"I told the group that came in three years ago that my objectives with cross country were two-fold. Number 1 is to have cross country guys that could eventually score in the SEC meet and the national meet for our track team. That was why we brought cross country back. All we had in track were sprinters and a few jumpers, but no distance or middle distance runners. We could get beat by a very low level Division 1 school at a home meet just because we didn't have enough people in different event areas. Last year, we had a guy who scored two points in the steeple chase (SEC) conference meet, Travis McKay. And he went on to the NCAA Regionals. Hopefully, this year, we will have a few more who will do that.
"Number 2, our goal is to improve as a program every year. It's not easy to do that because we don't spend much scholarship money on cross country. Almost all of our guys are on academic money due to their high test scores and high GPAs, although we add in a little athletic money. To be honest with you, these guys are almost running for free. And they are racing against teams in our region and our conference that spend a lot of scholarship money in cross country.
"I do want us to get to the point where we are respectable and in the top half of the conference. If we get into the top five of the NCAA Regional, then we have a chance to go to the Nationals. If that happens, and I know I'm a guy or two away from going to Nationals, then I will go ahead and spend the scholarship money to sign those people. But I'm a competitive person and it eats me up to know that I go to big meets in cross country and I'm short-handed due to other schools spending 5, 6 or 7 scholarships for their cross country."
Who are some of your returning athletes and where do they fit in with your team this year?
"We should be led by junior Travis McKay. He's running really well right now. Two of last year's freshmen, John Brigham and Robert Scribner, are also running really, really well. There are some other guys like Kevin Coach, Brandon Smith and Pad Judd who have been working their tails off to get better. Pad, who is a sophomore this year, has probably made the most improvement. They will end up helping us.
"We also are tying to get a 6th year waiver for Gedamu Ege from the NCAA, although it looks like he won't be approved. We have another guy, Wade Martin, who went to Jacksonville State, then transferred to a junior college, then transferred here. He did everything right. He got his AA degree at the junior college then came here. The kid has passed 94 hours in two years. He can have his undergraduate degree in three years. He is a stellar student-athlete. The entire time he has been wanting to go to Architecture school, but he didn't get accepted into Architecture school until this past June. So, he had to come right then. The problem is there is an NCAA rule that states if you go from a 4-year school to a 2-year school, then back to a 4-year school you have to be away from that original 4-year school for an entire year. He's only been gone a half a year, so he'll have to sit for a semester before he becomes eligible. I understand why they have the rule because they are trying to close loopholes, but it's biting us in this case and it's affecting a kid who is stellar academically.
"We are going to be a good team, but if we get those two guys back, combined with how well the other guys are running, then we would be even better. But we are going to go by the rules and play with the hand that we are dealt."
Talk about the freshmen that you have brought in.
"We have three guys coming in: Zach Greene from Pensacola, Florida, Alex Custer from Racine, Wisconsin and Ty Williams from Panama City, Florida. Zach did a really good job over the summer and has improved a good bit. Ty, initially, was brought in more as a track guy who would run cross country to help him get in shape. But from what I have seen the last week, I believe he will, eventually, help us in cross country. It may not be this year, but it will be by his second year. He has a lot of untapped ability. I knew that when I recruited him because I know a lot of coaches in the panhandle of Florida. They told me that he wasn't training to his full capacity. I asked him a lot about his training when he came in for his official visit, so I knew he was going to be a diamond in the rough. In track, he runs the half mile and mile. I feel like he is a freshman who can qualify for the NCAA Regionals in track."
Cross country is not a sport a lot of folks know a lot about. What exactly is cross country and how do you train for it?
"Cross country is the 8K (right at 5 miles) in the non-championship races and 10K (6.2 miles) for the NCAA Regionals and the national championship. So, the training is a little more generic. Some of our older guys are doing 18 mile long runs. We'll meet around 5 or 5:15 in the morning. Our guys are running 7 days a week, five of which are two-a-days where they run in the morning and afternoon. We have 20 hours a week with them in-season, so some of the running they do is on their own. Some of them are running between 100 to 110 miles per week, but we definitely monitor them. We may have three weeks where they run about 100 miles, then the fourth week we will drop it down to 60 or 70."
Do you have them on a special diet?
"Due to NCAA rules, we can't tell them what they can or can't eat. But there's an old saying, 'if the furnace is hot enough, it will burn.' In other words, if you can run 110 miles a week, whatever you eat will burn off."
Do your cross country guys do much weight training?
"We do a lot of body circuit training, but they don't do much with weights. Circuit training is using medicine balls and doing things like situps and pushups and exercises similar to that. The reason for those type exercises is I want to make sure my athletes can handle their bodyweight really, really well. You would be surprised how some of the athletes who can bench 400 pounds can't do more than 15 or 16 pushups and maybe 6 or 7 pullups. One thing I know is we will be in great shape. I guarantee that."
Switching over to track, what are your plans for Steve Mullings this year? Steve, who ran for you last year, decided not to participate in the NCAA championships due to a steroid controversy that occurred prior to his attending MSU.
"He will be training with the team, but we will redshirt him this year. The reason for that is we lost some very good athletes to graduation, two in particular, LaChristopher Lewis and Jamel Ashley, who were great athletes and leaders. It is very, very difficult to fill the voids they left. I'm not giving up on this year, but our goal is to be in the top 10 every year. And because we don't lose anybody off this year's team besides Steve, there comes a point where we need to bite the bullet and get everybody on the ship and try to win a national championship. We've finished 8th, 9th, which are good, and 15th and 26th, but we want to win a championship. If it means redshirting some people, then that's what we will do. And with Steve not being able to run in the national championship this coming season (due to a new NCAA rule), that, basically, takes us out of the race for the national title. Last year, we finished 26th, but if Steve had been able to run, that would have put us in the top 4 in the nation. However, with him out, that took our relay team, 100 meters and 200 meters out of contention for points.
"I'm not been negative toward this year's group. We have some freshmen and sophomores that have grown up a little bit, but they need to have some pressure put on their shoulders this year to help them grow up some more for next year. Then you add Steve, and, hopefully, a couple of other recruits and all of sudden we are in the running for a championship. We could run Steve this year and be a top 10 team, but top 10 isn't winning it all. We've been in the top 10 before. We've been there, but we want to win the whole thing. And to win a national championship, you have to take chances. That's why we are taking a chance by redshirting Steve, a kid that may go pro prior to next year."
You mentioned possibly bringing in a couple of recruits for next season. What are you looking for?
"We definitely have to score in more events. Other teams, when they research us, realize that 90% of our points are coming from our sprinters. When you have a situation like last year where Steve pulled himself out of the national championships, then our relay team, which was ranked top 3 in the country, just became a relay team that wasn't going to score. We have to get to the point where we have other events that we can fall back on. The triple jump and the long jump are two events that we have to improve on. We've gotten better at those two events, but we need to improve them even more. We have kids who do them, but we don't have the bluechip type kid. We need to go out and find guys who have the type performances in high school that make us believe they can come in and score right off the bat."
Most of the schools you compete against in the SEC have extra academic money for scholarships due to their lotteries. What are your thoughts about that?
"I know these other states have lotteries. Do I wish we had the same situation where I could sign a kid with almost no athletic money due to the lottery money? I do. But I don't want the NCAA to come in and take that away, because then the NCAA would take away the out-of-state waivers that we get due to test scores. We have a pretty good system at Mississippi State. If a kid makes a fairly high test score and has a 3.0 gpa, then that kid will be able to get his out-of-state (tuition) waived. I don't want to see that taken away because my entire cross country team is based on it."
What is your recruiting strategy?
"There are some coaches who talk about not having the facilities or other things that they think will help them to get the number 1 kid in the nation, so they start out recruiting the 25th or 30th kid on their list. We don't look at it that way. We start with the number 1 kid in the nation and work our way down. If you aren't top 20 in the nation, then I'm probably not going to recruit you, initially. When I first call those type kids, I ask them if they are willing to make the sacrifice to be a Bulldog. If they tell me they aren't, then I tell them I won't call them again.
"But I also know you have to have more than guys like that, guys that I call the bricks. You also have to have guys that are the concrete. Those type kids are the ones who are being overlooked. We've had very good All-Americans who have scored a bunch of points at nationals who wasn't recruited by anyone but us. You have to find those type athletes. Kids like that are very hungry and will appreciate you giving them that chance.
"I also want to bring in kids who want to wear the MSU jersey and who are not making their decisions based on the amount of scholarship money they are receiving. Why do I do it that way? It's because we haven't won 42 national championships like Arkansas. Arkansas has guys lining up at the door who will pay their own way just to wear that Razorback uniform so that they can win a national championship. You aren't going to be able to out-bid someone like that with scholarship money. We won't beat teams like that unless we get people who want to be here. That's on both the cross country and track sides."
Steve Mullings is what I would consider to be a brick because he is one of the premier sprinters in the world. And he chose MSU. "Steve Mullings chose Mississippi State because we haven't won 42 national championships. He could have chosen the other, but he didn't. He chose us because he knew we were hungry and he wanted to make a difference. Plus, he knew he would graduate from here. I told him if he does what he is supposed to do in study hall and go to class, then he will graduate from Mississippi State. Everywhere else he visited, none of them even talked about graduation, because he was so good they knew he would probably sign pro before he graduated. But I told him that he couldn't train at Mississippi State with me after college unless he got his degree. If you don't get your degree, you can't train here. That is a requirement. If he gets hurt and gets cut by the pros, I want him to have a degree to fall back on."
It sounds like MSU head football coach Sylvester Croom is doing his recruiting similar to the way track is doing theirs.
"I'm not a football coach, I'm a track coach. But from what I can tell, Coach Croom is analyzing his team and trying to fill voids and niches to make his team better. There are a lot of things I like about what Coach Croom is doing here. But, at the same time, I was here as an athlete when Jackie Sherrill first came here. I was in the athletic cafeteria the first time he walked in. Everything was loud, but when he walked in, you could hear a pin drop. It was total respect. And I respect a lot of what he did here at Mississippi State. He won a lot of football games. There are probably a lot of people here at Mississippi State that owe a lot to him and they don't even know they owe him. Winning football games generated a lot of money, caused new buildings to be built on campus and new hotels to be built in Starkville. Everything he accomplished has made it easier to recruit people at Mississippi State. I like the way both of them have done their jobs."
With Coach Croom onboard, do you think there will be more of a coordinated effort by the MSU track and football coaches to help each other in recruiting when there is a recruit that is good at both football and track?
"I hope so. I know there are a lot of universities where track and football work hand and hand. At some universities, track coaches even go to the (football) staff meetings. There are a lot of good football players that are great athletes and compete well in track. And some of those football players will make a decision based on the fact that they will be able to do both in college. I would love the opportunity to help. I was an athlete here and I'm a Bulldog. And I want to see all sports do good. I go to all the games I can and I would like to see us win in all of them. Plus, I guess I'm a little selfish. If they sign someone to a football scholarship, that means I don't have to use my 12.6 scholarships. But at the same time, I'm not going to give them bad information (about an athlete). If there is an athlete that is a great track athlete and ok in football, I'm not going to tell them they need to offer him in football. I would never do that because I'm a Mississippi State person. I will only mention the people to them that I feel can help them."
Gene Swindoll is the publisher of Dawgs' Bite, Powered by GenesPage.com, the source for Mississippi State sports on the Scout.com sports network. You can contact him by email at email@example.com.