A Tale of Two Colleges

Over the last seven days I’ve met with two relatively new college coaches, or at least new to my little corner of Ohio, to talk about ways to give our sport a higher profile. I’m very happy to report that both of these two have no shortage of ideas or ambition.

Toledo

I just had a lunch with Linh Nguyen, the new head track and cross country coach at the University of Toledo. The New York native was recently hired away from UNC-Greensboro to replace the train wreck that was Kevin Hadsell; here is the official release.

He's a Toledoan now -- just had his first taste of Tony Packo's

By all appearances Nguyen understands that he’s not just a coach of a team, but a coach of a university team and what that means. If he is representative of a new generation of track and field coaches, ones who share his kind of vision, then things might turn out OK for us and our sport.

First off, I should say that part of me is his mortal enemy. I ran at rival Bowling Green, just 25 miles away, and my once-fanatical support for my Falcons has been rekindled in the last few years. So I have the urge to bring out my inner Iron Sheik and yell Bowling Green number one! Falcons number one! Rockets – hack-ptooah!

But I also love my hometown of Toledo and want only the best for it, and of course I want track and field and cross country to claim their rightful spots as high-profile sports. So I welcome a formidable opponent.

What do I mean when I talk about what it means to coach a university team? It means more than just winning and losing, and even more than winning and losing and having a high GPA. It means an educational mission, both for the athletes and the community, and it means creating and strengthening bonds between the team and UT alumni and the city’s residents. Universities have far more to offer than just degrees and seats in a stadium, and it’s too easy to forget that.

In short, Nguyen wants his team to get out into the community and he wants the community to come support his team. One example: the athletes will be volunteering at road races with regularity. In any city this is a great way to get ordinary Joes and Josephines interested in your program, but especially so in Toledo

The “Glass City” has an extremely active and well-organized road runners club, one that specializes in race organization. We have tons of racing opportunities that are highly varied, inexpensive, and efficiently run. We have a lot of runners around here and they’ll get to know the athletes by seeing their faces at water stops or packet pick-up or the finish line, but there’s more. By adding to the core group of club volunteers and offering some relief to those who shoulder too much of the load in putting on races, the UT teams will probably get big support in return from the area’s greatest proponents of long-distance running.

Another idea Nguyen has is to send his team out to the local running stores’ evening training runs and have them split up among the various pace groups. “Pro-am” events at pro golf tournaments get people to pay big money to for this kind of experience while runners can get it for free. But Nyugen sees this as very much of a two-way street: adult runners are overwhelmingly college graduates, ones who have made their way through the workforce in many of the same fields that his athletes are studying in the classroom. Opportunities for this kind of informal mentoring, done through chatting while running down the road, are educational gold.

Yet another idea is an old one but a good one: a series of early-summer all-comers meets at the university’s track. I told Nguyen that in heavily family-oriented Toledo, he’ll be inundated with parents looking for an inexpensive activity to do with their kids. I also told him something he apparently didn’t know, that a summer all-comers meet series was one of the ways in which Bill Bowerman initially bridged the gap between “town and gown” and helped make Eugene into Track Town, USA.

One thing I did not discuss with Nguyen, although I should have, is the university’s desire to host another Great Lakes cross country regional and to pursue hosting the NCAA cross country championships. I presume the administration still has interest in these things (as they did under Hadsell), and the university will need the full support of the community to make them a success.

If Nguyen does turn out to be as successful at the University of Toledo as I suspect he will be, then the Falcon fan in me can at least take comfort in the thought that he won’t stay in the Mid-American Conference, “triple-A” of college sports, for all that long.

Bowling Green

Last week I sat down for a cool refreshing beverage with Lou Snelling, who is entering his third season as the head coach at my alma mater. The Falcons were a significantly improved team last season and the incoming class of recruits looks good too. I had some ideas for improving presentation of home events and other things, and I was happy that he liked what he heard. Here’s a brief list of my thoughts.

I always push for tighter scheduling at track meets. We have too much dead time between events. Lou was willing to work on that.

Recognizing that some down time between events is inevitable, I want to fill that time by interviewing coaches and athletes–but not the breathless immediate post-race crap we get on TV. Rather I wanted to interview them well after they were done or before they even started, when both I and they could come up with some deeper thoughts. Lou is all for that.

I suggested a kids’ sprint race at a home meet or two to get the community involved, and Lou said that was already in the works. I said we should then send them to get autographs from a few athletes, maybe with preprinted “autograph cards” (like oversized trading cards) or mini-posters. This way they would stay at the meet a bit longer and feel like it was any other real sporting event, plus have something to take home with them (and maybe show off to their friends). Lou thought this was a good idea and doable, given the great cooperation the track team now has from the Athletics Communication department.

Intramural sports have huge participation on the BG campus, and I suggested figuring out some sort of tie-in with that at an indoor meet. I had no specifics but I thought it was worth thinking about. (To give you an idea of how big intramurals are, the spring flag football championship games are played at halftime of the varsity spring football game.)

For the revived outdoor dual meet series with Toledo, I suggested a pre-meet tailgate party for students, alumni, and/or community. Lou really liked that, pending coach Nguyen’s interest in keeping the series going (which he told me today he wants to do).

Another idea I have that Lou likes is a Terry Fox Run, most likely in the fall. (If you have no idea who Terry Fox is, educate yourself.) These are noncompetitive 5k and 10k fund-raising runs that are ubiquitous in Canada but also held in other countries such as the USA. BG has a lot of ties to Canada: its strong hockey tradition, a sister city in Ontario, and a Canadian Studies department. I suggested that a few sprinters/jumpers/throwers could work with other campus organizations to put on the run. It would not only be a great thing for the campus and the Terry Fox Foundation but give some student-athletes a chance to learn about event organization, fund-raising, and so forth.

One thing I forgot to talk to Lou about, but I think he’d like, is to name some of the races at home meets in honor of past BGSU greats. Call them the Sid Sink 5000, the Dave Wottle mile, the Bernie Casey hurdles, the Huina Han triple jump. When one of your selling points is history, don’t miss a chance to bring it up.

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