They gathered last summer in Edgewood to celebrate a man’s birthday, not knowing that many of them were saying goodbye.
Hugh Hackett, 90, one of the legends of Lobo athletics, died Wednesday in Phoenix, where he lived part time.
Hackett built UNM into a track power in the 1960s, his Lobos producing four conference track titles, a world-record holder in Adolph Plummer, an Olympic bronze medalist in hurdler Dick Howard and NCAA champions such as Buster Quist, Clarence Robinson, Larry Kennedy and Art Baxter.
“He was an amazing guy,” says Pete Brown, one of Hackett’s first Lobo athletes. “In every respect, he was a member of the greatest generation.”
Hugh Hackett, who was born in Whitewater, Wis., served in the U.S. Army Air Corps and flew 53 dangerous missions, flying gasoline from India to China over the Himalayas.
By the numbers1958-77 UNM head track coach7 Times UNM placed among the top-10 at the NCAA outdoor meet16 Number of Lobos who earned All-America honors under Hackett6 Individual NCAA titles won by Lobos4 Consecutive WAC titles the Lobos won from 1964-67
His service eventually landed him at Kirtland Air Force base and he decided to stay. He ended up coaching football and track at newly opened Highland High School. In 1954, his football Hornets won the state title, beating Artesia.
“The reason I started track,” Hackett told Sports Illustrated in a 1965 interview, “was to develop the boys for football. Then I just got completely wrapped up in it.”
When UNM went looking for a head track and field coach, it called on Hackett.
“We’ve been friends for 51 years,” said Plummer, whom Hackett discovered in 1959.
“It’s staggering,” Plummer said of his coach’s death. “I was just down there for his birthday. It was very enjoyable. A lot of his family and friends showed up. He looked really well. We talked about where he was going to race next.”
Matt Henry, a former Lobo coach and member of Albuquerque’s first family of track, was devastated by the news.
“I’m shocked,” Henry said. “This one hurts. He was a great man. I’m going to miss him. Wow. He was such a wonderful guy.”
Hackett had developed a sweet tooth later in life, and he was crossing the street going to get some sweets when he had an apparent stroke, his grandson Doug Hackett said.
“Coach loved desserts,” Henry said. “We’d go out on track trips and have dinner and he would have two pieces of pie.”
Wayne Vandenberg, Hackett’s UNM assistant who later went on to lead UTEP’s powerful track program, remembers his former boss as a “hard-nosed guy, very competitive individual. He had a knack for putting people in the right events at the right time. He also had some unorthodox methodologies.”
Hackett would harness his sprinters, then have them pull a sled from a standing start.
He also had a shot specifically made for Larry Kennedy, who had larger than average hands.
“He was very intense,” Brown said, “very competitive. He was a tough guy, very resolute. He knew what he wanted to do. He (went) to work early, stayed late, and did whatever it took.”
“He took care of his athletes,” Plummer said, “ensured we got our classwork done and made the grades.”
“He was so even-keeled and laid-back,” said Rene Matison, another of his former Lobos. “He was a great father figure, a good mentor. He was there for us. We jelled into one big family.”
Hackett’s former athletes all mentioned that their coach, who had 10 kids, was a good family man.
John Cordova first met Hackett in 1946.
“I went to Sacred Heart (elementary school) and he was a janitor there,” said Cordova, who competed for Hackett at Highland High and UNM. “I’d see this guy come to work on his bike with one child on the front, one in the middle and one on the back.”
Even after retiring from coaching, Hackett kept in touch with his athletes.
“I’d be living in California or back East,” Matison says, “and I’d get a call from him out of the blue.”
“We’d get together with him regularly,” Cordova said. “He’d call just to chat, to see how I was doing.”
Hackett remained active his whole life. He competed and won gold medals at national senior Olympic track events around the country. He was also an avid racquetball and handball player.
“He’d run over his mother to get that ball,” Vandenberg said. “If she was in the way, she was in trouble.”
“He was an amazing person,” current Lobo track coach Joe Franklin said. “He was very upbeat.”
“I would spend summers (in Albuquerque),” Doug Hackett said, “and we’d be walking down the street and people would come up all the time and say, ‘Hey, coach Hackett.’ I saw how he interacted with his athletes. He adored the city.”
“I think about him almost every day,” Cordova said.
“He was a helluva guy,” Vandenberg said. “Our memories of him will live on, I assure you of that.”