Q&A with Don Larson

North Dakota State University

By Staff

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

In his first 25 years as the Head Men’s Track and Field Coach at North Dakota State University, Don Larson built the Bison into one of NCAA Division II’s most respected programs. Between indoor and outdoor track and cross country, Larson guided NDSU to 36 North Central Conference team championships, including a string of 13 consecutive outdoor titles from 1987 to 1999.

Nationally, his teams finished in the top 10 at the Division II outdoor championship meet seven times, including a third-place finish in 2004. The Bison also finished seventh or higher at the Division II indoor championships six times. During this period, Larson coached his athletes to 193 All-America performances and 11 individual national championships.

But in 2005 Larson’s challenges moved beyond improving times, heights, and distances, as NDSU began its transition to Division I. The Bison burst onto the scene by blowing away the competition at the Division I Independent Outdoor Championships (a championship meet for schools without conference affiliation), winning the team title by more than 70 points. That success carried over to 2006, when NDSU took home its second consecutive Independent Championships outdoor team title.

After completing the second year of a five-year transition period, Larson spoke with Coaching Management about the challenges he’s encountered since joining Division I. In this interview he shares his philosophy on promoting the team concept, utilizing assistant coaches, and coaching alongside his wife.

CM: What has been the biggest change in making the jump to Division I?

Larson: Travel—we’ve been making longer trips to some really good meets, thanks to a larger travel budget. We’re able to branch out and attend meets in places like Florida, where the springtime weather is a little nicer than it is here in North Dakota. We’re not on the road any longer than before, but instead of an extremely long bus trip, we take a flight.

What was it like going from a dominating D-II program to a fledgling D-I program?

Fortunately the year we made the jump, our team was loaded with talented seniors, so we were able to make some noise at the bigger meets right away. Plus, the enhanced travel budget meant we could go to more big meets and take more kids. For the first Independent Championships meet we flew 27 kids to California to compete for four days—that’s quite a price tag. For the administration to provide those resources displayed a strong commitment, and the kids really appreciated that. For our elite kids, the new indoor meet schedule included Nebraska, the University of Washington, and Notre Dame, and the outdoor schedule took us to the University of Miami, University of Texas, Drake, and the Mt. SAC Relays. It’s as good a schedule as most Division I programs have. Moving up a division was about having opportunities to succeed, and our athletes really took advantage of it.

How does recruiting in Division I differ from Division II?

We’re still recruiting in the same geographic areas as we always have—Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Montana. But now, we are able to go after more of the blue-chip kids.

Do you ask athletes to compete in events that may not be their strongest in order to score points?

We don’t ask kids to do events they’re not comfortable in without letting them be part of the discussion. But the type of kids we recruit want to be successful and are willing to sacrifice. In last year’s Independent Championships, we had an athlete we weren’t going to ask to run the 10K because we didn’t think he had a chance to win, and we wanted him to be fresh for the 5K. But we ended up asking him to run the 10K because we thought he might be able to get us a couple of points. Well, he won the 5K and placed in the 10K, which helped us win the meet.

How do you convince athletes to train outside of their comfort zone?

We’re always talking about what direction they should take in their events. We’ve had kids win events they had rarely run before. It’s tough to get the 100m and 200m sprinter to run a quarter mile—especially if the only time they ran the 400 was in high school, and they spent most of the time afterward throwing up in a garbage can. But if you show those sprinters how much easier the 200m will seem after running the quarter mile, it’s a lot easier to convince them to give longer races a try.

How do you keep academics in perspective?

We were lucky enough to have 30 NCAA post-grad scholars last spring. A local reporter asked me, “Of all the things you’ve accomplished in moving to Division I, what are you most proud of?” I told him the 30 post-grad scholars. He said, “No, I mean on the track.” I told him that academics are a huge part of our program. To me it’s all about trying to be successful academically and athletically, and the third part is growing and maturing into well-rounded adults. We tell our athletes the main reason they’re here is to get an education and while they’re doing so, they can have an unbelievable athletic experience, especially now that we’re in Division I.

What is your system for working with your assistant coaches?

We have a full-time men’s head coach and a full-time women’s head coach, but our assistants coach based on event, not gender. So our men’s and women’s teams work out at the same time, and that’s been a really good system for us. Our assistant coaches have phenomenal relationships with our athletes. I can’t imagine working with any other coaches during this process.

In March, I tore my hamstring while demonstrating at a youth clinic. I had a lot of complications after my surgery and was only able to travel to one outdoor meet. But we were okay because we have a staff that’s always willing to go the extra mile.

What’s it like having your wife on staff as an assistant coach?

Desire'e and I have been married for 20 years. We were introduced by the former head coach at St. Cloud State, who was the chair of the Division II subcommittee in the mid-80s. He put the two of us on a committee to study the feasibility of indoor track as a national championship sport. That summer, we both had athletes qualify for the 1984 U.S. Olympic Trials, and during that time we got together as a couple, and she eventually joined the staff here. It’s good and bad because we never really get away from track and field.

What are the keys to making your relationship work?

Flexibility and understanding. It goes along with our number-one team rule: no whining! I’m better at not talking about track when we’re home than my wife is. She came from a track family and understands what is required to do this job well. She never complains about me being on the road too much or having home visits on Sundays, because she knows that is what it takes. Both of us understand that if you’re going to have any level of success, it requires a tremendous time commitment—schedules have to be flexible, and you’re not always going to be home for supper.

What do you want to be remembered for as a coach?

I gauge my success by how the student-athletes I’ve been involved with view their experience. I want them to look back on their careers and be able to say they’ve had opportunities to be successful. I tell athletes during the recruiting process, “You can be a student, you can be an athlete, and you can still have time for other things.” I want to be remembered for being fair and giving everybody the opportunity to be the best they could.

What’s next for you and your program?

I’m looking forward to completing the transition. We’re in the developmental stage of possibly joining a conference, and that would be a big step forward. And of course there are the challenges we face year after year: training a new bunch of kids and welcoming a new recruiting class. It’s an exciting phase, and right now I’m having way too much fun to consider doing something different. I still enjoy going to work every day.

NDSU is a great place, and the biggest reason we’ve stayed is the community. Yeah, winters are a little tough, but we have a lot of friends, and our athletic administration is a great group to work with. Our coaches hang out—softball, football, basketball, wrestling, and track—and so we all do things together. At some schools, coaches never talk to each other, but here we all get along great. When faced with challenges, we all work together to solve them, and that’s important to me.