Leaving a lasting impact

Head Coach of Cross Country and Track & Field Brad Hackett will officially retire at the end of this year.

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Track coach Brad Hackett announces at an invitational in 2018. Photo courtesy of Muhlenberg Athletics.

About 30 minutes into an interview with Muhlenberg’s Cross Country and Track & Field Head Coach Brad Hackett, he received a phone call and respectfully asked if he could take it. I patiently waited as he facilitated his conversation, deliberately trying not to listen, but within the confines of his office, it was impossible not to. One of Hackett’s student-athletes had called him needing some help, and without hesitation, he absorbed the dilemma, swiveled over to his computer, sent the student-athlete what they needed and assured them that things would work out, meaning they would be able to compete later that day. The entire interaction, handled with composure and emotional intelligence, summarizes who Hackett is as a coach, a leader and most notably, a person. 

An empathetic and compassionate individual, Hackett first became head coach of Muhlenberg track & field in 1999, when he was made aware of the opening while an assistant coach at Syracuse University. Sure, it was the sport he loved, but a few figures coaxed him into applying and eventually accepting the position, including former Muhlenberg President Arthur Taylor along with his brother. Hackett cites Taylor’s tenacity and pure-winner mentality as enough influence to sway him to at least consider the position, yet it was the feeling on campus that set Hackett’s mind in stone.

“I think [when] most people come here, there’s something about it,” said Hackett. “The day I came here from my job interview, I couldn’t put my finger on what it was. Nor can I explain it fully to recruits. And I think that’s, you know, when you’re either a student or an employee, when you get here and you find that out, it’s like okay, this is where I want to be.”

Once Hackett did officially arrive, the program took a dramatic turn in the right direction. The teams went from finishing bottom of the barrel in the Centennial Conference (CC) to finishing no lower than fourth during Hackett’s first year. From then on, Muhlenberg track & field has seen NCAA qualifiers 21 of the last 23 years, numerous CC gold medalists and a women’s outdoor track and field CC championship team. To craft winners is one thing, but to change a program’s trajectory is a feat that many cannot achieve. Hackett, however, found a formula that worked and synthesized himself, as a coach, to get the most out of every student-athlete who came through the program. 

“Whether it was somebody that was an All-American, or somebody that never even qualified for the conference championship because everybody brings something to the table,” commented Hackett. “The year that we won the conference meeting, outdoor track on the women’s side. There were six or seven sophomores who scored a lot of the points. All those kids were hosted [on their prospective visit] by the same person. Lauren was her name. Lauren never qualified for the conference championship. But Lauren is as significant of a part of this program as there ever has been.”

That story about Lauren epitomizes how Hackett has molded his perspective while at Muhlenberg. He emits an empathetic and humane energy, with a keen ability to recognize student-athletes as people first. Although Hackett has seen countless supremely talented runners, throwers and jumpers achieve great things, something he is even more proud of lies below the surface.

“What I’ll remember is that we’ve had over 50 kids on the team go to medical school since I’ve been here,” said Hackett. “We’ve had nine that have gone to dental school and I think we’ve had seven that have gone to a veterinarian school. And it’s the people… I think that’s what my brother meant all those years ago. When I was at Syracuse for ten years, I thought ‘This is it.’ I’ve made it, you know, But from a personal standpoint, it wasn’t satisfying. And I think that’s what I discovered when I came here. There’s more to this than the athletic component.”

It is one thing to truly believe that and to consider it a personal value, but to embody it in a team environment and inside a collective mindset speaks volumes. At times, it can be hard to articulate a philosophy of anything– the way humans do things is so nuanced and particular. Hackett, however, was moved by a specific moment when he was an athlete at Colgate. During his sophomore year, he had to leave a team trip in Bermuda to be with his family, and he will never forget the way his coach handled the entire situation. 

“I don’t know how my college coach did it,” explained Hackett. “But he got me off that island. And he got me back home. There’s no one else I’d rather have told me that, other than a family member, than my college coach. And I’ve never forgotten that. And so I always said to myself, if I’m ever in a situation remotely as uncomfortable as that and I can handle it half as well as he handled it with me, then I’m a successful coach. Because I will always say that to people when I’m recruiting them. To me, when I think I’m doing my job the best is when somebody’s in my office crying because they are comfortable enough with me that they’re willing to open up and share with me when they’re hurt.”

Hackett continued, “I realized I was an educator, not a coach. Or how most people perceive a coach. You know, the guy with a whistle around his neck in sweatpants that is barking at practice. In order to fully believe in your coach, you have to trust them and in order to trust a coach, you have to trust them as a human being. And so that’s the bond that goes well beyond, you know, X’s and O’s or whatever you want to call it. You have to be capable of doing that. You have to be capable of understanding that there are things that are significantly more important than your sport, whether it’s the loss of a loved one or whether it’s a religious holiday or whatever it is that you’ve got to be flexible in that regard.”

In reflection, it is easy to point to the tangibles. In this case, the wins, losses, medals and qualifications. Yet that is not what stands out most about Hackett. For him, it is most clearly about the environment that a coach can help create and maintain amongst a group of people– an environment that drives success from the inside out. When a student-athlete feels supported in their growth as a human being, their performance unequivocally matches that growth. Hackett believes coaching, and all that comes with it, was his calling, and to be the catalyst for such an atmosphere, which he considers more than a family, is an accomplishment unlike any other. 

The moment Hackett will hand in his keys may be approaching, but there is no doubt he is still all-in as the end of the 2024 outdoor track & field season runs parallel with his final days at Muhlenberg. Hackett’s persona is one of compassion, respect and a holistic sense of confidence in identity. He has been there and done that, adapted accordingly, and instilled his wisdom into the strong-minded, charitable attitudes of his student-athletes. And attitude reflects leadership. 

“I owe everything to Muhlenberg. I owe my family to Muhlenberg. And I never thought I would wind up in Eastern Pennsylvania. But, you know, this school and I’m guessing the 600 people that have been on a team since I’ve been here, I owe them everything. And whether any of them realize that or not, I owe them everything.”

As the Muhlenberg community bids farewell to someone who has been a foundational piece over the last 25 years, Coach Hackett’s impressions are eager to reverberate throughout the 82-acre campus in the near and distant future.

Yet, legacy itself can be tricky at times, paradoxically revealing complexities left for those yet to leave a legacy of their own to interpret. Above his extensive coaching feats, Hackett is an exemplar of nurturing the human spirit into its vulnerable and ceaseless self, a type of legacy that can keep the heartbeat of any person, group or place steadfast regardless of physical presence.

Evan is a media and communication major minoring in creative writing and journalism with a passion for sports writing as well as soccer, being outdoors and spending time with close friends and family. He is eager to continue learning about and tinkering with writing while learning from the talented Weekly staff.

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