Q&A with Ron Allice

University of Southern California

By Staff

Coaching Management, 13.8, September 2005, http://www.momentummedia.com/articles/cm/cm1308/qaallice.htm

You could nearly fill a Trojan horse with all the trophies and accolades Ron Alliceís menís and womenís track and field teams have earned during his 11-year tenure at the University of Southern California. On the menís side, his teams have captured three Pac-10 titles in the past nine years, and from 1994-2000 they went on a run of seven consecutive top-10 finishes nationally. His womenís teams have been equally impressive, winning the 2001 NCAA Division I Outdoor Championship after finishing second the previous year and third the year before that. Along the way, Allice has coached such standouts as Angela Williams (winner of the Collegiate Woman Athlete of the Year award and Honda-Broderick Cup in 2002), Natasha Danvers, and Torri Edwards.

Alliceís career as a track and field coach spans more than 35 years. In 16 seasons at Long Beach City College, his last stop before USC, his teams won 16 conference championships and 11 state championships. In 1980, Track & Field News named his menís team the best junior college team in history. Allice has also coached college squads at California State Polytechnic University-Pomona and Long Beach State University, and he began his career in the 1960s leading AAU and high school teams. His lifetime dual meet record is 211-43-1, and he has coached more than 250 All-Americans, 16 Olympians, and four world record holders.

In this interview, Allice talks about motivating college athletes, how track and field has changed during his career, and issues facing the sport today.

CM: One of the hallmarks of a Ron Allice team is balance. Why is that important to you, and how do you achieve it year after year?

Allice: When I answer my office phone, I say ďtrack and field,Ē and thatís exactly what this sport is all aboutónot one or the other. I feel itís very important that my program works to excel at all events. For me thatís a top priority, and Iím lucky to be at a place that has the resources to make it possible. We have a history and tradition of success at USC dating back 100 years, and I never want any of our alumni to feel their event is being neglected or allowed to slip. The tradition is so steep here, I consider that part of my mandate as head coach.

As far as how I achieve it, we benefit enormously from having both the men and women under my direction in a combined program. We have eight coaches who work with both teams, instead of four for each. Iíve built a staff of people who are experts in specialized areas, so our athletes have an opportunity to get the best instruction for their event every day.

How do you help incoming athletes adjust to the pressure of competing for a program with such a tradition of excellence?

I tell them that the history and the success of this program shouldnít be a source of pressure, but a source of pride. I explain what it means to put on the uniform, with that interlocking SC that has been on our jerseys for 100 years.

In my office I have a history room where I collect old memorabilia, and when a recruit or an athlete comes to see me I encourage them to look around and learn about the people who came before. I even have plaques in my office that show records in yard marks, from the days before track and field went metric. I think having a sense of the history of their program can be a real source of motivation for todayís athletes. Itís part of my job to let them know what theyíve become a part of.

Your teams also have a reputation for academic success. How do you encourage athletes to make school work a priority?

Iím a big believer in recognizing athletes who excel academically. I give out an award every year at our banquet to the person who earned the highest GPA during the calendar year, and itís the same heavy cast sculpture that we give to the most outstanding athlete. I also have everyone at the banquet who carried a GPA above 3.0 stand and be recognized. We had 39 women and 37 men stand up at our last banquet.

Youíve coached more than a dozen athletes who have gone on to become Olympians. What is it like to see someone achieve that ďholy grailĒ of track and field competition?

Itís extremely gratifying as a coach to see an athlete reach that level. The Olympics is the pinnacle of our sport, and getting there is an accomplishment that people treasure for the rest of their lives. If youíre in this profession long enough, the championships and the team successes can all sort of blend together, but you never forget the individuals.

The beauty of coaching is that when one of your athletes reaches a great milestone, you can feel good about knowing you had an opportunity to help them get there. That doesnít always mean somebody who wins Olympic goldóit may be an athlete who simply achieved something they never thought they could do. Itís sharing those moments with individuals that Iíll remember long after Iím finished coaching.

High school standout Allison Felix made headlines this year when she forfeited a USC athletic scholarship to become the first track and field athlete to go pro straight out of high school. Did you counsel her about the decision?

After we signed Allison, she had an unbelievable senior year in high school and broke a world record in Mexico, and that took her to another level. By the time I sat down with her and her parents, I knew she was leaning toward going pro. One piece of advice I gave her was that if she decided to take that step, she should see to it that tuition at USC be paid for. And she took that advice. Allison went to the Olympics and won a silver medal. Even though sheís not competing with us, I still consider her to be part of our Trojan family.

I doubt that track athletes going pro out of high school will become a trend. Can and will it happen again? Yes. But Allison is an exceptional athlete, and she moved into a vacuum created by the drug scandals at the professional level. She has a wonderful reputation and sheís articulate, attractive, and marketable. She has all the characteristics it takes to be a tremendous representative for our sport.

Steroid use has grabbed many headlines in track and field recently. Is this a case of undeserved bad publicity for the sport, or is it shining overdue light on the problem?

Itís both. The negative side is that almost everything you read about track and field now is a drug story. Some of that is the media being attracted to negative stories, but the problem is real and it has hurt our sport tremendously. Our credibility is at a point where people look at us with a skeptical eye. I truly believe that itís not a major issue at the collegiate level as it is at the professional level, but itís absolutely a good thing that theyíre cracking down with testing in the pro ranks and working to clean up our sport and its reputation. And thatís always going to be difficult when chemistry is evolving faster than the science of detection.

More optimistically, though, I think there is a tremendous youth movement coming up in our sport, with new athletes who are not surrounded by drug suspicion because theyíve learned from what has gone on in the past few years. The college setting is a great environment for athletes to develop into professionals, because college coaches arenít so influenced by the win-at-all-costs mentality that you find in the pros, which can steer athletes toward steroids.

After your menís team won the Pac-10 championship in 2003, you had to forfeit the title because of an ineligible athlete. How did you talk to your team about that?

It was very hard, because I didnít make the mistake, and neither did the athlete. It was an administrative error made by the person who calculates GPAs. Everything we were told indicated that he was eligible. But once we reached the postseason, they recalculated and discovered the error. We had just won the title, and less than a week later we realized weíd have to forfeit.

I brought the team together and the first thing I did was make sure they understood that it wasnít the athleteís fault. Then I explained that in life, there are hills and valleys, and youíre not going to ride the crest of the wave all the time. But those kids knew what they had accomplished in that championship on that weekend, so I told them to hold their heads high.

After coaching for over 35 years, what are the biggest changes youíve seen in the sport?

The menís talent level is not as great as it used to be. Some of the teams I had 20 years ago could probably light up the teams Iíve had more recently. I think one of the biggest reasons for that is the disappearance of multi-sport athletes. Everybody is a specialist by age 10 nowadays, and if theyíre focusing on only one sport, most of the time they arenít going to choose track and field. Thatís a negative trend, because there is tremendous carryover from one sport to another, and one-sport athletes miss out on that.

On the womenís side, Iíve seen almost the exact opposite. Thereís been a tidal wave of talent year after year. Just when you think youíve seen the greatest class of young women coming up, the next group is even better. Title IX has created a wonderful set of opportunities for girls. You donít have to be the blue-chipper in high school to compete in a college programóyou can be a good athlete with decent performances and have your education paid for, which is wonderful.

What do you see as the biggest problems facing collegiate track and field today?

The NCAA regional championships were controversial when they were first introduced, and I think they have created a major issue in our sport. For the people who support the idea, itís all about getting the head-to-head competition and an elimination process like the NCAA has with basketball, where it works incredibly well. But track and field is a very different sport, and many schools donít have the budget to travel to their regional site. Athletic directors have to take a hard look at the bottom line when it comes to non-revenue sports, so when youíre going to increase expenses in such a big way, there should really be some thought about whether programs will be able to afford it.

Besides that, the biggest issue in track and field right now is the need for positive exposure. We need athletes who are well recognized for their success and who appeal to people. Kids sitting in front of the television are constantly seeing athletes celebrated for their ability, and it gets them interested in a particular sport because they want to imitate what they see. We need to package and promote track and field in a way thatís entertaining and draws people in. Look at something like the X-Gamesóthatís become incredibly popular with the younger generation because itís packaged well and it looks exciting and fun. If Iím a young kid, let me have that! Track and field needs to increase its exposure and look for new ways to generate that type of appeal.

One way youíve generated appeal at USC is by bringing back the annual dual meet against cross-town rival UCLA. How important is that event to your program?

Itís huge. There are people who know more about what happens in that meet than they do about anything else in the Pac-10 or the NCAA. People who were not track and field fans have become hooked on it, because the one-on-one competition is a great draw.

The tradition of the dual meet is really in jeopardy in some areas, because you donít have as many schools with complete programs that can compete head-to-head in every event. But itís an important tradition and it has been great for us and UCLAóitís always one of the highlights of our year.

In your career at USC thus far, what achievement are you most proud of?

I canít really single one thing out. I could go back and point to one occasion, one individual, or one event in a particular meet, but itís impossible for me to say that any one moment has been my high point. My mindset is more about consistently building up the program and having more and more high points. I hope that when I leave here, Iíll know that Iíve given all I can and that this program is better than it was when I started. If you do that over the course of a careeróconstantly try to make things better or maintain them at the place where they should beóthen I think youíve done your job.