All-American Ran for 1974-’75 SMC National Champions
Published on January 5, 2021 - 4 p.m.
Tom Ellspermann, an All-American with Southwestern Michigan College’s second and third NJCAA cross country national champions, ran for Michigan State University after SMC, but downplays his ability alongside his “truly gifted, like gazelles,” teammates. He joked he spent so much time trailing them “I’d recognize those guys from behind.”
“I’m built like a little football player, short and stocky,” said Ellspermann, 64, who served in several senior leadership roles during 28 years with Whirlpool after earning his MSU bachelor’s degree in advertising in 1979.
He lived all over, but retired in St. Joseph. His alma mater enshrined him in its Hall of Fame in 1999.
Ellspermann, who retired last October as president of Amerisun Inc., remembers Dowagiac as a “great little town” with “tremendous support” for the college and its cross-country program.
He said Tim Tobin, SJHS 1971 state champion, pushed him to attend SMC even before “Ron Gunn put his personality into play.”
“I didn’t know where to go to school,” said Ellspermann, whom Gunn nicknamed “Elly.”
SMC finished third in 1976 and second in 1977 before winning its fourth title in 1978. The Roadrunners added a fifth title in 1981.
Straight out of college, Ellspermann worked in Chicago. Once he joined Whirlpool for marketing management training, he went from Benton Harbor to Houston (four years), Omaha (one year), Dallas (three years), corporate in his hometown (three years) and Canada (four years) before returning to St. Joseph in the early ’90s.
“Southwest Michigan is a really nice hidden gem from the rest of the country,” said Ellspermann, who also lived in Toronto.
Then Ellspermann switched industries, moving to Ohio as vice president and general manager of brand marketing and sales for five years with MTD Products, a leader in outdoor equipment.
Smaller Amerisun, which distributes PowerSmart outdoor power equipment, including snow throwers, lawn mowers, pressure washers, chip shredders and portable generators, gave him, as he approached retirement, “a good opportunity to shape a business.”
He met his wife, who worked for an advertising agency, in Chicago. He and Cynthia have been married for 38 years and have three grown sons and four grandchildren.
Ellspermann remembers his time at SMC as a “great experience. I was never the lead guy, but cross country was great for me” as a team sport driven by individual performance, instilling discipline he relied on throughout his career.
In fact, he appreciates SMC for developing his academic regimen as well as athletics with its caring culture. “I wouldn’t have made it at MSU (where he was an RA, or resident assistant) right away out of high school,” he said. “My fondest memory is the way everybody at SMC cared. You felt like you were somebody. It’s fantastic the cross-country teams are coming back because it enables the development of so much discipline, caring, growth, maturity and taking risks in a safe environment.”
As for back-to-back national titles, “I remember both those races like it was yesterday,” Ellspermann said.
He was one of five All-American members of the ’74 team, along with Arnold Jackson, Joseph Ofsansky, John Roscoe and Steve Serna. Gunn dubbed Ellspermann and Serna his “mighty mites.”
Title No. 2 came Nov. 9, 1974, in Eugene, Ore. The Michigan Senate passed a resolution recognizing SMC’s “remarkable accomplishments” that was introduced by the state senator for whom the Charles O. Zollar Building is named.
That Oregon trip was notable in another way for Ellspermann, who was thrilled to meet Steve Prefontaine, who competed in the 1972 Summer Olympics before his life was cut short at 24 in a 1975 auto accident. Many regard “Pre” as America’s greatest distance runner who helped inspire the ’70s running boom.
Prefontaine certainly influenced Ellspermann, who displayed a poster of his famous quote, “To give anything less than your best is to sacrifice the gift,” in his office for 20 years, just as he still invokes Gunn’s rallying cry, “Fire Up.”
Ellspermann, Jackson, Serna and Ofsansky were among seven lettermen who returned for the ’75 season, along with Steve Bunn, Dave Baltosser and Alex Meyer. Sophomore Dennis Cordell came back from an injury.
Top freshman recruits included John Reedy, Tony Rodiez and Randy Allmendinger, who transferred from New Mexico State. Promising freshman recruits identified by The Sou’Wester preview included Jerry Smith, Dave Brand, Kevin Connelly, Steve Holm, Bruce Washko and Chuck Putterbaugh.
The student newspaper often referred to the cross-country team as the “hurryin’ harriers.”
SMC’s third title came Nov. 8, 1975, with a new record low of 39 points in Rochester, Minn. Central Arizona placed second. Pre-race favorite Allegheny College managed third.
Ofsansky, from Terre Haute, Ind., “pulled the biggest surprise,” The Sou’Wester reported. “The sophomore, who twice this year finished second, burned them all this time, winning the national title in 24:26.4 on the five-mile course. The top 25 finishers garner All-American status.
“Joining Ofsansky were sophomore Steve Serna of Highland, Ind., fifth in 25:00; Terre Haute freshman John Reedy, seventh in 25:07; 12th, sophomore Arnie Jackson of Schaumburg, Ill., 25:21; Hammond, Ind., sophomore Dennis Cordell, 18th in 25:20; and St. Joseph sophomore Tom Ellspermann, 23rd in 25:32. Just missing All-American was Hartford sophomore Steve Bunn, 31st in a field of 278 runners.”
The Roadrunners, whose home turf was nearby Hampshire Country Club on Pokagon Highway, saw their “Gold Team” reserves that Oct. 29 defeat Notre Dame’s junior varsity with a perfect 15 points to 42 for the Fighting Irish.
Ellspermann ran until his early 50s, competing in the Chicago Marathon multiple times.
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