Sports

Long distance runaround

The cross country teams are ready for their Big East move after 19 years of extinction.

 DANIEL CRAIG / TTN FILE PHOTO

DANIEL CRAIG / TTN FILE PHOTO

When it came time for freshman Steve Flynn to make a decision on where he would spend his collegiate running career, Temple was at the top of his list.

“Temple was my best option,” Flynn said. “I thought it would be a place where it would have a better and more personalized training, and one where I’d be able to have a connection with my coach. The team has more quality, and I was getting good money here, so I thought it would be a great opportunity.”

As little as eight years ago, however, Temple wouldn’t have been on Flynn’s radar. The cross country program was still rooted in extinction, having been eliminated by the university after the 1985 season.

“If there wasn’t a cross country team, I probably wouldn’t have come,” Flynn said.

For decades, Temple’s cross country program had a long and cherished history at the university competing in the Eastern Athletic Association. The late former coach Jack St. Clair spent 20 years with the team from 1963–83, including a 1965 season that featured a career-best 13–2 record. St. Clair also coached the men’s and women’s track & field teams and was inducted into the Pennsylvania Sports Hall of Fame in 1979.

The Atlantic 10 Conference succeeded the EAA in 1982. The 1982 season featured the first-ever A-10 cross country championship meet, and it was hosted by Temple at Belmont Plateau, a course that St. Clair helped design.

St. Clair retired in 1983, making way for his replacement, Chuck Alexander. Although Alexander would coach the track team until 1999, he would spend just three seasons coaching the cross country teams.

In May 1985, the Board of Trustees voted and approved a proposal that would take away eight sports from varsity athletics: men’s cross country, fencing, swimming and wrestling in addition to women’s cross country, bowling, badminton and swimming. The cuts were led by then Athletic Director Charles Theokas in an effort to place more of an emphasis on club sports and to better meet the student population’s recreational needs.

“While we recognize that every sport is a key sport to its participants, we have to think of the 30,500 students who are not student athletes, and simply want to exercise, have pick-up games, engage in intramural activities and represent Temple in club sports without an athletic grant-in-aid,” Theokas said in a press release announcing the decision.

As a result of the proposal, the track & field teams were forced to carry on without a cross country counterpart. For 20 seasons, the university kept the program out of its athletics department. Eight years ago, things began to change.

Stefanie Scalessa became the first woman to serve as a head coach for a men’s sport in the then 110-year history of Temple athletics as she was hired to run both track & field teams in 2004. Around the same time, Athletic Director Bill Bradshaw began looking into the logistics involved in resurrecting the cross country program.

“I talked to the director of admissions about it and he told me that there was a lot of interest when they went out and talked to prospective students for Temple about cross country for men and women,” Bradshaw said. “That sort of got it going and we investigated and did thorough research and found out that it was relatively inexpensive to just add men and women’s cross country to our already existing men’s and women’s indoor and outdoor track programs.”

Most universities that have track & field programs also have cross country teams because having one greatly reduces the costs associated with the other.

“If you’re going to have a commitment to indoor and outdoor track for men and women, it really makes sense to also have a men’s and women’s cross country program,” Bradshaw said.

“We went through the channels with the administration and the Board of Trustees and the athletic committee of the board and came to various approvals,” Bradshaw added. “It was a relatively smooth process since we weren’t really creating or asking for a new sport with having to hire coaches and pay those salaries, add athletic grants or drop any sports.”

Bradshaw said Scalessa “readily embraced” what ended up being a third job for her and was instrumental in the sport’s return to the university. Although she was hired as the coach for indoor track in the winter and outdoor track in the spring, she picked up the duties of the cross country team for the 2005 and 2006 seasons when Temple filled in its old spot in the A-10.

Matt Jelley succeeded Scalessa in 2007. For a program that was still in its infancy, Jelley was hesitant to take the gig and join Scalessa on the coaching staff.

“I had a lot of people advising me,” Jelley said in August. “[They said], ‘Don’t take that job. If you want to coach in Division I, and if you want to get to a good place, that’s going to be a career killer. You can’t do it, because it’s impossible there.’”

“When I had arrived on campus, the best they had finished was second-last in the region,” Jelley said. “The best they had ever finished in the cross country A-10’s was 13th. They had never had a distance runner over 1500 meters score at the conference meet.”

Scalessa resigned the following spring after the conclusion of the outdoor track & field season, and was replaced by current head coach Eric Mobley.

Building a program from the bottom up is difficult, Mobley said.

“It’s very hard when you’re starting a cross country program, because typically athletes will go to a program because of the history of the program,” Mobley said. “If the history was in the ‘80s and ‘70s and before, some of the newer student athletes, they don’t know that history. So it takes a while – five, six, seven years to really build a program to where you want it to be.”

Mobley said having a cross country program is useful in gaining competitive advantages in outdoor and indoor track.

“It’s huge,” Mobley said. “If you look in the past toward some of the track & field programs, you gave up a lot of points by not having that distance area to focus on. So by having cross country it means you expand your track team that much more to be able to cover all of the event areas.”

Jelley resigned in August, taking a job at Maryland. Mobley hired one of his former student-athletes from when he was an assistant at Akron, Adam Bray, as his new cross country coach.

On Oct. 27, redshirt senior Travis Mahoney became the university’s first conference champion in cross country as he won the A-10 Championship and led the team to a fourth overall finish at Belmont Plateau.

“It was very satisfying to see, in a relatively short period of time, that program coming from just beginning to being fourth in a very competitive division one conference,” Bradshaw said.

“It’s always fantastic to have a relatively young program and to have a conference champion in cross country is very huge for the program,” Mobley said. “I think he’s still scratching the surface – maybe I’m getting a little ahead of myself – but we’ve got big plans for him in the upcoming weeks.”

Next year, the cross country program will enter into a new era along with the other varsity sports at Temple, as it transitions into the Big East Conference. With the men’s team still relatively youthful, and the women’s team still struggling in A-10 play, the transition won’t be easy, Mobley said.

“It’s going to be tough,” Mobley said. “Three out of the last four years on the women’s side, a Big East team has won the NCAA Championships. So, yeah, it’s going to be tough, but I think we’re moving in the right direction with coach Bray. He’s really out here recruiting hard and trying to make the program better.”

“It’s definitely one of the best cross country conferences around,” Mobley added. “We’ve got our work cut out for us, but I think we’ve got some things in place to where we’re moving in the right direction.”

Regardless of what the Big East will hold when Mobley and his athletes join the conference next season, there is one certainty that remains: Temple cross country will exist. And that, despite the program’s tumultuous road up to this point, is a whole lot more than what could be said just a few seasons ago.

Avery Maehrer can be reached at avery.maehrer@temple.edu or on Twitter @AveryMaehrer.

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