The track at Appleton East is named after him, and Joe Perez thinks he knows the reason why.
“When you hang around long enough, they do stuff like that,” said Perez with a chuckle.
They also do stuff like that when you win a state team championship and several conference titles, produce an individual state champion and are a member of the Wisconsin Cross County Coaches Hall of Fame.
The 82-year-old Perez has accomplished all of the above, while providing direction for thousands of Appleton East runners in his amazing 50 years as the Patriots’ boys’ and girls’ cross-country head coach.
“It’s been awesome, it’s been a great joy being able to run for such a spectacular coach,” said Mackenzie Larson, a junior on the Patriots’ girls’ team. “He knows his stuff and he’s really good at making sure we have fun at practice. He’s always cracking jokes and coming up with nicknames for everyone.”
Humor is part of Perez’s coaching style, and it works.
“He knows a lot having coached all these years, and he’s fun,” said Ryan Priebe, a senior for the East boys’ cross-country squad. “He’s very sarcastic at times, but in a funny way. You never know what he’s going to say. He’s just a good guy.”
And when he does eventually retire from coaching — which doesn’t seem to be in the near future — that’s all Perez wants to be remembered for. Forget about hall of fame inductions and state and conference championships. He just wants his former runners to have good memories of him and their cross-country days at East.
“I just hope they think of me in a nice way instead of a negative way,” said Perez. “I hope they remember me as someone who was good to them and more interested in them as individuals and what they could accomplish.”
A Waukesha native and a 1957 University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee graduate, Perez was an art teacher at Appleton East for several years before retiring at the age of 65. He was a hurdler for the Panthers’ track and field team and a basketball player, and didn’t get interested in distance running until learning about it from his brother, who was coaching the sport. Perez has also coached Patriot distance runners in track and field for several years and was a longtime assistant boys’ and girls’ basketball coach at East.
“The only reason I got into coaching cross-country and distance running was because my brother was into it,” said Perez, a 1952 graduate of Milwaukee Boys Tech High School. “I started attending state meets and thought it was pretty cool.”
Perez began coaching cross-country at East in 1967 — the year the school opened — and has never seen a reason to stop. His long prep coaching tenure is unusual in an era where most high school coaches don’t even make it a decade, and many are gone after two or three years.