Patrick Cunniff ran cross country and long distance track at Georgia from 1988-1991. He went on to coach Division I track and field for 18 years at Texas, TCU, Long Beach State and finally at his alma mater in 2012. The Red & Black’s sports editor William Newlin spoke on the phone with Cunniff to discuss his coaching career, the changing world of collegiate distance running and misconceptions about the sport.
William Newlin: Did you immediately begin coaching once you graduated UGA?
Patrick Cunniff: No, I actually, had kind of hoped to [coach] right out of school and things didn't kind of connect. I moved into Atlanta for about a year and a half and then ended up on a kind of entirely different path. I moved out to Yellowstone National Park to work with one of my roommates from Atlanta and kind of fell into that for almost eight or nine years. And then, during that time met my wife, and we ended up moving into Bozeman, Montana. And I was the general manager for a restaurant there. Another person from our [Georgia] team was coaching at the University of Texas and needed a volunteer coach. I was in my early 30s, we were married but didn't have any children, and it was kind of one of those, two roads diverged in a wood -- [I said] if I'm ever gonna do this, this is the time, and [in] February 2003 drove out of Bozeman, Montana and went to Austin, Texas, and have been coaching ever since.
Newlin: How has the approach to cross country changed since you ran in college?
Cunniff: I think one thing you would see is the scientific knowledge has kind of caught up with what a lot of the most successful people were doing by feel. I think you don't catch maybe the full variety, [and] I mean that in a good way. You know, there were a lot more fringe theories still kind of going on in the late 80s and early 90s, whether it was super low mileage but really fast or incredibly high mileage. And I think we've just learned some real foundational scientific principles. A lot of times the people that were most successful [then], almost [through] reverse engineering, were already doing the things that almost everybody's doing now. First of all, the concept of tempo training or aerobic threshold training wasn’t really talked about. A lot of times on what were supposed to be easy days or recovery days, those terms weren’t even used. It was just a question of going to run hard ever day. And, if you were tired you still ran hard, and of course that led to a lot of injury.
Newlin: Can you describe the regional divide in collegiate distance running?
Cunniff: It’s huge. And now, as travel budgets and knowledge of physiology and all that has kind of grown and compensated, you don't see the difference [as much]. At Georgia, we've had great performances. Tennessee has been a great school, Alabama has been on a run, so any school can be competitive. But if you look at where the performances are being done, right now track and field is split up into east and west for outdoors, and there's two regional meets to advance the national meet. To get into the regional meet you have to have one of the top 48 times. In the eastern region, in the 5000 and 10,000 in particular, probably at least 60% of those performances will come from meets in California. And then the other meet will come from probably Penn relays, Virginia [and] maybe Raleigh because it's so early [in the year]. You won’t really see a qualifying time, south of Raleigh, North Carolina, on the entire list. [It’s from] heat and humidity. It’s just enough of a performance killer. I would say the one caveat to that is you will see a few performances from athletes that might be capable of being top-ten at the national championships.
Newlin: You mentioned track and cross country are misunderstood, could you describe what those misconceptions are?
Cunniff: Just in terms of people understanding, one, how competitive it is. Two, just kind of how challenging it is physically. And then, if you want to get lost in the minutiae, the specifics of how we qualify for nationals or how somebody is an All-American. Almost nobody outside the sport, kind of really knows those things. But to go to the first point.f In terms of competitiveness, I think women’s cross country is the second most sponsored [women’s] sport in Division I after women’s basketball. And only 31 teams qualify for our national championship, so that’s incredibly competitive. We’re pretty much the two sports, track and cross [country, are the only sports that kind of everybody in the whole world does. We have athletes on our team, but certainly within the NCAA, from every corner of the globe. To even make the indoor NCAA championships, you have to be one of the top-16 people in the whole country [in your event]. And those times are ridiculously competitive in every event. [In] the men’s mile, you have to run about 3:58 to get in the meet. What cache it still carries to run a four-minute mile — you can be a four minute miler and you’re about 15 guys away from even going to the championship.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.