Going the Distance

Today's administrators are looking for programs that contribute more than winning records. Here's how today's top coaches are working hard to make track and field an integral part of their universities.

By Kenny Berkowitz

Kenny Berkowitz is an Assistant Editor at Coaching Management. He can be reached at: kb@MomentumMedia.com.

Coaching Management, 14.8, September 2006, http://www.momentummedia.com/articles/cm/cm1408/goingthedistance.htm

It’s budget time at Institution X, and the powers that be have instructed the athletic director to make deep spending cuts. Selective trimming won’t be enough, and it looks like programs will be eliminated.

If this were your institution, would track and field be on the chopping block? It’s a tough and uncomfortable question, but in an era of tightening belts, it’s one that coaches need to consider.

Along with it comes another question: What steps can a coach take to ensure that administrators see the track and field program as a valuable asset they don’t want to lose? A glance at track and field programs eliminated in recent years proves that turning out successful athletes is not the whole answer—many of the now-defunct teams consistently posted winning performances. To ensure the safety of their programs, coaches are learning that their programs must add value to athletic departments and schools in ways that go beyond the scoreboard.

“As coaches, we have to keep asking ourselves whether we’re providing enough for our university,” says Dennis Mitchell, Head Coach at the University of Akron. “Are we really promoting the university through what we do? Could we do more? To be safe, you’ve got to fight for your program and constantly sell your administration on what you’re trying to do. You have to push your program to the forefront until everybody sees it as a major program on campus.”

But how? Below, we share the strategies four successful coaches are using to earn their programs a position of prominence on campus and in their communities. At Akron, Mitchell is making track and field a major campus attraction by hosting meets that draw enthusiastic crowds. At Emporia State University, Head Coach Dave Harris is hosting the NCAA Division II Outdoor Championships and becoming an expert in media relations to raise his program’s profile.

At the University of Oregon, Vin Lananna, Director of Track and Field, is showing his program’s strength by building a large network of supportive alumni. And at Trinity College, Head Coach George Suitor is drawing attention and support by persuading elite athletes to put their celebrity status to work shoring up the sport at the high school and college levels.

Making Meets Matter
Mitchell believes there is a for ensuring his program’s prominence on campus: hosting great meets. Mitchell hosts a minimum of two outdoor and four indoor meets every year, and in a busy year, he may host one or two more.

“You can’t develop support for your program if you don’t have home competitions,” says Mitchell. “Home competitions are the base of your program’s success.”

To draw crowds and create a buzz, however, meets must be organized around the fans’ experience. “Whenever we put on a meet, we make sure it’s very fan-friendly,” says Mitchell. “Everything we do is directed towards making sure the spectator has an enjoyable experience.

“Sometimes track meets get too sterile, because organizers are worried there’s going to be too much chaos,” he continues. “I believe a little chaos can lead to more excitement for fans and athletes. Things don’t need to be as tame as some people think.”

Put into practice, that means condensing the entire meet into less than three hours, scheduling events as close together as possible, and keeping downtime to a minimum. It means posting easily viewable indicator boards around the field, locating field event areas for optimal sight lines, and having announcers continually direct the crowd’s attention to upcoming field events, while also providing information to keep them engaged in the competition.

“Everyone knows what’s going on in the running events, so the key to getting fans involved is announcing a lot of field events,” says Mitchell. “Make sure the announcements are detailed so that everyone will be caught up in the action.

“A meet is like a three-ring circus, and the announcer’s job is to keep the crowd in it,” he continues. “He or she needs to make fans a part of the excitement, clapping and cheering and doing everything they can to help the athletes be successful.”

To hold fans’ attention, Mitchell borrows promotional ideas from other sports, including major and minor league baseball. Music plays from loudspeakers during field events, winning athletes throw free T-shirts into the crowd, and a running tally of results is used to keep spectators focused on the rivalries between schools.

“We have a meet with our rival Kent State, and even if fans aren’t familiar with each event, everyone understands when Akron finishes ahead of Kent State,” says Mitchell.

A multi-school meet at Akron can draw as many as 1,000 fans, and between meets, Mitchell keeps them up to date with regular postings on the department Web site. By building a fan base, he expects to raise the team’s profile both on and off campus, working within the university’s mission to create the best possible experience for fans and student-athletes.

“Our fans know that every weekend there’s something major going on at our facility,” Mitchell says. “Hosting competitions that people can relate to creates public awareness about what we’re doing, and that sense of excitement and vitality makes us an integral part of life at Akron.”

Working with the Media
When asked about the significance of the track and field program on campus, administrators at Emporia State University don’t have to think very long before they answer. In the last 11 years, the NCAA Division II Outdoor Track and Field Championships have come three times to the school, located in Emporia, Kan., population 26,000. For Head Coach Dave Harris, hosting the championship meet is “a lot like running a marathon." But it’s a boon to the local economy, bringing half a million dollars into the community each time, and is a great boost for Emporia State’s track program, which feels the impact locally, regionally, and nationally.

“Our administration loves it, because hosting an event like this gives prominence to Emporia State and our track and field program,” says Harris, who is also President of the US Track & Field and Cross Country Coaches Association. “There’s a certain prestige in telling recruits we’ve hosted three national championships. That shows our facility is top-notch, and that we’ve earned a tremendous amount of respect in our division. And this isn’t a small event—we have 1,000 people involved in this championship.”

Harris knows the benefit of hosting nationals depends largely on the level of coverage he can garner for the meet. In the decade since first hosting the championship, he has become more media-savvy. This combined with increased support from the NCAA allowed him to generate a much bigger buzz for the 2006 event. For Harris, the key is getting the media on his side, treating them well, and doing everything he can to help them do their job.

“The first step is to make yourself accessible,” he says. “As track coaches, it feels like we’re constantly busy, always working toward the next weekend or dealing with one more thing. But when the reporters come around, you’ve got to take time out of your schedule to talk with them, answer their questions, and show them they can depend on you.”

Harris gladly accepts invitations to speak on the radio, seizing the opportunity to communicate his message directly to listeners. In a series of radio interviews this spring, he continually emphasized the uniqueness of hosting the championships and the high-caliber action that fans could expect.

“Whenever I was on the radio, I made it a point to call the NCAA championships ‘the greatest track and field meet Emporia will ever see,’” says Harris. “I talked about the individual athletes coming here, and true to form, they performed very well. We had a 7’6” high jump, which is world class. We had a 55’ triple jump and a 26’8” long jump. I had publicized those athletes ahead of time and specified exactly when they would be competing, and I think that helped a lot. People kept telling me, ‘I want to see that long jumper’ or ‘I want to see the high jump competition.’”

The second step in working with the media, says Harris, is to provide reporters with the kind of information they need to make your sport appeal to the broadest possible audience. “They’re not just looking for the distance someone jumped in their last meet,” he says. “They’re looking for an angle, and that’s what we need to give them.

“For example, I talked to one reporter about a young man on our team who’d served in Iraq, and that grabbed his interest, because it was more than just how fast someone runs the 10,000 meters,” Harris continues. “It was about conditions in Iraq, how he’d trained, what he’d been through. After the interview, the reporter said to me, ‘That was a great story. It wasn’t just about athletics, it was about life.’”

The third step is to maintain those relationships and always keep the media aware of developments in your program. At Emporia State, Harris makes time for regular conversations with the media, invites reporters to attend end-of-season banquets, and even asks them to emcee part of the evening.

It’s all part of making the media feel involved in the track program, and even though it can be time-consuming, Harris feels it’s worth it for the long-term future of his program. “In my 14 years here, I’ve worked with six different newspaper sports reporters, and none of them knew much about track and field coming in,” he says. “But they learned a lot through talking with our athletes and talking with me, and they’ve helped us tremendously by covering the sport well.

“The media can help you create a buzz about your program,” continues Harris. “And it certainly helps to have them on your side.”

Friends in High Places
In 2003, George Suitor, Head Coach at Trinity College (Conn.), came up with a way to raise the profile, not just of his program, but of scholastic track and field as a whole. He decided to enlist a group of elite athletes to give back to the sport.

“Many of us have coached and known athletes who make a living competing in track and field,” says Suitor. “Some of them have grown quite famous, both within track and throughout the athletic world. They can make a huge difference at the grassroots level, and it’s time for us to encourage them to give their energy to support the growth of the sport.”

To achieve this, Suitor began putting together the 2003 Connecticut Invitational Mile with two main goals. He wanted to raise the profile of his program, broadening his fan base and building support around the state. At the same time, he wanted to honor one of his team’s most successful members, Ryan Bak, with the opportunity to run a four-minute mile—a feat that had been accomplished only once in NCAA Division III.

To assemble a field of runners strong enough to push Bak to the vaunted time, Suitor began networking. His first call went to Erik Nedeau, Head Coach at Amherst College, who agreed to run. The second call went to Suitor’s former graduate assistant Gary Gardner, the Head Coach at the University of Massachusetts-Lowell, who added his strongest miler to the field.

Two other coaches volunteered their best runners, and with the promise of a strong field, Suitor created a partnership with the Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference, which agreed to host the invitational during its state high school championships. From there, the professionals quickly followed, as Zap Fitness offered Dan Wilson and Karl Savage, who ultimately finished the race in first and second place. Nike’s Alan Webb also asked to join in, gladly waiving any appearance fee.

As the field grew, Suitor enlisted the help of friends in the media, signed an announcer to call the race, and began his own personal campaign on running blogs and Web sites. He arranged to have the event sanctioned by USA Track and Field (the $40 fee was the only money he spent on the event), and scheduled the race at an optimal time for evening news coverage. In the end, Bak didn’t reach the 4:00 mark, but his 4:11.49, clocking ninth out of 12 runners, did little to dampen the excitement of the event.

“Although we didn’t achieve our original goal for Ryan, it turned out to be a truly exciting and memorable race,” says Suitor. “It was an event that every high school kid in the stadium will remember for the rest of their life. To me, it was symbolic of what our sport is really about. It was a pure track race—no money, just great competition—and an inspiring experience for all involved.”

Five thousand people came to the sold-out event, the largest crowd ever to attend Connecticut’s high school track championships, and cheered until the last runner crossed the finish line. The elite runners, including Webb, stayed until the end of the event, signing autographs, talking with high school athletes, and inspiring the people around them.

“Season after season, our high school athletes look up to these people for inspiration to achieve their goals,” says Suitor. “But most of them have never seen their heroes in person. There’s no doubt in my mind that the race affected high school athletes in a profoundly positive way.”

Looking back, Suitor is surprised at how easy it was to organize the event and how well it turned out. Along with building their own fan base, the elite athletes had the satisfaction of giving back to the sport. College runners were able to race on a first-class track, facing some of the toughest competition of their careers. And Trinity College was able to demonstrate its commitment to the sport and raise awareness of its track and field program among the best high school athletes in the state.

“As track coaches, if we could stage 15 or 20 of these events each year, I’m confident we would build our fan base,” says Suitor. “We need to encourage elite athletes to give their time, talent, and commitment to inspire the growth of the sport that has given so much to them.”

Reconnecting Alumni
One sure-fire way to show your institution the strength of your program is to have the solid backing of a large group of people who once wore your uniform. That’s why in one of his first acts as Associate Athletic Director and Director of Track & Field at the University of Oregon, Vin Lananna began reaching out to track alumni.

“Establishing relationships with alumni is critical for any successful program,” he says. “Developing close relationships with athletes who’ve had an experience in your program is enormously important for creating a positive feeling for your program.”

Arriving at the start of the 2005-06 school year, Lananna immediately sent out letters of introduction to Oregon’s track alumni, which were followed with personal telephone calls to the track program’s most prominent supporters. His goal was to begin building excitement for the upcoming outdoor season, which began with the Oregon Preview and ended with the Pacific-10 Conference Championships at the university’s home field. All track alumni were invited to return to Hayward Field to celebrate the conference meet. Out of 1800 invitees, well over 500 alumni attended the event, where they met the new coach, mingled with current student-athletes, and reconnected to the program.

“The key is to get alumni back at your institution, because once they see the campus and the dorms, it’ll rekindle the excitement they felt when they were athletes,” says Lananna. “That’s what really gets to people. And to do that, you need some kind of defining event.”

When Lananna worked at Dartmouth College, that defining event was the Dartmouth Relays. At Oberlin College, it was a Hall of Fame dinner during Commencement Weekend, and at Stanford University, it was the largest home meet of the year. But whether you’re inviting alumni to an athletic or institutional event, it’s important to create an occasion that will provide excitement for the entire family.

“To make it easy for people to come back, there have to be places for them to stay, intriguing activities, and ways to keep spouses and children engaged,” says Lananna. “You can’t just invite alumni for one two-hour event. There have to be ways for them to meet the current athletes and feel involved in the day-to-day experience of the team. And your focus can’t be raising money—if you organize a worthwhile event, the fundraising will take care of itself.”

Planning for any successful alumni event begins with a good database, so Lananna worked closely with the department’s development office to help identify key track and field alumni who could motivate their former teammates. A committee of alumni athletes was chosen to help organize the reunion, with representatives from each decade and a balance of both male and female alumni. Lananna took the time to personalize each invitation with a short note, and after letters were mailed to everyone in the database, the committee members led follow-up efforts to bring former athletes back to Hayward Field.

“First of all, make sure your contact information is accurate,” advises Lananna. “Having e-mail addresses is very important, but for the older alums, make sure you have reliable mailing addresses as well. Second, get your information out early, and use that lead time to build up excitement, so alums can network with other people from their era. Attach a personal note to each letter, even if it’s just a sentence or two, and include a business card with your telephone number and e-mail address, so people can contact you.

“It all comes down to being sincere,” he continues. “Your letter has to be really special, or it will be just another piece of mail. You have to be positive, but at the same time, you have to be able to address the concerns that people have—especially those athletes whose collegiate experience wasn’t always favorable. Once people arrive on campus, make sure you attend all functions, even when you’re involved in coaching the meet. It may be difficult to connect with every single alum, but it’s critical to put the time in and let people know that you’re accessible.”

Lananna plans to make the reunion an annual event. Between events, the department will keep in touch with alumni through a thank-a-thon staffed by current student-athletes, quarterly newsletters from the track program, and regular follow-up e-mails by members of the alumni committee.

Ultimately, says Lananna, the more positive contact you have with alumni, the better your relationships will be, and your program will benefit. “If you’re going to preserve your program, alumni are crucial,” he says. “And you need to find ways to keep them feeling connected to the current program because people are far more inclined to support something when they feel a connection. As coaches, we need to keep being innovative and keep trying new things.

“To really be strong, there has to be value associated with our programs,” he continues, “and that goes far beyond the scoreboard.”

High school track and field programs rarely face the same chopping block scenario that worries college coaches. But that doesn’t mean cultivating support on campus and in the community shouldn’t be a priority—in fact, it can pay huge dividends. At Colonel Crawford High School, Head Coach Judy Grove knows this, and she has a brand new all-weather track to prove it.

In the school’s small town of North Robinson, Ohio, where the typical graduating class has less than 100 students, athletic boosters are almost finished raising $338,000 for the new track, which opened this fall. How?

The answer, according to Grove, was single-mindedness and a lot of legwork. "For six years, this is what the booster club has focused on," Grove says. "We dedicated ourselves fully to making this happen, and until we finished this project, everything else was put on the back burner."

In the first part of a two-stage plan, boosters raised $199,000 for a new fieldhouse, which was largely built with volunteer labor and includes coaches’ offices, lockers, and a state-of-the-art weightroom. In the second phase, all monies raised were dedicated to constructing the track. Three years from now, Grove expects the bank loan to be completely paid, thanks to gifts, donations, craft sales, raffles, and an annual classic Corvette raffle—conducted with the help of a car dealership in nearby Napoleon, Ohio—which draws ticket buyers from around the world.

Grove credits athletic boosters and volunteers with making this dream a reality by contributing enormous amounts of time and energy to support their high school athletes. Their fans are among the most visible members of the community, and the track they’ve helped build will be open to the entire town year-round. As the wife of the booster club treasurer, Grove has learned how much work goes into a successful fundraising campaign, and as a coach, she’s seen the importance of having a vision, a gameplan, and a positive attitude.

Her advice to others looking to raise what seems like an impossible sum is to be persistent and optimistic. "I learned that a small-town community is big enough to support an endeavor like this," she says, "and I learned to never give up. We have a lot of resources and a lot of talented people in this community. We have business leaders who are graduates of our school, and they were ready to give back as soon as we asked.

"A lot of people think, ‘I’m not going to ask so-and-so, because they’ll say no,’" Grove continues. "But you don’t know that. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. The worst you can get is a no, and 95 percent of the time we got a yes. Tap into your community members as much as possible, show them what their hard work can do, and give them something that everyone can be proud of."