Cowboys take shot at elite status
Nov. 20, 2010
Brian Hendrickson, Special to NCAA.com
Dave Smith started with small steps, scouring for underappreciated runners, scratching out small improvements at the national championships, then trying to carry each success over to the next season.
Piece by piece the Oklahoma State cross country coach built his underdog Cowboys program into a national contender, first cracking the top five at the men’s Division I national championships, then unseating a national power for the conference title. It finally came together last season with Oklahoma State’s first national title in 55 years.
Now Smith finds his Cowboys in an unusual position as they enter Monday’s NCAA men’s cross country championships at Wabash Valley Family Sports Center in Terre Haute, Ind. For the first time they will arrive at the meet as members of cross country’s elite class of men’s programs — a closed community for nearly 20 years.
Top-ranked Stanford will start the 12:48 p.m. race as the favorite in many minds, with dominant top-three runners and the history of four national titles, the most recent in 2003. But Oregon, champions in two of the last three years (2007, 2008) and currently ranked third in the U.S. Track & Field and Cross Country Coaches’ Association poll, could heat the competition up front, along with four-time national champion Wisconsin (most recent in 2005), which may have the best overall depth in the field.
But squeezed into that group — which has captured five of the last eight national titles — is second-ranked Oklahoma State, a program that was pleased with top-10 finishes only five years ago, but now has much bigger dreams in its eyes.
“There’s coaches around the country that recognize that we’re doing a good job and these guys are capable of winning a championship,” Smith said of the Cowboys’ rise to the top of the rankings. “The guys that have been here obviously made the difference. We’ve had some guys who took a chance to come out here. But it’s a known commodity now. It’s not a gamble anymore. It’s a reality.”
Not many teams experience that reality in men’s cross country.
The top programs in the sport have been so dominant for the last 26 years that contenders rarely turn over. Until this month, only five programs — Arkansas, Oregon, Colorado, Wisconsin and Stanford — held the No. 1 ranking for the last 12 years. Those schools also combined to win 23 of the last 26 national championships.
Iowa State poked its head into that group to win two national championships during that span, but the Cyclones’ last title came in 1994. They’ve since faded from the national scene.
Now the Cowboys are taking their shot. So far, they’re getting some traction at the top.
Oklahoma State’s national championship marked the first time in 16 years that one of the big five failed to hold the title trophy. And when the Cowboys were voted No. 1 in the USTFCCCA poll earlier this month, it broke the big five’s 12-year stranglehold on the top position.
But getting to the top was a lengthy process.
When Smith arrived at Oklahoma State as an assistant coach in 2002, his best selling point to recruits was the Cowboys’ consecutive top-five finishes in the national championship during the mid-1990s. Prior to that, though, the Cowboys went 20 years without a championship-meet appearance.
Smith said top recruits would hang up when he called, so he instead targeted runners who were third choices for many top programs. Being underappreciated made those runners restless, Smith said. They worked and competed harder with a focus on consistent improvement.
“We kind of sold them on the fact that they could be program changers and make a difference,” Smith said. “The success of some of those guys (brought) guys who are a little better. It took time.”
But with each small step the Cowboys closed on the elite group.
A third-place finish in 2007 convinced Smith that his program was ready to compete for a championship. Then in 2008, the Cowboys dethroned one of the sport’s big five when it beat out Colorado for the Big 12 championship, snapping the Buffaloes’ streak of 12 consecutive conference titles. OSU has since won three straight Big 12 championships.
But the big breakthrough last year, when the Cowboys held off two-time defending champion Oregon to capture the program’s second national title.
Now the talk is focused on repeating as champs — an achievement that would vault the Cowboys into a more exclusive category. Only Oregon, Stanford and Arkansas have won consecutive titles in the last 29 years.
“The feeling would be just unbelievable to do it again,” said junior Colby Lowe. “There aren’t many teams that repeat, or even win one. Just to win again would be a great thing for the program.”