Coach, Ph.D., veteran: Victor Lopez looks back on his track and field journey

Photo courtesy of Rice Athletics

By Cadan Hanson 01/25/22 10:56 PM

Fifteen years after retiring as a women’s track coach at Rice, Victor Lopez heard her name called during the Texas Track & Field Hall of Fame induction ceremony. As one of seven members of the 13th class of inductees, Lopez is now among the likes of nine-time gold medalist Carl Lewis and other Texas track legends. While this is the most recent honor bestowed on the retired athletics coach, it is only the latest of many awards and accolades he has won throughout his career.

Lopez was born in Aguas Buenas, a small town in central Puerto Rico, as the youngest of four siblings. Growing up, he attended an elementary Catholic school and got into sports during school leisure time where Lopez said he was first introduced to organized athletics.

“[Sports] was in my blood and I loved it,” Lopez said. “In school and in the summer, we played games, ran in the streets and organized relays in the park.”

Lopez continued his education at a high school in a nearby town called Caguas, where he pursued his passion for sports. He played volleyball, baseball, and track and field, but also pursued music as a drummer in a local band. As the end of high school approached, Lopez said he had a decision to make.

“I was in love with sports and I was in love with music, so I didn’t know where I was going in life,” Lopez said. “Should I continue my sporting life or should I go to a music school and become a musician?

During his senior year of high school, an athletic coach came to his school looking for athletes who could compete at the next level. Lopez started training with this trainer and the results were seen as Lopez won sprint and relay events. Lopez said becoming a great athlete was not only rewarding, but fun.

“I loved racing and when I was winning when I was young it gave me a lot of confidence and happiness in my life,” Lopez said.

In his senior year, Lopez was a national junior champion in Puerto Rico and attracted interest from several universities in the continental United States. Eventually, Lopez decided to go to the University of Houston, and in 1964 he enrolled as a student athlete. Although it was an exciting time, Lopez said coming to the United States was still difficult.

“It was a shock for me because even though I spoke English, when I arrived at [United States]it was still hard to adapt… to a different culture and a different language,” Lopez said.

Throughout college, Lopez competed as a Cougar as well as for the Puerto Rican national team. But his career was cut short in 1967, when Lopez was drafted into the US Army during the Vietnam War. After his service, he returned to Houston to complete his education and use up his final year of eligibility.

After graduating, Lopez was a teacher in the Houston Independent School District for a few years before getting a call from a small college in Caguas, Turabo University, asking if he would be interested in the position of sports director. According to Lopez, he started the program from scratch and built a winning culture in a short time.

“There was nothing there at all,” Lopez said. “No office, no equipment, no facilities. I had to start all over again. I was there for six years and we won many college league championships. I was also the head track coach…and we had many athletes who were on the national team.

In 1979 Lopez returned to the United States and the University of Houston to pursue his doctorate. At the time, Lopez said he was looking for a part-time job and at the same time, Rice University was looking for a head athletics coach to kick off its women’s program. When he heard about the post, Lopez said he was very surprised.

“When I first heard about the work from a friend, I was like, Rice University, you must be kidding,” Lopez said. “It was a shock to me, but I took the job.”

After accepting the position, Lopez became the first female coach for the women’s cross country and track and field programs. At the same time, Lopez was able to complete her doctorate. at Rice as a graduate student while working as a track head coach. That year, the inaugural team had a total of six athletes and, according to Lopez, many believed the program would not be successful.

“[When] we started a women’s athletics program…we had recruited six athletes,” Lopez said. “I took the job and started building this team. People told me these girls couldn’t even race. From this team, three of these girls became Division II national champions.

During his 35-year tenure, Lopez led the Owls to four Western Athletic Conference outdoor track titles, three WAC indoor track championships, a Southwest Conference cross country title and two cross country WAC. For three years, the team has won all three track, indoor, outdoor and cross-country championships, which Lopez says is an extremely difficult feat.

During his 35 years as head coach of the Owls, Lopez worked with many athletes who would go on to win conference and national awards. Under his leadership, 58 athletes have combined to earn 176 NCAA Division I or Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women Division II all-America honors. In addition to success on the track, Lopez said he’s also been pleased with how his athletes have fared in life outside of track and field.

“I have coached and produced 11 athletes who have gone on Olympic teams to the United States, Jamaica, Barbados [and] Costa Rica,” Lopez said. “There were a lot of great athletes…Regina [Cavanaugh] won six NCAA championships in the shot put. In other words, she only lost one championship in four years when she competed for Rice… She is now a doctor and the director of a children’s hospital. She was a fantastic athlete and an excellent student.

Although the Rice track was very successful, there were a lot of hurdles and difficulties to overcome according to Lopez. Early in his tenure, Lopez said it was difficult to garner support for the brand new team.

“The most difficult challenge was [getting] no support,” Lopez said. “One of the parents donated a van so that we could go to the athletics competitions. I was the driver and we piled all the athletes into the van to go compete.

Additionally, Lopez said recruiting athletes was difficult at first because of the high academic standards Rice looks for in her applicants.

“Recruiting hasn’t been easy at Rice due to academic requirements,” Lopez said. “There was a myth going around that you’re not going to find academic athletes because athletes don’t like to study…but I proved them wrong.”

Lopez’s athletes have continued to excel on the track and in the classroom over the years. Even with the many team championships and individual victories won by his athletes, Lopez said looking back, the most important achievement was his athletes’ academic success in the classroom.

“When I retired, they talked about all my accomplishments in sports,” Lopez said. “My proudest moment at Rice was having 100% of my daughters graduate. We were probably one of the few with a 100% graduation rate. And [today]many of them hold great positions in life like doctors, lawyers, some in finance and some coaches.

After the 2005 season, Lopez retired as Rice’s track coach. Upon retirement, Rice renamed the annual track meet Rice University Bayou Classic, which Lopez started in 1981 and which at the time was the largest all-women track meet in Texas, the “Victor Lopez Classic”. He was also inducted into the Rice Hall of Fame and received scholarships named after him and his wife, Evelyn.

As a tribute to success in the coaching field, Lopez has received numerous awards and honors, including eight different Hall of Fame inductions, including the Texas Sports Hall of Fame, United States Track and Field and Cross Country Coaches Association Hall of Fame. Fame, Texas Track and Field Hall of Fame and Aguas Bueanas and Puerto Rico Sports Hall of Fame. Lopez said that while he’s incredibly grateful for the awards and accolades, he treasures his time at Rice the most.

“I consider Rice my second home,” Lopez said. “Just coming to campus every day at 7 a.m. was like going to a [place of magic]. Inside the Rice campus, there was a feeling of nurturing youth development through education and sports.

Outside of the city of Houston, Lopéz has been involved in athletics all over the world. In the 1990s, he helped coach Michael Jordan during his three-time NBA championship as a strength and conditioning consultant. In 2004, he returned to Puerto Rico to coach their track and field team at the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens, Greece, and now works as a consultant to the national team that won its first Olympics medal. gold in track and field at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Lopez said he was also in contact with Jasmine Camacho-Quinn before she won gold and set the Olympic record in the 100-meter hurdles in Tokyo.

Today, Lopez has since retired from the numerous positions of president and chairman of track organizations and now helps organize a major professional track and field event, the Ponce Grand Prix. According to Lopez, the competition is one of the largest in Central America and the Caribbean and will feature many world champions and Olympic athletes.

Even in retirement, Lopez expressed gratitude for her time at Rice, as well as alumni and supporters. He said he will always cherish the family bonds he created.

“I treated my athletes like my daughters or my own children,” Lopez said. “I was very strict but I listened to them, I took care of them. It was like a family.”