Dr. Michael “Doc” Gallagher ’71 is a renaissance man – a respected dentist and businessman, devoted family man, avid runner and triathlete, and beloved cross-country coach at Saint Ignatius High School for the past 17 years. He’s been proud to support the mission of the school and is admired by many.
Like classroom teachers, coaches have a great impact on the young men on their teams, often spending more time with them than teachers do. “It’s really important who you put in front of our young men,” says Rory Fitzpatrick ’88, Saint Ignatius Athletic Director. “Doc Gallagher and the assistant coaches he selected did a great job connecting with our kids, motivating them and teaching them how to run and how to compete. He has a real passion for the sport and communicates that to the kids. And he works hard to get them trained properly, constantly revising what he does and working with other coaches.”
In a sport where some runners will never set foot on the varsity team, Doc was all about each student achieving his personal best. He celebrated each runner’s personal record, from the best to the bottom of the squad, and was determined to know each runner by name – no small feat on a team of nearly 80 guys.
Charting his course
Sports have long been central to Doc’s life. As a student at Saint Ignatius, he was a manager and athletic trainer for football, basketball and baseball. At Ohio University he earned degrees in Zoology and Education and worked as an athletic trainer for football, hockey, soccer and other sports. After beginning his career as a teacher and coach for Akron city schools, Doc made the courageous leap into dentistry. He graduated from Case Western Reserve University Dental School in 1983, began working at West Park Dental and eventually bought the practice.
While his son Brian ’07 was a student, Doc accepted the offer from former athletic director Dale Gabor ’66 to become the Saint Ignatius Head Coach for cross country in 2004. Ever since, Doc has brought on top-notch coaching assistants to help him form confident leaders and good runners. “My philosophy has been to bring in freshmen, let them grow and develop, and keep them from getting injured. They’re going through so many physiological changes and can only handle so much stress,” says Doc.
“I’d bring in aspects of other sports like cycling, swimming, and even yoga. I incorporated what I learned from other cross country runners and coaches, asking what kind of workouts they did and if could borrow their concepts. I was always looking for new ideas, acting as a lab rat to see what would work.”
Fitzpatrick says a mark of a really good head coach is allowing assistants to use their talents. “Doc did an excellent job of allowing his assistant coaches to coach. You see that in the results we had.” Ten of Doc’s runners earned 13 All-Ohio certificates and his teams won 14 district championships, six regional Championships, two state titles, one runner-up finish, two third-place finishes, and 15 total top-ten finishes in the state meet.
A coach for others
Bob Wolf ’08 is a Saint Ignatius science teacher who ran for Doc as a sprinter during high school and coached alongside him for the past six years. He considers Doc a father figure and mentor. “That’s the thing about Doc. Other alumni in the area have also come back to coach because of him. Cross country can be very individual, but he makes it a familial atmosphere where everyone feels included. He brings a lot of spirit and joy to the sport. He wants to see each kid succeed to the best of his ability.”
Coaches and students alike say that Doc is a knowledgeable man, constantly seeking to learn more and to “pick the brains” of others who know more than him. He intentionally surrounded himself with a diverse group of assistants
with their own strengths – from his “right hand man” and administrative expert Alex Voigt to the 2018 Cleveland Marathon winner Sarah Horbol and Jesuits that have included Fr. Cyril Pinchak, S.J. and Fr. Paul Shelton, S.J.
Voigt, a Saint Ignatius history teacher, coached with Doc for eight seasons. He describes Doc as “a lifelong friend, the kind of guy I’ve spoken to on every topic under the moon, from sports to personal. He’s a mentor and friend, beyond cross country. I’ve never worked with someone who put so much of themselves into caring about the sport and the kids.”
Especially during the COVID-19 pandemic when plans were changing day by day, Voigt saw Doc’s total dedication. “His sole objective was to make sure every kid on the team had a race once a week. That took a toll, sometimes going to three different races a week with just a third of the team at each race.”
Voigt smiles recalling a few “Doc originals,” including his distinctive voice and the way he wrapped up every practice with the Saint Ignatius prayer for generosity, but capped it off on race days with a petition to Our Lady of Blessed Acceleration, met by the team’s resounding “Don’t fail us now!”
Runs in the family
Doc Gallagher began coaching at his children’s school in 1994, where he started the St. Bernadette Bulldog track and cross country teams. He has felt privileged to coach his son Brian ’07 and daughters Mary and Kelly, all with the love and support of his wife, Cathy.
“In my mind, my dad has always been a coach,” says Brian. “When I went to high school at Saint Ignatius in 2003 and ran, he started coaching and has been a fixture there ever since. I had the pleasure and honor of coaching with him as an assistant while I was in dental school, and now we work together where he continues to be my coach in dentistry. My favorite memories are of coaching the 2015 state championship team together and him always being there for my best running moments. He has given everything he could possibly give to the team and the school. I couldn't be prouder of what he's accomplished.”
Doc’s oldest daughter Mary was coached by her dad in grade school and ran at St. Joseph Academy.
“If I were to tell you the number of kids my dad has coached, motivated, and inspired - it would baffle you. I love to watch my dad coach. He truly has a gift. He always cheers for everyone regardless of their place or team. He never has to say much when standing on the starting line because they all know what they are supposed to do. When a Wildcat runs by Doc, they either hear him or see him and they know how to respond. He had my brother, sister and I running as soon as we could lace up our shoes. From running races, training for a triathlon or running up a mountain somewhere out west, he was there for us. Although he may not be coaching a team, he will always be our coach and our Doc.”
His younger daughter Kelly went to grad school at CWRU and helped her dad as one of the few women coaching for Saint Ignatius. “Running has always been a big part of our family, with my dad coaching us in grade school. We would do family runs together and he instilled a true love for the sport in us. Coaching with my Dad at Saint Ignatius was one of the most enjoyable things I’ve done and added a unique aspect to our relationship. We got to spend more time together and were more like peers. Watching him build the Saint Ignatius cross country program into one of the top in the state makes me so proud. He puts his full heart into everything he does and cares about each kid on the team and their success.”
Doc knows the students + the science
Ever since sixth grade, Matt Kelly ’22 has considered Doc to be a legend, watching him coach his older brother. As a freshman on the cross country team, Kelly was honored that Doc knew his name, and over the years his respect for Doc has grown as they collaborated on planning workouts and team logistics. “Doc understands it’s a hard sport and considers how we feel when running workouts. He respects our intelligence, even guys with no experience running. I’ve gotten closer to him this year, seeing him as a head coach who really knows what he is talking about. He is big on the science behind running.”
With his background in medicine, Doc would often use a saying from dentistry: “You can’t exceed the biology of the bone.” He tells the guys how injuries happen and the physiology behind conditioning, introducing them to terms like aerobic capacity and lactate threshold. “Every workout has a purpose, both physiological and mental,” says Doc. “They’d feel more confident going into a race, knowing why they did things at workout. I wanted to give them an edge in whatever way I could.”
The Wildcat cross country team was hoping to finish 2020 with a state title but the guys were happy to finish fourth against very competitive teams. Even after the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic, with many smaller or rescheduled meets, Kelly was pleased with the season and sad to hear that Doc is retiring and won’t be part of his senior year. “It’s going to be tough without Doc. But he’s taught us so much that we can carry into next summer and then pass on to the next generation.”
Crossing the finish line
“Cross country seems like an individual sport, but it’s a beautiful team sport, even a family sport,” reflects Fitzpatrick. “That was never more clear than in the fall season of 2020, with the COVID-19 pandemic. At the state meet we finished in fourth place, which was as good as we could’ve done this year. It was so great to see all the families and kids cheering. When you run your best, there’s a lot to celebrate.”
Fitzpatrick is grateful for Doc Gallagher’s many years of coaching, and knows he has big shoes to fill. “For 17 years, at the end of every season, Doc would tell me, ‘Rory, I think it’s my last season.’ We always laughed about that. But it’s hard to run a dental practice and a cross country team at the same time. We finally got to the point where he was telling me the truth – and this was to be his last season.”
Reflecting on his decision to retire from coaching, Doc says, “One of the luxuries of having my own dental practice was setting my own hours. The tough part of coaching was squeezing in eight hours of seeing patients into six hours, and then going to practice and coming back to the office for paperwork or emergencies. The fall schedule for the past 17 years has been pretty hectic. The energy just isn’t there anymore. And you need that for a big team of high-energy guys.”
When asked what made all the work worthwhile, Doc describes watching kids come in as freshmen and working their way up to become leaders -- not necessarily great runners -- and seeing guys who had never run during grade school become all-state runners. “I think of John Sweeney who developed into a championship runner on the 2009 state title team and an ambassador for the sport,” he recalls.
Doc incorporated the AMDG philosophy into his coaching. He was known for ending every practice with a prayer and giving runners the opportunity to complement other runners on what they had done well that day. In the end, he believes that “unless we do this for the greater glory of God, what’s the point? I was always proud to demonstrate that message by my example.”
Assistant Coach Alex Voigt wraps up Doc’s career perhaps most poignantly: “He built our team into a family. He solicits the input of everybody, leading to our success. He’s been the linchpin and leaves a void no one can quite fill. Doc could deliver an address to the team to get their blood boiling at a meet and then turn around and complement a total stranger on their shoes as we walk to the start line. You never know what you’ll get from Doc. He certainly is irreplaceable.”
story by Gay Eyerman