Dennis Fairall (1953-2020) built a dynasty in track and field and cross-country at the University of Windsor Lancers, but that’s not what made Fairall a legend.
Make no mistake, Fairall, who was lovingly referred to as the Big Dawg, loved winning, but he was far more than a championship coach. You could tell that by the long list of wedding invitations from across the country from former athletes that would arrive each year asking Fairall to attend the ceremony, or the string of former athletes that flocked back to the university hoping for a chance to work on his coaching staff.
Fairall, who was 67 when he died on Friday, had been battling progressive supranuclear palsy for years. The rare degenerative brain disease forced him to step down from both coaching roles at the university in 2015.
“One of the biggest things I learned from Dennis is just how to treat people, no matter who you were,” said Brett Lumley, who is the associate head coach of the Lancers’ track and field program.
Lumley competed for the Lancers from 1988-92 and then returned to join the coaching staff under Fairall in 1999 and then remained.
“He was successful, but very humble, which is another lesson I learned,” Lumley said. “He enjoyed life and it was contagious. He liked to live life and enjoyed what he was doing and it was something that everyone fed off.”
Often viewed as an individual sport, Fairall brought a team-first concept to the Lancers.
“There’s no ‘I’ in team,” Fairall once said. He introduced Lancer Corner on the track’s fourth turn for athletes to cheer their teammates on to the finish line.
And the Lancers found plenty of success – individual and team – under Fairall’s guidance. The Lancers won 25 national university championships and 46 provincial conference titles.
For his part, Fairall was named coach of the year at the national or conference level on 65 occasions.
“Dennis Fairall was a special person,” Lancers’ director of athletics Mike Havey said in a release. “His record of accomplishment put the University of Windsor and the Lancers track and field and cross-country programs on the map, but that was not what made him special.
“He was a humble and incredibly effective team builder and collaborator. He positively impacted so many student-athletes and community groups over the years that keeping count was impossible.
“His coaching tree is wide and deep and that impact will continue to be felt for years. When you met with Dennis you always felt better afterwards. He made you feel good.
“That was his gift. We were lucky to have him as a colleague. Our hearts ache for (wife) Janet and (son) Jeremy and (daughter) Erin and the entire Lancer family.”
Fairall twice served as head coach of Canada’s Maccabi Games team. He also led Canada’s World University Games team in 1989 and was a coach on four other occasions.
Fairall was head coach of Canada’s Pan American Junior team in 2005 in Windsor and the team earned its highest medal total in the event’s history.
He is a member of the Tillsonburg sports hall of fame, has been enshrined in the Windsor/Essex County Sports Hall of Fame and was inducted into the Athletics Ontario Hall of Fame.
A Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal winner, Fairall also received the Petro Canada Coaching Award of Excellence while the university renamed its indoor facility as Fairall Fieldhouse in his honour.
“His coaching influence goes across the country if you look at the coaching tree, local and across the country,” Lumley said. “We all knew this was coming, but it’s still tough to take.”