ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. -- Some team must win the 2014 NCAA Division I Women’s Track and Field Indoor Championship and a smart observer would tab the Ducks.
The women in green and gold seek their fifth consecutive NCAA indoor title this week. If they claim it, they’ll tie the mark set by LSU (1993-97) for most Division I indoor titles in a row.
“This is a championship season,” Oregon head coach Robert Johnson said of his team’s mindset. “Of course, every year we try to gear up our season for this time of year. I think we’ve done a good job of hat and everyone is healthy and we’re excited, and right here.”On Thursday, before the two-day competition kicked off at the Albuquerque Convention Center, Johnson and other leading Division I head coaches assembled for a press conference one floor above the host New Mexico’s home track.
Curious thing: Florida head coach Mike Holloway, whose men’s and women’s teams are the top-ranked teams at the moment, sat next to Johnson, whose defending-champion women are ranked No. 2.
Yes, the two rivals get along. Very well.
“Robert’s a very good friend of mine and I’m very proud of him and the way he’s built the program,” Holloway said. “I think it’s a testament to the hard work that he and his staff have put together. We’re not going to try to help them this weekend – and he wouldn’t be helping me, either – but I think at the end of the day, it’s a special accomplishment for he and his program, and it’s been fun to watch him do it and it’s been fun for me to talk about it on occasion this year.”
Johnson, in his second season as Oregon’s head coach and ninth overall in Eugene, says the only similarities between the current Ducks and the team that won the 2013 indoor title, is that he has a new group of athletes for the second consecutive year.
“We often talk about we don’t try to reload or repeat,” Johnson said. “It’s a whole new experience. And so those experiences provide challenges within themselves. If you would’ve told me that I’d be sitting here in this press conference in a position to try to win a fifth, I would probably think a little funny of you. It’s a true testament to our coaches that go out and recruit every day to bring in talented kids and allow us to be in the position we’re in.”
Texas A&M’s Pat Henry echoed Johnson’s themes. During Henry’s 1988-2004 tenure at LSU, the women’s team won 10 consecutive NCAA Division I outdoor titles. LSU’s five consecutive indoor titles also came with Henry at the helm.
“I think Robert will probably tell you, each group has its own identity,” Henry said of the Oregon women. “Each group has its own personalities. Each group is a little bit different. So you don’t really look at numbers. At least I didn’t and I would assume he probably is the same. It’s about that competition on that weekend and then what happens, we can’t control.”
Arkansas men’s head coach Chris Bucknam, whose squad is the defending NCAA indoor champion, also has some perspective. His Razorbacks won the 2014 Southeastern Conference title and are ranked second behind Holloway’s Gators. He hopes the Arkansas men can mimic the Oregon women in the back-to-back NCAA championship world.
“But I can tell you it is impressive what Coach Henry has done and Coach Holloway and now Robert,” Bucknam said. “That’s quite an accomplishment. It’s impressive and it’s interesting to watch and see how they handle it and how they go about their business. It just goes to show you what great programs they have, that they can string those back-to-back.”
Known for its middle-distance excellence, Oregon has excelled at every distance during its four-year indoor title run. Per Johnson, there is no patented system, no rubbing on ducks’ feet. It’s all the product of hard work, talent and perseverance.
“These gentlemen are exactly right,” Johnson said. “Each year is different. We try not to worry about what we’ve done in the past. One of the slogans there at Oregon is ‘win the day.’ That doesn’t talk about anything yesterday. So everything is always forward. How do we get better today? How to be part of the number? Those are little mantras that we preach to our team every day. This will be a whole new test.”
He does, however, admit to one important advantage – tradition.
“I will say that it does help when you have freshmen that come in, for them to look in the eyes of those seniors that have gotten it done, that know the ups and downs, the ebbs and flows of the meet, and not always in a panic,” Johnson said. “Lots of those kids get in here and get this deer-in-the-headlights look. So to have those who’ve been in it, who’ve done it before, is a huge help.”