Track, and So Much More
As he retires from UNH’s running programs after nearly 40 years, Jim Boulanger ’75 leaves behind much more than a string of America East championship banners
Jim Boulanger at a track meet
Courtesy UNH Athletics
Michael Shanahan ’18 and Coach B at the NCAA Outdoor Championships in Eugene, Oregon.
Jim Boulanger ’75 never competed in track and field or cross-country. He wasn’t even on the UNH payroll when he started working with the university’s running programs after graduating with a degree in physical education. And yet when Boulanger retired in June after nearly 40 years, it was hard to imagine anyone who could better personify UNH track and field and cross-country, storied programs that have produced the likes of All-Americans Ed McCabe ‘87, Randy Hall ’90, Alison Poulin Leveh ’93, John Prizzi ’15, Drew Piazza ’17 and Michael Shanahan ’17, ’18G as well as NCAA champion (and newly minted Olympian) Elle Purrier St. Pierre ’18.

“Jim’s had a big impact on my athletic career and also in life,” says McCabe, an All-American in the 35-pound weight throw who continued to compete — and eventually coach — after college under Boulanger’s guidance. “He taught me a lot of values. He was very committed to all his athletes. He’d help them get better and he’d always look to improve himself, and he’d learn from any source. That’s something that carried through in my life. I learned how to be committed to learning to do things better.”

Poulin Leveh, an All-American in the 400-meter hurdles who still holds five UNH hurdle records nearly three decades after she set them, likewise credits Boulanger for helping shape her life. “Working hard together with Coach ‘B’ were the best years of my life,” she says. “He taught me how to set goals, work hard to achieve them and then set new goals. He didn’t laugh when I set high goals, and I respected him for that.” (Indeed, Boulanger was Poulin Leveh’s coach when she made the first of two trips to the Olympic Trials to compete in the 400-meter hurdles in 1992.) “He instilled a very strong work ethic in me that has served me well over my life.”

It’s telling, perhaps, that in light of their athletic successes, both McCabe and Poulin Leveh underscore Boulanger’s influence on their lives beyond the UNH field house. Boulanger himself, who competed in football, basketball and baseball just down the road from UNH at Dover High School and volunteered with the UNH track and cross-country teams until he replaced John Copeland in 1982, sees his career in terms of much more important measures than how many America East championships his teams have won (15, for anyone who is counting; 8 cross country, four outdoor and three indoor titles). “The winning and losing thing?” he says. “That’s only a piece of it. Either way, the sun’s going to shine tomorrow. You’ll take that with you out of college and on to your work and how you treat people, I think.”

Jim Boulanger giving a fist bump
Matt Troisi ’22
Jim Boulanger headshot in 1991
Courtesy UNH Athletics
Rob Hoppler, who is head coach for the women’s cross-country team and has been at Boulanger’s side for 26 of the last 28 years, still marvels at how Boulanger has always gone about his business, from incessantly wanting to learn and his ability to pass on that knowledge to his athletes to his mastery of all events to his overall people skills. “He has never gotten away from his roots as an educator,” Hoppler says. “It’s simple to him: He’s providing an education for these kids, not only the academic education they get in college, but more importantly he is using track and field as a learning opportunity.”

Boulanger’s tenure at the helm of the UNH programs is second only to that of Paul Sweet, who started the program in 1924 and held the reins until his retirement 46 years later, in 1970. Sweet was succeeded by Billy Phillips and then by Boulanger’s predecessor, John Copeland, who headed up UNH track and field and cross-country from 1973-1982. Now that he’s shut his field house office door for the last time, Boulanger plans to spend more time on his golf game, with some fly-fishing and hopefully traveling in the mix (“I’d like to go on some of those old people tours. With people,” he jokes). Whether or not he returns to coaching in some form, it’s hard to imagine that he won’t get back to watching kids throw something – a hammer, a 35-pound weight, a shot or javelin – and share a pointer here and there that will help them throw a little bit farther.

A case in point: In late April, two days before the next-to-last home meet of his career, Boulanger was out in the throws areas teaching — with graduate students Zachary Astle ’20, ’22G, a five-time America East champion in shot put and weight throw; Alyssa Colbert ’20, ’22G, who would go on to win the America East discus event in May, breaking her own school record for the third time in the process; Sarah Williams ’22, Jake Dearborn ’21 and several others. He watched each athlete intently. Offered up this tip and that. Urged them on. Athletes turned and smiled at the encouragement.

Astle, who’s working on his MBA at the Peter T. Paul College of Business and Economics, says he’s never had a better mentor in his five years at UNH. “I’ve never had a better coach who’s believed in me as a person and has helped me shape the person I am today,” he says. “He really provided opportunities for the team to succeed as individuals in the sport, academically and professionally. At the end of the day Coach B realizes we’re student-athletes, emphasis on the student, and college is a time to learn and grow as a person. I think one of the key things that he’s really pushed on me is that you just have to get better every day.”

— Allen Lessels ’76