU. Coach Thiel made me feel so welcome. I was raised in the church, so the culture here seemed so open and natural."
While All-America honors and other trophies fill her track treasure chest, Wright considers the greatest milestone of her college career - and perhaps her life - had nothing to do with sports.
"I was baptized in the steeplechase pit at the track," she said. "It was so amazing, so meaningful with many of my teammates and classmates there."
For Coach Thiel and the track program, this is not an isolated occurrence. In fact, the coach has organized baptism for as many as 30 student-athletes each year, partnering with campus pastor Ken Dill who does the ritual on the campus track. Even Dr. Todd Voss, the school's President, has been known to attend the ceremonies.
In playing an active role in his student-athletes' spiritual lives, Thiel has created a team culture like few others.
"I think all coaches at colleges care about their athletes," he said. "But sharing a life with Christ, it goes to a deeper level with our kids. Today's athletes don't care how much you know. They want to know that you care."
Countless athletes have stopped by the coach's office, seeking advice to their every-day problems.
"It's such an honor for me," Thiel said. "We talk about serious life decisions or struggles they're having. I've heard so many things that break your heart. It's these relationships that are more important than being a track coach. We want to help these kids figure out life."
For Thiel, he still marvels at how his own journey has weathered many storms and found the true meaning of life.
"I was heading into a divorce and losing my kids. I thought I was a good husband and father, but it was time to check out. Without God, I'm not sure you can truly love. At the end of the day, it's not about me."
Thiel, who looks to spread the gospel any place he can, even made a pitch to the writer doing this story.
"Don't make this about me," he asked. "Make it about Him."
Bob Rose is a longtime sports public relations executive who has worked for the San Francisco Giants, Oakland Athletics, the NFL Cardinals, Cal, Stanford and other organizations.
Southern Wesleyan University is a Christ-centered, student-focused learning community devoted to transforming lives by challenging students to be dedicated scholars and servant-leaders who impact the world for Christ. For details about degree programs, go online to swu.edu.