"We were 6th in the conference and 8th in the NCAA regional. And this was only our fourth year having cross country. We felt pretty good about making the top half of the conference after only four years.
"A lot of people may not remember it, but we did away with cross country for seven years due to Title IX. Then, we started it back four years ago and did away with indoor track. So, on the men's side we only have cross country and outdoor track."
And you achieve that with very few scholarships.
"No, as a matter of fact, the very first year we were probably only using less than 1.2 to 1.3 scholarships. We even told that group if they proved through training that they could get a lot better and prove themselves on the SEC level and regional level; finish in the top half of the conference and consistently be in the top-10 in the region, then I would make an effort to spend a little more scholarship money in cross, so that we could move up the charts and eventually go to the NCAA championships. But I was not going to do that until they proved that they could get that done. The reason I said that is because we had been top-10 at nationals in track a couple of times, top 20 a couple of times and four years in a row among the top-30. So, I wasn't going to start pulling money from track and jeopardize not being good in track just to jump-start the cross country program.
"The kids were going to have to prove that they were willing to pay the price. And that group did that. By the time they graduated, they were 6th in the conference and 8th in the regionals. And we spent more money on the recruiting class that we just signed. So, we are now upwards to 3.5 to 4.0 scholarships in cross country; by far the most we have ever spent in that area."
Didn't you use some academic money to go along with that 1.2 to 1.3 that you paid out when you first started the cross country program?
"Early on and even today a percentage of the scholarship that most of the cross country guys receive is from academics. We have a great academic system at Mississippi State, and actually in the state of Mississippi that allows us to draw out-of-state students with good core gpas and test scores. Mississippi State is making an effort to bring in not just out-of-state student-athletes, but any student from other states because this is for any student."
What are the required academics that help MSU draw those type kids?
"As an example, a 24 on the ACT and a 3.0 in their core gets their out-of-state portion of their tuition waived. That is huge. Then, a 20 - this just started this past year - with a 3.0 core gets half the out-of-state portion of their tuition waived.
"I also make sure I identify to the parents and the kids the fact that part of the money is coming from academics and part of it is coming from athletics because I want them to know that the effort they spent in the classroom is being rewarded.
"This allows me to bring in some better kids who ordinarily would get a bigger athletic offer from another university because I can package that academic money with a athletic offer. That allows me to be a little closer to being even with them."
What are your expectations for the men's cross country program now that you are giving them more athletic money?
"I will be disappointed if we are not among the top 4 in the conference. I'll tell the incoming group that this coming year we need to be top 4 in the conference."
What about the NCAA?
"I think we will be a (NCAA championship) bubble team. Obviously, though, if we make the NCAA championship that will be icing on the cake, although that is a goal of ours. But over half of our team will be freshmen this year. So, to set the goal that they have to go to the NCAA championship this coming year is a little farfetched. But I think we can be top-4 in the conference and top-5 in the NCAA region. And if we do that, then we will be a bubble team as far as the national championships. You have to be top-3 in the NCAA regiona to make it, so top-5 is a bubble team because there are a few at-large teams that make the NCAA championships."
Who are some returning runners that should make significant impacts this coming season.
"Ashenafi Arega, a (senior) from Atlanta, will definitely help us. (Junior) Robert Scribner from Tupelo, Mississippi, ran a 30.04 in the 10K for track this year, which is very, very good. He will help us a lot. And probably (senior) Pad Judd, who is from Grantsburg, Wisconsin. He finds a way to be in our top-5 pretty much every meet. Jonathan Rono, who at times was in our top-5 last year, could run for a spot as well."
Who are some guys from this year's recruiting class that may have an impact this coming season?
"Ben Blankenship from Stillwater, Minnesota is a national caliber runner who will definitely help in cross country. Michael Chapa from Wallace State junior college is a junior college All-American who will help us a lot. Adam Lenz, who was originally from Indiana but competed in high school in the state of Colorado, was a nationally ranked cross country kid who will help us a lot as well. Those are the three main guys who will help us early."
Will Matthew Cameron of Madison, Mississippi help this coming season?
"Matthew, who, based on my research, ran the fastest mile time of any Mississippi high school kid, will have some training to do because cross country is 5 miles or 10K. Right now, he will definitely help us in track, but he has some work to put in before he can help us in cross country."
In the signing article about Blankenship you mentioned that he may be the best cross country runner that Mississippi State has signed. That's a bold statement to make about an incoming freshman.
"If you look at what he accomplished in high school, that is as good as any American kid that Mississippi State has signed. Obviously, back in the '80's there were a couple of Kenyan athletes that was brought in who had run faster than he did, but those guys were 20, 21-years old. And he's a 17 or 18-year old kid, so it's difficult to judge the difference. But if you are looking at a pure American kid coming into Mississippi State, his resume is as good as anybody that we have brought in. That resume only got you on a good team in the SEC. When they toe the line this fall, the resumes are out the door and you have to start writing a new resume."
How many runners can run at a cross country meet? Are you limited in the number of guys you can run?
"If we go to a regular season cross country meet and there is another SEC school there, then we can only run 12. At the actual SEC championships we can only run 10. And at the NCAA regionals we can only run 7."
What are your long-term expectations for the men's cross country program?
"The first recruiting cycle, which is four years, our goal was to make sure we got in the top half of the conference. And we did that. Now, within the next four years, we want to be a top-2 team in the conference. And if you are among the top two teams in the conference, you are going to nationals. And there are only 30 teams that make nationals. Then, once we get a year under our belt there, I want us to be a top-20 team. To say that this group is going to win a national championship would be a little premature because there are 5 to 10 programs that get the top 20 kids every single year because of their tradition. Places like Oregon and Arkansas get kids for free that we would have to sign on athletic money simply due to their tradition. They will walk-on for free at those places because they know they are going to get to go to nationals every year if they make the team.
"Over time, it's our job, as a staff, to help build a rich tradition, too."
Have you noticed a difference in kids' attitude about Mississippi State's cross country program?
"Right now, compared to four years ago, it's like daylight to dark. So, the next four years we have to step it up even more. We have to build tradition and heritage. Then, when they look at our program, they will have something to compare."
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.