Legendary Sunnyside & Pima College cross country coach Jim Mielke passes away at 86

Jim Mielke was a prevalent coaching figure in Southern Arizona for more than 60 years (Andy Morales/AllSportsTucson.com)

One lasting image from my childhood was being in our family’s living room and watching and listening to Sunnyside football coach Paul Petty and boys cross country coach Jim Mielke as they encouraged my oldest brother Hector, who was in traction after suffering a serious back injury in a football practice.

Both men were graceful and respectful to all of us during a difficult time for Hector and our family.

Petty moved to Florida after coaching at Sunnyside and passed away in 2011.

Mielke continued to communicate with Hector through the years, and became more of an inspirational figure after Hector suffered through mental illness.

“With your brother, I have the fondest memories of this young boy,” Mielke told me in a 2021 interview. “He’s a beautiful young man. He got into for whatever reasons a mental situation that he couldn’t control.

“He needed a lot of support and a lot of help. That didn’t change the fact that he was a beautiful young man put on this earth by God. He needed all the respect, trust, support, love and kindness he could get for his life.

“When he was with me, that’s how I treated him. I understood his great value and how lucky I was to have an opportunity to work with him. He came to me and said, ‘Help me be a better me.’ To me, that’s humbling. That’s why God put me here.”

They are together again in spirit.

Coach Mielke — the family always referred to him that way — passed away Tuesday from health reasons.

His death is less than three months after Hector’s passing from kidney failure.

Mielke profoundly impacted runners and youth development in Southern Arizona, much like Jim Reffkin did with tennis at about the same time — from the 1960s through the 1990s. Reffkin passed away last week at the age of 84.

Mielke continued to serve as a mentor to many runners, including those at Sunnyside and Pima, over the last two decades.

For almost 60 years, he coached cross country runners at Sunnyside Junior High School, Sunnyside High School and Pima Community College

He holds the distinction of coaching Sunnyside and Pima College to their first outright championships in any sport.

He led Sunnyside’s boys cross country team to the 1975 state championship and the Pima College men’s cross country team to the 1980 national championship.

“That put Pima on the map,” Mielke said in the 2021 interview. “After that, we just started building and growing and building. The next year, we won the national decathlon championship, our women were second in the nation in cross country, our men’s track team was fifth, our women’s track team was fourth … we were just really moving, moving and moving.”

A native of Wappon, Wis., Mielke moved to Tucson with his family when he was 8 in 1945.

His father served in World War II and was part of the Normandy Invasion. He was injured in Belgium and was sent back home.

“He got his wife and two kids and headed west,” Mielke said. “We came with a trailer and a car and made our way to Tucson, Ariz. He built a ranch house out of an old chicken house. We grew up there.”

Mielke attended Roskruge Elementary as a third grader, old Sunnyside Elementary School for fourth, fifth and sixth grade, and Mansfield for seventh and eighth grade before he attended Tucson High.

Mielke, a Class of 1955 graduate at Tucson, started his coaching career in 1961 at Sunnyside Junior High School after earning a bachelor’s degree in education at Arizona.

He became the track and field coach and basketball coach at Sunnyside Junior High School before starting the cross country program.

“I started to develop the runners from 1960 to 1970 to high school and they kept getting better and better and better,” said Mielke, whose runners helped Sunnyside coach Carl Brunenkant tie for a state championship in 1967.

After Brunenkant became an administrator at Sunnyside, he promoted Mielke to take over the cross country program.

The Blue Devils’ boys cross country team finished second in the state in 1974 and then won the championship in 1975.

“Pima came and asked me if I could come and build a program for them,” Mielke recalled. “They asked me in 1974, but I said I’m not going to leave Sunnyside until I win the state championship.

“After I won the state championship, then I went to Pima and I took an $8,000 pay cut to go to Pima. They didn’t have a track. They didn’t have a program. It was just nothing and I had to begin from scratch. It was slowly built, evolved and developed.”

He designed Pima’s track facility to international specifications.

His next challenge was recruiting runners to Pima, which “had no reputation and there was no reason why somebody would go there,” he said.

“The thing that really helped is I was the president of the Tucson Coaches Association, and all the coaches in town knew me,” he continued. “They knew I would take care of their kids if they sent them to me. That helped me with a groundswell to help build the program.”

Two years after arriving at Pima, his team finished second in the national cross country meet in Farmington, N.Y.

The Aztecs were crowned the national champs in 1980 at Coeur d’Alene, Idaho.

Mielke told me he coached nearly 150 All-Americans and up to 12 individual national champions at Pima.

The accolades for his runners did not mean as much to him as how the athletes became successful in life.

“We don’t think the sport is important; we think the student-athlete is important,” Mielke said. “We think everything should focus around the student-athlete and what helps them grow and develop with their self-confidence and self-image and their success in life.

“After you win a race, the next day, nobody remembers who won the race. As you’re going through life, every day is a success — If you can get a job, if you will take care of your family, get married and have children, be a taxpayer, be a responsible citizen of this country … That comes from obedience and discipline, and hard work and being a good son or daughter at home and understanding how to love your fellow man.

“This is what drove me in my program to work with young students. Whether you’re a big winner or the last runner, it really made no difference. You both have the same value in the eyes of God because you’re a creation of God. He put you here with this life. The way I see it is God’s gift to you is life. What you do with that life is your gift to God. I think if you apply that to athletics, it all makes sense.”

Mielke’s memorial service is scheduled for Nov. 12 at the Pima West Campus Fine Arts Theater at a time to be determined.


ALLSPORTSTUCSON.com publisher, writer and editor Javier Morales is a former Arizona Press Club award winner. He is a former Arizona Daily Star beat reporter for the Arizona basketball team, including when the Wildcats won the 1996-97 NCAA title. He has also written articles for CollegeAD.com, Bleacher Report, Lindy’s Sports, TucsonCitizen.com, The Arizona Republic, Sporting News and Baseball America, among many other publications. He has also authored the book “The Highest Form of Living”, which is available at Amazon. He became an educator five years ago and is presently a special education teacher at Gallego Fine Arts Intermediate in the Sunnyside Unified School District.

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