"(Former MSU head track) Coach (Al) Schmidt and I had put this proposal together a year ago. This summer is when it actually got a serious look. From the beginning of the summer until the transition happened, we were talking about it to make sure the transition was smooth. We wanted to make sure we knew what each person's responsibilities were and we wanted to be sure everything was covered. It wasn't something that we just talked about on Friday, then did it on Monday. It was something that we have been talking about for quite some time."
What part did new MSU athletic director Scott Stricklin play in the transition?
"He was the one who carried the process out. Obviously, the idea of what we were doing was Coach Schmidt and myself's but he orchestrated it and made it happen."
While Coach Schmidt will still coach a couple of events, he will be in charge of several other things, including overseeing the building of the new track.
"We are building a really nice track in an attempt to bring in high ranked opponents for home meets. Al will oversee that to make sure things are being done correctly. He will also reach out to the past alumni because we need a better database and connection with the alumni. I think he will do a good bit of that. And he's still going to coach the women's 800 and 1500 event areas."
A Director of Track and Field is something that Mississippi State track and field has never had before.
"There are some track and field programs that have this type setup but there are obviously more that don't have it than do. Coach Schmidt has been at Mississippi State a long time and this solidifies the fact that he will have all 25 of his years at Mississippi State. In addition, this solidifies that Steve Dudley will be here for a while as well. He gets taken care of and I know I am being taken care of."
There is always a transition when a new coach comes in even one who has been promoted from within. You are known not only as a great sprint coach but also an exceptional recruiter. Will the amount of time you recruit change now that you are the head coach?
"I know in a lot of cases, when somebody steps up to head coach, they hire this person and hire that person and kind of step out of the roles that they played before. For me, I feel that would be a mistake. If we are going to do these things where Coach Schmidt becomes the Director of Track and Field and I become head coach, then it has to be a move that makes Mississippi State track and field and cross country better. It has to be something that makes us stronger. If I step out of those roles that doesn't make it stronger. So, I am going to have to continue doing a lot of the recruiting that I was doing before.
"Some head coaches want to hire gurus of the sport or yodas of the sports, whereas I don't think there are gurus or yodas. I think anybody can learn how to coach a sport or how to coach a particular area. It really comes down to who can sign the best people. So, a major parameter that people who I hire will have to have is the ability to recruit. If they do not show the ability to recruit, then they can't be on this staff. I think that is the number 1 thing with any sport at Mississippi State. You have to have a great ability to recruit and you also have to have a great understanding of what it takes to get someone through the NCAA Clearinghouse and be eligible so they will be here.
"A lot of the so-called big-time programs, and I consider us a big-time program because we are a big-time program, start with the number 1 recruit in the country but see that it will be very hard for that person to clear through the clearinghouse and they aren't willing to spend the time to put a process in place so that they can clear. Instead, they go to number 2 and sign him. You can't have that attitude at Mississippi State. If you aren't willing to put that process in place or if you aren't willing to come back to the office late at night and make that call asking if the student-athlete got their work done, then you don't need to be here. You have to be willing to that."
Now that you are the head coach will you have a one-on-one with each assistant coach, making sure they know exactly how you want the recruiting process to be?
"I have met with the coaches that are here. We have talked about the different things they will be responsible for. Number 2 will be the event areas that they will be responsible for in recruiting and the number 1 thing will be recruit people that can score in meets. We have to get to the point where we have people scoring in the different events areas. We can't go to nationals and just score in the sprints. We have to score in other event areas. If they need help such as having me go in the house with them, then I will be there every step of the way. But ultimately, this is not a training ground for coaches. The SEC is not a training ground. If you need to be trained you need to go to a different division."
I personally consider you a great recruiter. In your opinion, what makes a coach a great recruiter?
"I don't know if I am that good of a recruiter. I am just consistent. If we are allowed one phone call a week, then I make that phone call each week. When we are allowed to go in-house, then I go in-house. I don't recruit a person through Facebook or all these other modern technologies. I go sit down with you, the mother and daddy, or you and your mother or you and your daddy or whomever is in your life. I am going to establish a relationship in the recruiting process. You are going to have to tell me me no. If I don't know you it is easy to tell me no. But when you have established a positive relationship with the kid and the family, then it is harder for them to tell you no. If you do your recruiting through the internet, then you don't establish that relationship."
If it's not recruiting, then what is the number 1 thing that you feel you are best at in coaching?
"The number 1 thing is gathering the group together and getting them to work toward one common goal, which is you are going to be an All-American, we are going to be All-Americans, we are going to be top 20 in the country. Getting them to believe that when the rest of the world doesn't, to me that is my biggest asset."
Do you feel Mississippi State will start scoring more points in the SEC championship?
"I think that people who have taken time to talk to me know that I will judge myself and this program on how we do at nationals. There are 400 schools that have Division 1 track and field programs. I know there are only about 100 football programs that are Division 1 but there are about 400 Division 1 track and field programs. I would rather be 9th out of 400 than 5th out of 11 (11 SEC schools have track and field programs-Editor's note). My entire vision when it comes to recruiting, to training, is the nationals.
"In the SEC meet, I doubled one guy out of my sprint group. In other words, there was just one individual who did more than one event individually. Everybody else focused on one event. I knew that even if we doubled more we may have moved up just one spot. But when they go to nationals and have had to race 15 extra races, then you jeopardize your chance of doing well and end up 40th, 50th or 60th at nationals. I wasn't willing to take that risk. I wanted to make sure that we were competitive at nationals. But even though we only doubled up one guy, the sprint group scored some points at the conference meet. As a matter of fact, the Mississippi State sprint group scored more points at the SEC meet on the medal side than any school, including Florida who was supposedly the number 1 sprint school in the country. It wasn't that we went there to lose but we went there to not jeopardize what we wanted to do at nationals. That will not change. But do I want us to move up in the SEC? Sure I do. And the way to do that is for all event areas to get a lot better. Then, if we could be among the top three or win it, then, yes, we will double up and go for it.
"When you recruit the number 1 recruit in the country, he or she doesn't really care what place they will be at the conference meet. What they want to know is if they will win a national championship? Will they be part of a relay team that will win a national championship? Will their team get to the point where they can win a national championship? Everything is nationals. The season is not over with after the SEC meet. There is still a lot of season to go, including, to me, the best part of the season, which is the nationals."
Mississippi State's operating budget is the lowest in the SEC. How does that affect what you can do with your track and field program?
"I hear fans and other coaches talk about that. They say we are 12th in the SEC. But what is our operating budget nationally? I would venture to say that we are probably in the top 30. You can't place 60th or 70th at the nationals with a top 30 national operating budget. To me, that is underachieving. That is why this program, the assistant coaches, the head coach will be judged by how we did each year at the nationals."
With so much face to face recruiting, which means more traveling, will there be more money allocated to track and field recruiting?
"Since I came here in 2000, there has never been a time when Mississippi State athletics has turned me down when I requested travel expense to recruit someone. Never has that happened."
But it appears your travel expense will increase due to the emphasis you put on recruiting?
"It will increase but we will find creative ways when we travel. When you recruit, you can't spend money to go see one person. You have to be smart about planning your trip If you are going to be on the road 13 days, you need to see 20+ people while you are gone. For several straight years, I would fly into Chicago and for five days I would recruit from Chicago into Minnesota, cut across Wisconsin and work myself all the way back to Illinois and meet the cross country team in Indiana. I would see 20 people in five days. Now that took some organization. But when you plan things in the correct order, then you get more bang for your buck. You can't spend $1,000 to see one recruit. If you are going to spend $1,000, then you need to see five recruits. That is $200 per recruit. And our budget lets us do that."
Recruiting is obviously very important to you, but what else do you hope people will see from the Mississippi State track and field program with you as the head coach?
"I hope the things that people will see is that we are extremely team-oriented, from the training room to the academic people to the administration. If you touch our kids at all, then you are part of the show. And it will be my job to make sure you feel you have some ownership in our program and you feel good about the fact that you can help the track team. If you can get everybody to that point, then you will get better as a program."
How will the new track currently being built help the program? Will it help a lot in recruiting?
"I get that question a lot. And it will help a little bit. But even if we hadn't gotten the new track we were still going to recruit well. If you are trying to be a good recruiter because of what kind of facilities that you have, then you aren't a very good recruiter in my opinion. I don't want kids to sign with us based on what kind of track we have. If that is a case, he or she will never be a team player and will never get out of their career what they want out of it. It has to be about the substance. Whether we have that track or not, it will be a failure if we aren't top 25 in the nation.
"What we are building this track for is to have meets and get more of the public involved in our track program. It will allow us to bring in better competition, hence that is when you start running faster. You will actually have home meets. And some kids get hyped up when they know they will have people they know at the meet. That may also cause faster times."
When you interview position coaches how will you know they are good recruiters?
"It is pretty easy to look at someone's career and see who they have recruited and how successful they have been with their recruits. Do I have to have someone who has won 10 Division 1 national championships? No, I hope I will do a better job of researching than that. There are a lot of unbelievable coaches out there that don't get on ESPN. I want to look at their past and see if they began things, started things from scratch and did great things. I want to be able to go back and look at their career and see if they were able to do that."
Are you looking for a Steve Dudley clone as your assistant coaches?
"No, there are other coaches better than me. That's who I want. If I want to be a good head coach, then I am going to surround myself with the best people that I can."
Reflecting back on your time working with Al Schmidt. how are some ways he has helped you grow as a coach?
"Obviously, Al recruited me out of high school. I was in the first recruiting class that he had at Mississippi State. So, he has been in my life, not only as my coach when I was a runner here, but then when there was a coaching opening here in 2000 he reached out to bring me back here. So, he's been a part of my career all my years except for high school. He's been able to shape me as an athlete and help shape me as a coach. You pull things from the different people that influence you. Obviously, there are a lot of things that I use that I have pulled from Coach Schmidt. There are also a lot of things that I pulled from my high school coach. We won a lot of championships in high school. We started the first ever cross country program at our high school and we won the state our first year and won it five years in a row. And our high school had never won a state championship in any sport. That went back to team, team, team. That had nothing to do with recruiting."
Gene Swindoll is the publisher of the GenesPage.com website, the source for Mississippi State sports on the Scout.com sports network. You can contact him by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.