LINCOLN, Neb. — After 28 seasons as Nebraska’s head cross country coach and assistant coach in charge of the distance squad for the NU track and field team, Jay Dirksen has announced that he will retire following the 2011 season and hand the reins to David Harris. Dirksen will leave Nebraska with an impressive resume that includes 14 cross country All-Americans, 39 track and field All-Americans, 45 track and field individual conference champions and five Big 12 cross country team titles.
“It is hard to believe that 28 years have gone by so fast since I first came to Nebraska,” Dirksen said. “The University of Nebraska is committed to making it possible for our student-athletes to be well-rounded individuals. The balance between academics and athletics is excellent at Nebraska.”
Entering the 2011 season, Dirksen’s cross country teams have produced 36 top-five finishes and 21 top-three finishes in his 56 appearances at the Big Eight and Big 12 Championships. The NU women have won five conference team championships (1985, 1988, 1989, 1991, 1993), the only women’s cross country titles in school history. The men have also traditionally been one of the top teams in the conference. Under Dirksen, three Huskers have won individual conference titles, two for the men, Jonah Kiptarus (1996) and David Iteffa (1991), and one for the women, Fran ten Bensel (1991). Through all the success, Dirksen said some of the best memories have come away from the course.
“The relationships with the athletes are the best,” Dirksen said. “I really enjoy watching a young 17- or 18-year-old athlete come in and mature not only as a runner, but also as a person. It’s fun to know that you’ve had some influence on his or her life. I think a lot of times athletes don’t realize what they’ve learned in athletics until they get out in the real world for a while. It’s great to be a part of that whole process.”
In cross country, Dirksen’s 14 All-Americans have earned a total of 20 All-America awards. Only one Husker male, and no female runners, had earned All-America recognition before Dirksen’s arrival in 1983. Among the honored athletes are three-time All-American ten Bensel (1990-91-92) and two-time All-Americans Cleophas Boor (1996-97), Joe Kirby (1988-89), Sammie Resh (1987-88) and Jacques van Rensburg (1988-89). In addition to the second- and third-place finishes by Kiptarus and Boor at the 1996 national meet, the other highest men’s individual places have been earned by Jean Verster, who took fifth in 1985, and Boor, who placed sixth in 1997. All-America status was also earned by Kayte Tranel (2005), Jeroen Broekzitter (1997), Theresa Stelling (1993), Kurt Russell (1984) and Wally Duffy (1983).
“I have been very blessed to have been at Nebraska all these years,” Dirksen said. “We have had many great athletes and many great teams. The reason I love coaching so much is because of these athletes. We have such a great group of kids this year, and I am so excited to be able to coach them. I have been doing this for years but these kids only get four years and we want to make it the best experience for them.”
Nebraska cross country athletes have been known for being great students ever since Dirksen’s arrival on campus. Each year the Herman Award is given to the Nebraska men’s and women’s teams with the highest grade-point averages. The 2009-10 awards were swept by the cross country teams for the second straight year. In the 17-year history of the award, the women have won it 10 times, while the men have claimed eight awards. Both teams were also honored in 2010 as an All-Academic Cross Country Team for the third straight year by the U.S. Track and Field and Cross Country Coaches Association. The women posted a GPA of 3.449, while the men collectively posted a GPA of 3.313. Since the award was first given out by the Women’s Intercollegiate Cross Country Coaches Association in 1994 (combined with the U.S. Cross Country Coaches Association in 2006 to form the USTFCCCA), the women have earned the honor 16 times, posting the top GPA in the country in 1994, 1995 and 2000. The men have been honored seven times.
“The new Nebraska Student Life Complex is an example of the desire of the athletic department to provide the best resources for our student-athletes to become all they can be in every area of their lives,” Dirksen said.
Dirksen’s success has also carried over to the track, as he has been a key contributor in the success of Head Coach Gary Pepin’s track and field team. Pepin took over as head coach of the women’s team in 1981 and became the head coach for both the men and women in 1984. Following the 1983 season, Pepin pulled Dirksen away from Missouri, where Dirksen coached one All-American and five Big Eight champions in 1983.
Together, Pepin and Dirksen put together one of the most impressive runs in all of collegiate track and field. The men and women combined to win 61 conference team titles during Dirksen’s era as the distance coach starting in the 1984 season, including 33 women’s titles and 28 men’s crowns. Along with being part of the women’s third-straight indoor national championship team in 1984, Dirksen helped the NU women win 14 straight conference indoor titles from 1984 to 1997, while they also swept the indoor and outdoor titles from 1984 to 1995. The men’s most impressive run came during the Huskers’ time in the Big 12 Conference, as the team won six straight indoor titles from 2000 to 2005 and became the first men’s team in conference history to repeat at the outdoor championships with titles in 2009 and 2010.
Dirksen will transition the program to Harris this fall. Dirksen plans to retire with his wife, Diane, to their home in Hot Springs Village, Ark. Through an exception from the NCAA, Pepin was able to hire Harris prior to Dirksen’s retirement.
Harris already has ties to Nebraska, as he coached NU’s middle distance runners and the men’s sprinters and hurdlers for seven years before becoming the head cross country and track and field coach at Emporia State in 1992. As the Hornets’ head coach for 19 years, Harris was named MIAA Coach of the Year 11 times and brought Emporia State to the top of the Division II ranks, as the men’s squad finished fourth at the NCAA Outdoor Championships last season.
One of the most respected coaches in the track and field community, Harris was the first non-Division I president in the history of the USTFCCCA. The leadership and direction of Harris was essential in bringing the NCAA Outdoor Championships to the Flint Hills in 1995, 1999 and again in 2006.
“Since I worked at the University of Nebraska for seven years before coming to ESU I am aware of the challenge it presents,” Harris said. “It is a first-class athletic program with high standards, but it all still comes down to working hard to recruit quality student-athletes and coaching them to be their best. I am appreciative that Gary Pepin and Athletic Director Tom Osborne want me to return to Nebraska.”
Emporia State won 10 MIAA team championships under Harris and had 20 runner-up finishes. In 1999 he became only the third coach to lead both the men’s and women’s teams to MIAA outdoor titles in the same season. The ESU women earned the school’s first top-four finish nationally with a fourth-place finish at the NCAA Outdoor Championships in Emporia in 1999. It was the second of three national championship meets at Witten Track/Welch Stadium held under Harris’ leadership.
“Directing the three national championships was a big challenge and really nice events for Emporia and the University,” Harris said. “I think it gave ESU respect within NCAA Division II that we were able to conduct first class championships. Of course we have had so many great home meets throughout the years that have brought Olympians, national class, collegiate and high school athletes to our facility.”
Harris received his bachelor’s degree in physical education/social science and a master’s degree in athletic administration from Truman State, formerly Northeast Missouri State University. At TSU, he was a four-year letterman in cross country and track and field and captained the track team for two years.
After college, Harris joined the elite section of the St. Louis Track Club sponsored by adidas. From 1979 to 1981 he ran seven marathons with a personal-best of 2:19.54 in New Orleans. At the 1979 Boston Marathon, he qualified for the 1980 U.S. Olympic Trials with a time of 2:20.46. Harris retired from competitive road racing in 1981 to concentrate fully on coaching.
Harris is married to the former Kathy Bechhold, and the couple have two sons, John-David and Jared.