Just over a year, to date, University of Richmond men’s cross country coach Steve Taylor can tell you the exact moment he realized the track and field program was in jeopardy.
Taylor said the team was out on River Road doing a workout that morning when he received a text from an athletics official saying former athletic director Jim Miller wanted to meet.
“That morning, I’ll never forget it.” Taylor said. “I remember sitting down on the tail of my pickup. The guys were warming down and when they came back, they saw me sitting there with my head down. They were coming up and asking if everything was all right.”
Taylor told the members of the men’s cross country team that nothing good ever happens when the administration wants to meet on a Friday afternoon, and that there was some talk about a sport being dropped, he said.
“We had heard rumors that night before that the board of trustees was meeting and that there was some very serious discussion about dropping a sport,” Taylor said. “We never dreamt that track and field would be that sport. We were thinking it would never happen because the negative publicity for the university would be too great.”
But when Taylor returned from that morning’s practice, Miller told him the board of trustees’ decision to drop both men’s soccer and men’s track and field.
What followed, Taylor said, was a whirlwind.
Billy Fayette, a top recruit out of Illinois, transferred schools and is now a redshirt sophomore at Wake Forest.
Along with Fayette, the entire recruiting class for 2013, one Taylor called the best the program has ever had on campus, took its talents elsewhere, and recruiting has been a struggle ever since.
“Our recruiting has plummeted to basically next to nothing,” Taylor said. “We have a pretty decent team here this fall, but we don’t have replacements.”
The biggest thing slowing down the recruiting process, Taylor said, is the need for top runners to be competing year-round.
“Everywhere we turn on the men’s side, we run into these dead ends,” Taylor said. “If we do get someone on the phone or drop them an email and track them down, they ask, ‘Do you guys have a track team? I heard you guys don’t have a track team.” ‘Well, no we do not have a track team, but…’ and we don’t even get past the but.”
After losing the entire recruiting class and being frustrated with the decision in general, Taylor said he had ended last year taking a deep breath and evaluating the situation at Richmond with his wife, women’s cross country coach Lori Taylor. Both quickly decided to stay at the university.
“The thing about it is we truly love the faculty and the students here at Richmond,” Taylor said. “And we feel like this is a great place for us as coaches. We’re very loyal to this university and will continue to be. Hopefully things change in the future, but regardless, we are committed to the University of Richmond.”
Also committed to the university are ex-track and field team members Scott Sommers, Richard Arnett and Jose Edgington.
Sommers is a sophomore at Richmond and threw javelin his freshman year, while maintaining one of the highest grade point averages among student-athletes.
“I was a freshman and hadn’t been at the university for more than a month [when the team was cut],” Sommers said. “So, it was pretty disappointing to find out so soon that such a large part of my college experience would be taken away.”
The thought to transfer never really crossed Sommers’ mind, he said, and his friends, the academics and the overall experience offered here keeps him loving the university.
Although he can’t throw officially for the university, Sommers said he planned on signing up for a few invitationals as an unattached competitor. Senior Richard Arnett said he was considering doing the same for some track meets.
Arnett walked on to the team as a sophomore, but since he was already a junior when the team was cut, he didn’t consider transferring.
“If I had come to college to run, or been younger, I definitely would have, though,” Arnett said.
Sophomore Jose Edgington used his experience as a middle-distance runner with track to earn a spot with the cross country team.
“The chance to still be a Division I athlete was worth it to stick around,” Edgington said, “and I know the coach, and I didn’t want to abandon the team.”
Edgington hasn’t reached the top-seven racers list on the cross country team since he is still making the adjustment to the much longer distances, but said he still helped the team in practice and contributed to workouts.
Like Edgington, Taylor has to make some adjustments. Taylor faces the problem of reshaping the program’s second-semester schedule and training program in a manner that will keep the team competitive. As Taylor pointed out, none of the 40-something Division I schools that are cross country-only have won a conference championship.
Under NCAA rules, cross country-only programs are allowed to travel to five competitions in the spring semester. The problem is that there are very strict limits on choosing those five events, Taylor said. The team must travel by ground transportation and cannot miss class time for the meets, which proves difficult, Taylor said, because most events worth attending are on Fridays.
“In essence, the NCAA rules don’t allow us to go to five events unless they’re very small, rinky-dink meets where the competition is going to be very weak,” he said, “which doesn’t help us. That’s what those other institutions are doing. They’re going to those five meets that are not very competitive, and that’s a proven method that doesn’t work.”
So instead of taking the common route, Taylor is using the 13 runners that have made the United States mountain running team from Richmond in the last eight years as inspiration.
“What we’re going to do here is focus on the success that we’ve had in mountain running,” Taylor said. “We will focus on mountain running races, road races and then sprinkle in track meets as we can based on travel and missed class time.”
Taylor said the athletics administration had been great in helping the team work through NCAA rules to remain a successful program.
“They [Athletics] have been wonderful in supporting us so we can try to salvage a cross country team that’s representative of what we stand for here as a program,” Taylor said. “We feel like we have a renewed purpose.”
Contact staff writer Jeremy Day at firstname.lastname@example.org