Coach Feature - Tony Houchin - trackboundUSA

Coach Feature – Tony Houchin

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As a means to link the news site with our new recruiting service, this week’s Featured Interview comes from University of Alabama at Birmingham’s head cross country coach, Tony Houchin. Having spent the best part of almost 20 years running with, coaching, and recruiting British and Irish runners, he gives a unique perspective on every aspect of the US collegiate system.

You’ve been affiliated with athletic programmes all over the States, and in almost all cases, you’ve come into contact with student-athletes from the British Isles. Can you firstly talk about your initial experiences as a runner at Oklahoma State University and the athletes you trained with there?

First off, I was a horrible student-athlete, but I was incredibly lucky that Coach Weis had such a big heart to let me be on the OSU team. The program gave me the strongest foundation of coaching knowledge I could have asked for. As a student-athlete, I got to see so many cool things, such as winning the last ever Big 8 XC Champs, and being ranked #1 going into the 1995 NCAA National Champs but “only” finishing 3rd, among others. It’s hard to comment on first impressions during this period as we were all so young and in a way we were growing up together.  Training-wise, I was way over my head. Guys like Jon Wild (UK, 7x All-American), Patrick Kiptum (Kenya, 4th at 1995 NCAA XC) and Chuck Sloan (US, 5x All-American) were doing things that were, from my perspective at the time and even now, incredible.

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Dick Weis

When I transitioned into a Graduate-Assistant coaching position (another testimony to Weis’ generosity), I didn’t work with, in a coaching capacity anyway, any of the runners that were athletes with me. I worked mostly on travel logistics, equipment, and recruiting. In recruiting, I was able to sign English Schools Champion, Matt Thomson, and Aussie, Scott Rantall (eventual Big XII 10k Champ). From there, I coached the middle-distance group and Matt was able to get the OSU indoor 800m school record.

During this period, we were well represented from all over the globe. In addition to those above, we had: Christian Nicholson, Nathaniel Lane, Kim Critchley, Ben Tickner, Ewan North, and James Ellis-Smith from the UK, as well as runners from Canada, Denmark, Kenya, Switzerland, Sweden, South Africa, and New Zealand.  Needless to say, I learned as much about relating to people from all walks of life and their differing cultures as I did on the training side.

During my eight years in Stillwater, I had a truly full experience, both as an athlete and coach. Coach Weis took me to small-setting coaching symposiums where guys like John Cook, Joe Vigil, and Marcus O’Sullivan would speak about training and team management. Accruing bits of knowledge anywhere I could get would be invaluable in the long run.

Upon volunteering at another big programme in Texas A&M, you moved onto Butler University to work as an assistant coach to Joe Franklin (now at New Mexico). Known historically as a university with a British-centric core, who were the athletes you worked with and how did your time in Indianapolis shape your opinion on international recruits?

TH – Once my GA Position ran out, I couldn’t find a paid coaching job to save my life. However, thanks to Dave Hartman and Ed Marcinkiewicz, I got a volunteer assistant position at Texas A&M, where Ted Nelson was the head coach. After almost a year there, I got an assistant coaching position at ButlerUniversity working for Joe Franklin. This is where I really cut my teeth coaching.

The first thing that struck me was the stark difference in coaching styles between Joe and Coach Weis. Weis was more of a “my way or the highway” kind of guy. And that was an approach that worked great with who we were and what we were doing at OSU.  Joe is almost the complete opposite. He really listens to what the athletes want and tries his best – as long as it fits into the team’s agenda – to provide that for them.

This group of athletes, primarily from the US, UK and Australia, led to one of the most successful periods in the school’s history. While there, the men’s cross team finished 4th at the 2004 NCAA Championships behind Colorado, Wisconsin and Arkansas. Not bad company, even if I do say so myself. The women also qualified for the first time ever that year. This wasn’t only a testimony to the quality of athletes we had (which I’ll detail below) but also how well they came together as a team, bought into the training and the NCAA system.

Here’s a sampling of some of the notable athletes that were at Butler with me:

  • Becky Lyne, UK:  3rd in the 800m (2:01.76) at the 2003 NCAA Outdoor Championships.  She ended up with a 1:58.20 PB and winning the 2006 European Championships Bronze.
  • Victoria Mitchell, Aus: 2005 NCAA National Champion, Steeplechase (9:54.32).  Vick ended up representing Australia many times including the 2008 Beijing Olympics and now has a PBs of 8:58.42, 9:30.84ST, 15:36.15.
  • Ava Hutchinson, Ire: 2005 NCAA National Championships Qualifier, 1500m (4:20.27).  Ava was a 2012 London Olympian in the Marathon and has since gone on to represent Ireland several times.
  • Scott Overall, UK: 2005 NCAA National Championships Qualifier, 1500m (3:43.55).  Scott was a 2012 London Olympian in the Marathon.  He’s now got PBs of 13:28.33 and 2:10:55 for the marathon.

I’m not saying I had a heavy hand in the development of these guys, but rather how some international athletes can go through the NCAA system and go on to do some really remarkable things once their time here is finished. The athletes really took to us, not only as coaches who were supporting and providing for their athletic success, but these have all grown into lifelong relationships. For example, I still coach Thomas Fraser and Alex Hains, who are both looking for big things in the coming year!

After two years in Indiana, you moved south to Louisiana to take a job at McNeese State University as the head cross country coach. There you would work with another strong contingent of runners from the UK and Ireland, but with the notable differences in culture, temperature, and funding, how did you adapt your coaching ideologies?

Coming to McNeese was my first opportunity to run my own program as the Head Cross Country coach. There was already a strong international (Ire/UK) presence when I got there. But, to be honest, it was tough coming from Butler, where we performed and excelled on the biggest stage the NCAA has to offer. My expectations were a bit skewed, and looking back, I really appreciate this group of athletes more and more.

The most obvious hurdle we had to overcome was Hurricane Rita. We weren’t even a month into the semester when Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans. And whereas Katrina didn’t directly physically impact Lake Charles, its effect was definitely felt. We had evacuees all over town, with the basketball arena and city convention centre filled to the brim with beds and people. Little did we know that two weeks later we would have our own disaster to contend with in Hurricane Rita. Rita didn’t get as much press as Katrina; however, it was every bit as strong – we just didn’t have a levee break.

Knowing in advance, I called an emergency team meeting to talk about what we would do. I told the team to pack for a few days, and if they wanted to go with family or friends, do so. At the same time, if they didn’t have anywhere else to go they were welcome to evacuate with me and my, at the time, fiancé. As it turned out, the whole men’s team, except for Alan Foolkes, decided to come with Mary and I. We then took a university 12-passenger van and started driving north. It took us over 7 hours to go the first 100 miles. It was hot (100F+) and the van didn’t have AC. It’s pretty funny looking back at it: Mary and I gridlocked in a van with 4 sweaty guys stripped down to their running shorts. With all the hotels filled, we ended up staying with an old friend in my OSU days.

We kept regular practices and tried to focus on working towards something positive in the midst of this natural disaster. What we thought would be a couple days turned into 11 days! Once we got back, the town was wrecked. Some buildings that we knew were reduced to piles of kindling and there were dead livestock lying in the pastures. It was definitely a tough transition being back in Lake Charles, but we did the best we could to make it work.

The team I’d taken over had finished 7th the previous year at the Southland Conference Cross Country meet. From that 7th place team, the #2 runner decided to go home to the UK with just his associate’s degree. Nobody had been signed in the meantime and I only had a roster of 5 people. Despite having to evacuate for Hurricane Rita, we went from 7th to 3rd at the conference championships, all with what was, on paper, a weaker team. If I had to single a person out, Damien Bateman (Ire) made the most dramatic improvement as he went from 35th in 2004 to 2nd in 2005. I continued to coach Damien for several years after and he ended up running 13:52 and 13:54(i), down from 15:25 when he was at McNeese.

In coming to McNeese, I definitely had a little bit of a chip on my shoulder, thinking that “it” could happen anywhere. So much of all those goals becoming a reality rely on more than just athletes and coaching. There’s funding, resources and especially program leadership to consider. At the time, these are things that were definitely lacking. It seems with David Rooney’s recent success a lot of that has changed for the better and I’m happy for David and Brendan Gilroy (McNeese’s current Head Coach).

Next stop was the glitz and glam of the University of Nevada – Las Vegas where you would coach, in a four-year-long stay with the Rebels, Charlotte Browning, before she would move to the University of Florida and eventually become a two-time NCAA champion.

In moving to UNLV, I really had high hopes for the program. I honestly thought that big things were on the horizon, especially after signing Charlotte Browning in my first year there. She had struggled for a couple years at home in the UK and was looking for a change and I got her back to PB shape, running 4:22 pretty quickly. I don’t think she was lacking anything in the coaching or the opportunities she was given, but she did need a more stable support system. The team culture, as it was when I arrived, wasn’t one that could provide that for her and the natural move was to transfer to a place where she would get what she needed. Clearly she got just that in Gainsville, and capped off an absolutely fantastic career in winning two NCAA Championships.

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Browning at UNLV

The biggest challenge at UNLV was overcoming the stigma that comes with the Las Vegas backdrop. With Hollywood, media and pop culture depicting Las Vegas in the way they do, it was a lot more difficult that I thought it would be to build a program.  Everyone I talked to thought living there was like visiting there, but that’s not even close. And all this was especially evident on the recruiting front.

To be honest, looking back, I probably should’ve done more international recruiting while I was there. The reputation of Las Vegas would have been an exciting prospect for international athletes as opposed to the deterrent it was for domestic student-athletes. It was incredibly difficult trying to talk dads into letting their daughters come to Las Vegas for college. What they didn’t know was that living in Las Vegas is like living anywhere else in the world: if you’re someone that’s prone to losing motivation, being easily distracted or getting into trouble, those are things that can and will happen anywhere, whether you’re in Stillwater, Lake Charles, Indianapolis, or Las Vegas. It’s not where you’re livin’ but how you’re livin’.

You are now the head cross-country coach at UAB where you have a female-only programme. Currently, there are some British athletes running for you – can you talk about the progression they’ve made and how they came to end up in Birmingham, AL.?

I’ve only been here two years and we’ve seen some pretty incredible things happen already, with the most notable being Sarah Hudak. She is just running on another level than she ever has, which can be viewed on her Power of 10 profile here. In addition to Sarah, we’ve got 3 other Brits in Kristie Leybourne, Eli Kirk and Kate Brown.

They all got here in a variety of ways. With Sarah, we had a mutual friend who put me in contact; with Kristie, it was a very similar process. As for Elinor, I tried to recruit her to come over as a freshman, but she wanted to stay at home for uni. When she finished, she sought me out and asked if she could come as a graduate student and she’s adapted to being out here marvellously. And through Sarah, I got into contact with Kate.  As with anything, word of mouth tends to be the best form of promotion.

In terms of an all-inclusive university experience, what can UAB offer recruits – athletically, academically, and socially?

Athletically, the NCAA is bar none the best U-23 training ground in the world. Here is doesn’t matter how fast you are, you can’t just run away from the field. A 13:07 guy didn’t win the 5k NCAA Outdoor Championships. A 15:19 girl with the Olympic A standard didn’t win the NCAA Outdoor 5k championships. Those are just two examples of how incredibly competitive it is. If you want to develop into the best athlete you possibly can, you have to compete in the NCAA (in my humble and completely biased opinion, of course).

The thing that really sets UAB apart from all the other places I’ve been is the medical care our team is given. The best way to exemplify this is through the proactive care Kate Brown was given, regardless of cost. Kate showed up on campus with a history of stress fractures in her navicular – an area of the foot that doesn’t get a lot of blood flow and takes a long time to heal. Despite being asymptomatic, the team doctor suggested that we take an MRI for precautionary purposes. To be honest, I’ve never even heard of an athletic department going to such lengths to pre-emptively ensure the health and well being of their student-athletes.

By the next day, the report came back showing she had some oedema in the area. I talked things over with our team physio and we decided that, even though she was cleared to run and compete by the doctor, we would try to knock this thing out for good.  We put her in a boot for a couple weeks, had her use a bone-growth stimulator 2xdaily and didn’t allow her to run for 5 weeks. Amazingly, to alleviate Kate’s worries and justify the decision to rehab, we were offered a further MRI, which showed that the edema had virtually gone. We still handled things cautiously easing her into running and kept her on the bone-growth stimulator just to ensure she didn’t take any steps backwards.  She went on to have a great first cross country season finishing in the top 20 at the conference meet earning All C-USA honours.

Also, Birmingham is the South’s best-kept secret. UAB is definitely an urban campus in Alabama’s biggest city; however, we only have about 250,000 people and, therefore, we don’t have the big city problems of gridlocked traffic and general congestion. Also, the weather down here isn’t what people would think either. I had my preconceived ideas of what the South would be like before I got here but it’s neither as humid nor hot. At the same time, there are lots of great trails and parks and the running community is huge.

Academically, UAB is a great school, too. The US News & World Report ranks UAB’s undergraduate education as the 80th in the public school system. Likewise, our graduate school has some of the best programs in the country – #12 ranked medical school, for example. Socially, Birmingham has a lot to offer and there’s a great food culture down here with a lot of hole-in-the-wall restaurants to discover that run opposite to the southern food stereotypes you might have.

Although it is hard to propose a blanket set of standards for incoming recruits, with the variables of scholarship allowance, academic standard, etc., what level of running are you looking for international recruits to have, and have you got any further advice on obtaining a scholarship in the NCAA system as a whole?

This is a tough one to answer. Every program has different needs to fill and every program has a different level of commitment to each of the different event disciplines.  We’re offering such unique life experiences you may not get the chance to explore later in life.  And with the rising cost of the university degree in the UK, coming to the States might be the more financially feasible option – even if you’re not on a full scholarship.

For my program specifically, I don’t only look at track times and performances.  I want student-athletes who are going to fully embrace the NCAA system and buy into the team concept. If you bring a team mentality to a seemingly individual sport, everyone will benefit. There’s a saying, “You’re going to let yourself down before you let others down.” So, if you always think of others, you’re never going to be let down!

Finally, you’ve coached British athletes all over the US, but if you could surmise the most ubiquitous pros and cons in recruiting and coaching international student-athletes, what would they be?

One of the biggest differences I’ve noticed in my many years of being surrounded by American and international athletes is that with internationals running is more fully incorporated into their self-identity and lifestyle. With a lot of Americans, running is merely something they’re doing for now. However, that’s not a blanket statement across the board as I’ve had American student-athletes that embraced the lifestyle and I’ve had international student-athletes that didn’t take things seriously.  You’ve really got to take each person as an individual.

Thus, the coaching of international and domestic student-athletes doesn’t differ all that much. They are all in a really pivotal period in their transition into adulthood and it is a time of growth and learning independence. Some coaches really need to do a better job of understanding that. It took me years to grow into that mentality, to be honest. Just because someone is talented and has come from afar to run and study doesn’t mean they’re going to conduct themselves exactly the way you’d like them to.  They’re still kids and are prone to making mistakes. It’s up to us coaches to help them learn from those mistakes and try to avoid them in the future.

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