Jan. feature: Building a champion
Feb. 6, 2012
He came, he saw and he did not conquer. Instead, he slowly but steadily built a program, developing that squad into a national contender. In the Southeastern Conference, his team finished eighth in his second year, then moved to sixth and then to third, before claiming the SEC championship this year. In the NCAA regionals, the team steadily moved from 11th all the way to second. Capping off what he termed a "magical season," the Vanderbilt women's cross country team finished sixth nationally this fall.
Make no mistake, Steven Keith's women's cross country team at Vanderbilt now appears to be a national power. "We had a steady flow of four to five recruits a year," he recalls. "We were trying to raise the level of each class every year and then work on developing those kids. You can recruit all you want, but you must develop your talent."
The recruiting process was slow. "We were not getting blue chip recruits those first couple of years," he admits, relying on a healthy dose of walk-on athletes.
A head coach needs a solid assistant coach. Keith credits his assistant coach, Rhonda Riley, with having an indelible impact on the program. "My first year I had 27 women and 10 men and not even a single assistant coach," he remembers. Keith and Riley formed a bond and worked toward a common goal of getting better athletes and moving the program forward.
"I enjoy the recruiting process and Rhonda Riley loves it," Keith says. "It was a little bit of an adjustment at first, as I never had an assistant before, but we've really fit well as far as complementing each other."
Over the years Keith and Riley have upgraded the talent level of the program. They both say that Vanderbilt is an easy sell with its academic reputation and outstanding athletic opportunities.
"We look for the same type of kid," acknowledges Keith, who ran cross-country when he was a student at Vanderbilt. "We want someone who has a genuine desire to obtain a Vanderbilt education and the goal to compete at the highest level academically." Riley agrees: "Vanderbilt is an easy sell for me. It is in an amazing conference with great competition. We are top-17 nationally academically. We preach balance and enjoying yourself. We also have a tremendous support staff and Nashville is a great city."
Recruiting is not the only tool to success. A team must have a leader and Keith fits the bill with his unique perspective. A former philosophy major at Vanderbilt--where he graduated in 1981--Keith believes strongly in balance, something he learned in part from his high school soccer coach in St. Louis, Ray Beckham.
"He was a unique guy," Keith recalls. "He was in the Soccer Hall of Fame and the Firefighters' Hall of Fame in St. Louis. He told us to work hard but enjoy ourselves too. His whole demeanor was to try to do your best but not get so stressed that it rules your life."
"I believe in balance," Keith says. "I see my role in part as providing some comic relief and holding back the reins so the girls don't overtrain. I want them to channel their energies in the right way. It works well if you keep it all in balance."
"He's a great guy, a father figure to everyone," Riley says. "He's very relaxed and brings personality, telling lots of jokes. The girls benefit from the fact that he's not too intense."
A REMARKABLE SEASON
It came together for Keith, Riley and the student-athletes this year. "For the first three years, Rhonda and I looked at each other at times and wondered when is it going to come together," he explains. "We hadn't quite gotten the depth that we needed. But, this past season was the first time that we had four recruiting classes together."
Keith says that at a meet in Wisconsin in the middle of October, the team showed it could compete at the highest levels of the sport. "We achieved a level of performance and accomplishment that no one thought we could," he says. "We were considered a borderline top-30 team, but we finished second out of 44 teams at that meet. At that moment, I knew this season could be special."
Any coach will tell you he is only as good as his athletes. In cross country, you need at least five solid performers, as the team's top five runners determine the fate of the program in terms of results. Keith and Riley had a talented squad determined to improve. They also had five top runners they could count on in Alexa Rogers, Jordan White, Louise Hannallah, Kristen Smith and Liz Anderson. All five earned All-Southeastern Conference honors. More than that, they were focused, dedicated and balanced, as all five finished within 30 seconds of each other.
"We had three fourth-year girls who are best friends who would settle for nothing less than the best," he says, referring to Rogers, White and Hannallah. Rogers earned All-America honors, the first cross-country student-athlete from Vanderbilt to achieve that lofty honor.
"We had a junior transfer who we had recruited two years earlier but went on to become a star in the Big 10 and an NCAA qualifier," he continues, referring to Smith, who spent her first two seasons at Michigan State. Out of high school, Smith nearly attended Vanderbilt. She even had scholarship papers in hand before deciding to stay closer to home. As a Spartan, her team won two league championships. But after those two years, Smith decided she wanted to follow her initial dream of going to Vanderbilt.
"We also had a talented sophomore who's just now figuring out how good she can really be," Keith said, referring to Anderson, who joined the team a year before as a freshman walk-on. Anderson missed All-America honors this year by mere seconds.
But a team is more than just its top five runners. Additional depth helps push everyone to achieve at a higher level.
Enter a talented freshman class. "We had a great freshman class--they are talented, goofy and entertaining." Three of those freshmen--Grace Orders, Amira Joseph and Rebecca Chandler--earned SEC All-Freshman honors this year. "It speaks well to our future," Keith says.
Sometimes teams become individualistic and the elusive concept of chemistry does not develop. Not so for the Vanderbilt women's cross-country team. "Chemistry is everything in cross country," Keith says. "We try to recruit kids that have personalities that fit, but you also need diverse personalities that buy into one team goal."
The Vanderbilt team had that special blend this year. "The strength of this team is that it was a true team," he said. "Cross country may appear to be an individual sport, but it also is so much more of a team sport than people realize.
"The mix has been beautiful; the chemistry has been great," says Keith. "Everyone had something different to offer. We really work on developing a team focus and I think it helps, particularly in the latter half of races."
The team peaked at the right moment and surprised people nationally. "I kept thinking this season was a dream season," Keith says. "But now we want to keep reloading rather than rebuilding. [Going forward], our goals for cross country will be to win the conference and finish in the top-10 nationally."
There are nearly 340 Division I women's cross country teams and only 31 advance to the NCAA championships. So finishing sixth place nationally among such an elite field would be a great accomplishment for any program.
But Keith, Riley and the team hope to accomplish even more. "I would love to see the women win the whole thing," he admits. "We want to be one of the top four teams on the podium at the end of the year."
With the accomplishments of the 2011 fall season shining brightly in the trophy case, Keith must now broaden his scope after being named director of the entire track and field program last summer. Keith--who served as the distance coach at Georgia Tech, UTEP and Alabama before returning to his alma mater--is looking forward to the challenge.
"We absolutely believe that the template we have for success in cross country can be applied to track," he says. "It may be a little more of a challenge to find the right athletes, but we have a three- to four-year plan of raising the track program."
David L. Hudson Jr. is a scholar at the First Amendment Center, adjunct professor at Vanderbilt Law School and the author or co-author of 33 books. See David's books at davidlhudsonjrbooks.com
BUILDING A CHAMPION: BOWLING
John Williamson was finishing his second year as Vanderbilt baseball's director of operations when he was unexpectedly tapped to become Vanderbilt's first bowling coach. He had a football-baseball background and had watched Tim Corbin work at close range. He knew Vanderbilt and NCAA rules.
However, he was not a bowling insider--a weekend bowler at best--and he was appointed on Labor Day needing to compete that season so there was no chance to recruit. His first team, using former club team bowlers, went 12-69.
He realized recruiting was going to be critical to the program's success and he hit it hard, selling Vanderbilt's world class education, Nashville and his big dream. His first recruiting target was Karen Grygiel of Brick, N.J., whom he learned about from a tip after it was announced Vanderbilt was going to sponsor a bowling program. She committed on Christmas Eve with her family thinking she was taking a big chance on a fledgling program. After a strong varsity career, Grygiel is now head coach at Monmouth College.
Williamson was forced to scour the internet due to time and resources and there he discovered Tara Kane, a Pennsylvania state champion with excellent grades who wasn't planning to bowl in college. He persuaded her to rethink her future and she became a two-time, third team All-American as well as a Dean's List member.
He recruited prep All-American Michelle Peloquin of Enfield, Conn., hard but when signing day came and went without her signature, he assumed she had opted to bowl for nearby Sacred Heart, where her father happened to be the assistant coach. Two weeks after signing day he was astounded to learn the Peloquin family had been debating the topic and had come to the conclusion that not going to Vanderbilt was the gamble. Peloquin would become a two-time first-team All-American.
A year later, Williamson landed the nation's No. 1 high school bowler in Josie Earnest, another major coup as Earnest would go on to become a two-time NCAA Player of the Year and lead the team to the school's first NCAA championship in 2007.
BUILDING A CHAMPION: WOMEN'S GOLF
Greg Allen knows something about putting on big golf events. Prior to becoming a collegiate coach, he spent five years as the Director of Tournament Operations for the American Junior Golf Association, where he ran a total of 47 national junior golf tournaments.
He also knows the positive impact that hosting such a high-profile event can have on a golf program. And that's why Allen is so excited that the Vanderbilt Legends Club will play host to the 2012 NCAA Division I Women's Golf Championships this May.
"I know for that one week in May, everybody that has any interest in women's golf is going to be focused on the Vanderbilt Legends Club and Vanderbilt University as the host," Allen said. "It sends a nice message that we have a great enough facility that the NCAA would be willing to host our national championship on our home golf course. We know that our facilities are first class. For the NCAA to back that up by letting us host, that is a big deal."
There is no doubt that the Vanderbilt Legends Club is ready to host such a "big-deal" event. The site already holds the Mason Rudolph Championships each fall, which annually features one of the most impressive fields in the nation.
Allen is hopeful that his Commodore squad will be equally ready for the spotlight of playing at home. He believes the Commodores will be able to pick up where they left off this past fall. The team finished second at the illustrious Stanford Intercollegiate in mid-October before coming in sixth among another top field at the Mercedes Benz SEC/Pac 12 Challenge.
The Commodores have advanced to nationals in each of the past two seasons, finishing 10th last season in Bryan, Texas. Still, qualifying to be one of the 24 teams that make the national championship field is never an easy task.
"The biggest thing for us in the spring is obviously making it through regionals," Allen said. "You don't get to play on your home golf course for a national championship if you have a down week at regionals."
BUILDING A CHAMPION: BASEBALL
Recruiting prospective student-athletes to play collegiate baseball can be a mine field. Not only are college coaches competing against one another, they also are up against professional teams offering six- or seven-figure pay days to 17- and 18-year-olds. High school seniors sign their National Letters of Intent in November, but come the following summer they still can be selected in the Major League Baseball Draft and opt to sign a professional contract.
This past summer, 13 of the 14 high schoolers that were selected in the first round of the MLB Draft chose to sign pro contracts instead of enrolling in college. The only one that decided to attend college was pitcher Tyler Beede, who turned down a reported seven-figure offer sheet from the Toronto Blue Jays to play for Head Coach Tim Corbin's Commodores.
By enrolling, Beede joined an ever-growing list of elite baseball players that have picked Vanderbilt over an instant pay day. According to Corbin, it's no accident that his staff has kept the most of its recruits.
"We have been very fortunate to hold on to the majority of kids that we have signed," Corbin said. "The reason is the kids we deal with. These are kids and parents that value a private-school education. They understand that the baseball window is small and that they are investing financially in themselves when they come to school. If we don't get this impression in the recruiting process, then we stop the recruitment at that point."
The sales pitch must be getting easier for Corbin, whose track record of success now includes a College World Series appearance and a Southeastern Conference record of 12 players drafted in 2011.
Corbin sees that Vanderbilt's success in getting players into professional baseball can only help convince future prospects about another benefit of a VU education.
"We are currently second in the country in developing professional players in the last six years," Corbin said. "That development of players with the combination of the private-school education has elevated our recruiting efforts tremendously."
BUILDING A CHAMPION: FOOTBALL
It only took James Franklin 12 months to turn the Commodores from a 2-10 team into a bowl-eligible squad. But the foundation for Frankin's first-year success was laid over a lifetime of hard work and dedication to a set of very specific core principles.
For Franklin, it's all laid out in a three-ring binder that he has filled with ideals and ideas from a coaching career that began in 1995. The process of collecting his coaching philosophy into a single bound edition has helped Franklin stay organized from the beginning.
"I didn't really look at the notebook a whole lot [this season]," Franklin said. "There were some things that I looked at, but for the most part it was just the time I spent putting it together that allowed me to have a well thought out plan of how and what I was going to do when I got my shot."
Throughout his career as an assistant, Franklin has been a sponge absorbing and documenting all aspects of what it takes to build a successful program. He started early, watching the career of Denny Douds, who has been the head coach at Franklin's alma mater, East Stroudsburg, since 1974.
"The consistency in the program with the staff and also the consistency with the message, those are probably the things that I learned from [Coach Douds]," Franklin said. "And just really investing in a community and investing in a school."
Franklin's career has included a wide range of stops, from his beginnings as a graduate assistant at Kutztown University to a season mentoring the receiving corps catching passes from Green Bay Packer legend Brett Favre. But not all of Franklin's learning experiences occurred on the football field. He had quite a role model at home, as well. Franklin's mother raised he and his sister mostly on her own.
"My biggest influence has been my mom," Franklin said. "She worked very, very hard to provide for me and my sister. Her positive attitude and her work ethic were a great example to me."
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