Dennis Fairall, known affectionately as “Big Dawg” by his athletes, built the Windsor Lancers into a Canadian varsity track and field powerhouse, and continued to guide middle-distance star Melissa Bishop-Nriagu to international podiums while a rare brain disease slowly robbed him of his mobility and speech.
The legendary coached died on Friday. He was 67.
Fairall coached Windsor’s cross-country and track and field programs from 1985 until his retirement in 2015, leading the Lancers to 25 Canadian university championships, 46 Ontario University Athletics titles, and was named Canadian or conference coach of the year 65 times in either track or cross-country.
Fairall was diagnosed with progressive supranuclear palsy in 2013 and retired from the university in 2015. The university named its indoor track facility the Dennis Fairall Fieldhouse a year later.
He continued to coach Bishop-Nriagu, despite his deteriorating health. The 800-metre runner tuned out suggestions she find another coach.
“People have some opinions about it, but this is him and I. This is our journey. This is Dennis and me,” Bishop said in 2017, a couple of weeks before the world championships in London — the first major international meet that Fairall was unable to be at. “This has been our career for 10 years, I’ve put absolute trust in him for the last 10 years, and he’s put his trust in me, and it’s turned out really well.”
Fairall’s wife Janet retired from her job as a school principal in 2017 to care for her husband full-time. The two were a common sight guiding Bishop-Nriagu through her workouts, Janet pushing Dennis — who smiled through a gap in his front teeth and often wore a baseball cap pulled over his mop of white hair — in his walker.
Bishop-Nriagu won silver at the 2015 world championships, gold at the Pan Am Games that same summer.
She’d hoped to climb the medal podium for Fairall at the 2016 Rio Olympics, “for both of us,” she said.
The 32-year-old finished fourth, missing a medal by 0.13 seconds.
Fairall coached more than 1,800 athletes at Windsor alone. His immense impact was felt in the number of weddings he and Janet attended — 13 in one summer alone.
Windsor director of athletics Mike Havey said Fairall was a “special person.”
“His record of accomplishment put the University of Windsor and the Lancers track and field and cross country programs on the map,” Havey said in a statement. “But that was not what made him special. He was a humble and incredibly effective team builder and collaborator.
“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.”
The Lancers had won 22 of the past 25 provincial championships in men’s track and field, and 17 of the past 25 provincial championships in women’s track and field, leading into Fairall’s retirement.
Fairall was inducted into the Windsor/Essex Sports Hall of Fame, Athletics Canada and Athletics Ontario Halls of Fame, and the university’s Alumni Sports Hall of Fame. He was awarded the Athletics Canada coach of the year, a Petro Canada Coaching Excellence Award, and an honourary Doctor of Law degree from the university.
Fairall leaves behind son Jeremy, daughter Erin, and two granddaughters.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 6, 2020.
Lori Ewing, The Canadian Press