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Way back when, the Piner High Prospectors used to roll into cross country meets like some kind of maroon and yellow army.

“You can have a cross country team with five kids and he would routinely would have 100 or 110 kids,” said Jan Hansen, a long time teacher and counselor at Piner who was an assistant cross country and track coach for years. “It was a little intimidating.”

Which is funny because by “he,” Hansen meant Piner’s legendary track and cross country coach Jim Underhill. And Underhill is many things — successful, humble, patient — but intimidating is not a word many would use to describe the 81-year-old.

Hansen knows better than most. Hansen was a witness to Underhill’s patience and expertise, encouragement and motivation — and his ability to put together winning squads year after year. Underhill taught and coached at Piner from the day the school opened in 1966. He stopped coaching in the mid-80s and retired from teaching in 1994.

Loads of Piner students turned out for cross country and for track for no other reason than they wanted to run for Underhill.

“He is just the kindest person. He has time for everybody,” Hansen said. “He doesn’t rush a conversation.”

And the coach who churned out winning team after winning team treated all athletes the same. The kid who finished first got the same respect as the kid who finished 101st.

Hansen, who coached for years with Underhill, said the coach would write up a team newsletter to distribute to his runners every week. In it he’d include not the world-beating times of the fastest kid on the squad, but the personal record set by the guy in the middle of the pack. It kept ’em coming back.

His teams at Tennyson High in Hayward and later at Piner won 25 league championships in track and cross country between 1961 and 1983. At Tennyson he ran up a 60-0 record in dual meets between 1963 and 1965, according to the NCS. He was named NCS Honor Coach in track in 1978 and in cross country in 1986.

But this isn’t about wins or accolades or the fact that Underhill is so revered at Piner that officials named the athletic stadium after him.

This is about Underhill’s spare time, which for decades he spent officiating track meets and cross country events, serving in leadership positions at the North Coast Section, making sure meets went off without a hitch and that events offered kids a chance to shine.

For donating his time, for making things run, for being Jim Underhill, the legendary coach was given the North Coast Section Distinguished Service Award in October.

“He’s really been a leader in the Redwood Empire when it comes to cross country and track and field; a mentor to many younger coaches over the years,” said Gil Lemmon, North Coast Section commissioner.

“You are talking about over 50 years that he was involved,” Lemmon said. “The Section is only 102 years old. I think he had quite a bit of influence.”

When a slot needed filling or a duty needed doing, section officials had direct dial to Underhill.

“I think they phoned him all the time because they respected his opinion,” Hansen said.

And they usually asked Underhill to not only make sure meets went off without a hitch, but also typically assigned him the job of referee — meaning he had to settle disputes over penalties and disqualifications. He did that for the North Coast Section meet at Edwards Stadium in Berkeley for 20 years.

Think that assignment didn’t take someone special?

“That is just the hardest thing because these coaches are going to bat for their kids and are very emotional,” Hansen said. “He was very diplomatic.”

“It’s not a fun thing; you can’t just relax and watch the athletes,” Hansen said. “It was, ‘Jim, we have a problem.’”

And Jim would handle it.

“You did it because you loved doing it and you loved being involved in a competition that you knew was going to be really great for the kids,” Lemmon said.

Underhill, who now lives in Cloverdale, was unfailingly polite when we spoke, but he didn’t particularly want to talk about this, meaning himself.

That attitude is nothing new, Hansen said.

Apparently Underhilll is a serial deflector. If someone compliments him, he turns to the person next to him and starts spreading the praise, Hansen said.

Sure enough, when I asked Underhill about his remarkable coaching and volunteering history, he talked about his “excellent staff.”

“My philosophy is you have a number of teams that make this type of thing go forward,” he said. “It involves a lot of other people, your family, your student athletes, your coaches, the families and the school. It encompasses everything.”

But still Underhill gets stopped and hugged and thanked all of the time, Hansen said with a laugh.

Underhill can’t go to breakfast or lunch or the gas station, without a former athlete walking up and saying “Hey, Coach.”

And the love is typically the same if the kid — now an adult — was the best on the team or mediocre at best.

One gets the feeling that Underhill would not have minded if I hadn’t called, if we weren’t all talking about him. The part he does like, however, is the occasional call of “Hey, Coach.”

You can reach staff columnist Kerry Benefield at 526-8671 or kerry.benefield@pressdemocrat.com, on Twitter @benefield and on Instagram at kerry.benefield. Podcasting on iTunes “Overtime with Kerry Benefield.”