By: Sean Cartell
SEC Digital Network
NASHVILLE – Steve Keith knows -- as does any good architect -- that a solid foundation is the key to building anything that will last. The Vanderbilt head cross country and track and field coach also knows that nothing of significance was ever constructed overnight.
This is the approach he has taken to assembling a women’s cross country program that has now found itself among the nation’s elite.
Keith, a 1981 Vanderbilt graduate and member of the school’s men’s cross country team from 1977-81, was appointed to head up the distance program at his alma mater in August 2006. He was confident that he could direct his school to new heights.
“The opportunity to get back to my alma mater meant a lot,” Keith said. “Having been a Division I coach for quite a few years, I knew that the potential at Vanderbilt was tremendous, especially in the middle distance and distance areas. I knew we could get highly qualified students and athletes. They had been underachieving for longer than I would have liked to have seen.”
While some may have seen the Commodores at a disadvantage when competing in the rigorous Southeastern Conference and on the national scene, Keith’s familiarity with Vanderbilt allowed him to see and focus on the program’s strengths
“Obviously we’re a school that’s unique to the SEC,” Keith said. “That does single us out vs. the larger state institutions. Within cross country and distance, the students are generally high achieving and want to challenge themselves academically and athletically. That really makes a nice ready-made opportunity for us at Vanderbilt. It’s a matter of finding those kids and giving them an opportunity to toe the line against Arkansas and Florida and the best schools in the country, and also being in a high-level academic setting.”
Even through hard work and persistent recruiting of quality athletes, it took several years before Keith’s efforts began paying dividends.
“For the first three or four years, I remember looking at my assistant and asking, ‘When is it going to happen,’” Keith said. “We were still in the middle to the back half of the conference. The development that we needed to do here wasn’t going to happen overnight. It took three to four years or recruiting just to get our kids in here and get everyone on the same page.”
Though the results at championship meets weren’t necessarily where Keith and his athletes would have liked, he could see his program making strides. It would be, he thought, only a matter of time.
“We were seeing some progress,” he said. “The kids were progressing with their times from high school. We just stayed with it. After a couple of years, the chemistry on the team was becoming a good selling point as well. The kids coming here were really focused on academic opportunities, as well as the opportunity to compete in the SEC. I have to give a lot of credit to my assistant, Rhonda Riley, for heading up our recruiting and both of us having a view of the type of person we would like to see at Vanderbilt.”
And then, it happened.
At the 2010 SEC Championships in Columbia, S.C., the Commodores posted what was then their highest-ever finish at the league meet, by placing third. Two weeks later, Vanderbilt placed third at the NCAA South Regional, just barely missing a berth to the NCAA Championships. Sophomore Jordan White became just the second individual in school history to advance to the national meet.
“It started in 2010 at the SEC meet at South Carolina,” Keith said. “At that point, we had never finished higher than fourth and that was just one time in 1990s. The team was ready to commit to running as a group and they finished a relatively close third place at regionals. It was the first year of four recruiting classes for us. It really gave those kids some motivation for the next year, which was this past fall. We thought we were a top-30 team in 2010 and we just barely missed out on making it.”
Vanderbilt continued to build on the momentum heading into the 2011 season, and earned the program’s first-ever national ranking in the U.S. Track and Field and Cross Country Coaches Association poll on Sept. 27.
Competing in the Wisconsin adidas Invitational in mid-October – largely considered the top-regular season meet in the nation last year – the Commodores contended against 20 of the nation’s top-30 teams.
What a statement they made.
Vanderbilt defeated seven top-10 teams and 19 top-30 schools, including knocking off the nation’s top-ranked squad in Villanova. The Commodores rocketed to No. 3 in the national polls following that impressive performance.
“You can never predict that you’re going to finish second at Wisconsin,” Keith said. “Their maturity as a group and their commitment to running as a team really became kind of a modus operandi for that group. They had the ability to put themselves in the right spot halfway through the race and still be together. We’ve always tried to preach that, but they’re the ones that have to follow through with that. We were eighth at halfway and moved up to second; that’s a very powerful way to run as a team.”
If anyone doubted that the Commodores were for real, that reservation ceased after the meet in Madison, Wisc.
“After Wisconsin, a lot of the coaches knew that if we didn’t fall apart, we’d be a national top-10 type team,” Keith said. “Everyone said to enjoy the ride, but I thought, if we had never made the ride before, it would be a little hard to enjoy. Looking back on the way the team reacted and handled all those situations, ignorance was bliss. I have to give them credit for processing things and not letting it get to them.”
Vanderbilt entered the 2011 SEC Cross Country Championships as the favorite. But, having never won the event in program history, would the Commodores deliver?
Oh, how they did. Vanderbilt placed five individuals in the top nine to capture the crown by scoring a mere 30 points. Alexa Rogers was the individual runner-up at the meet.
A month later, making their first-ever appearance at the NCAA Championships, the Commodores posted a sixth-place national finish, missing a top-five showing by just one point. Vanderbilt, which was in 15th place at the halfway point, finished the race at Terre Haute, Ind., strong.
The key, explains Keith, has been his team’s capability to compete as, just that, a team.
“The ability to really commit to each other as a team has been our successful path,” Keith said. “We have to try to keep a level head and stay focused. If we can equal last year or do a little better, that’s great. There’s a fine line between winning the conference and finishing second or third, same with finishing top-10 at nationals. We need to respect those levels and, if we have a great day, that’s great. We had a bunch of good days last fall.”
Keith knows that in order to replicate last season’s accomplishments, the Commodores cannot simply be content with what they did a year ago.
“The saying – how do you remember and forget at the same time? – that’s our challenge,” Keith said. “Every year is different and every team has to create its own identity. We will see how that develops through team camp and the month of September. We did have some really nice development on the track compared to the track times with our cross country group last fall. On paper, we’re probably a more talented team, but can we put it together as far as chemistry and our ability to run as a team?
“We’ve done it once now,” Keith continued. “Before last year, we had never gotten over the hump. Now we’ve gotten over the hump. It’s a matter of trying to take our long-range plan and stay here.”
In addition to last season’s success, Vanderbilt has another thing to look forward to in 2012. The Commodores will be playing host to the SEC Championships this season, on Oct. 26.
“At the beginning of last year, I said that I wanted to host the conference meet as defending championships,” Keith said. “We got our wish there. We’ve gotten some nice improvements at the cross country course and we just finished building two new bridges. Upgrading our facilities has been fun with the success of our program. We have enough returning from last year where they respect the challenges within the conference and I also know that if they can run together as they have in the past, they can be in the mix.”
As Keith readies to lead his team into the 2012 campaign, he can rest assured that he has created a program that, above all, is built to last.
“We definitely took the long-term traditional approach as far as building,” Keith said. “With that, we’ve been able to recruit some kids really committed to the team philosophy and wanting to be part of something bigger than themselves.”