On Nov. 15, in Colfax, an hour south of Spokane, Gonzaga men’s and women’s cross country will run at the NCAA West Regional meet with eyes set toward a berth in the NCAA Championship event the following weekend on Nov. 23.
While running at regionals is nothing new for the men’s cross country team, this year’s trip has a little extra weight attached to it. A trip to the NCAA Championship would be a first for GU and this year more than any before it, an appearance is within reach.
For 12 years, Pat Tyson, director of cross country and track and field and the head men’s coach, has worked tirelessly to get GU to this national stage.
“We were in a different place back prior to Tyson’s arrival,” said Heather Gores, associate director of athletics and Tyson’s supervisor since the outset of his career. “We had part-time coaches and so therefore the program reflects that. We had a lot of runners who enjoyed running and were solid runners in high school that were coming here to go to school and then [joined the program].”
Back then, cross country and track and field at GU were closer to running clubs than Division I sports.
With only one scholarship apiece for the men’s and women’s team, no locker room and no team uniforms, the state of running at GU was dim.
In 2008, GU’s Athletic Department was ready for a change. For the first time, it would invest in a full-time head coach for the program, someone to lead both the men’s and women’s cross country and track and field teams.
Having coached previously at a pair of Power 5 schools — University of Kentucky and University of Oregon — and for nearly two decades at Mead High School in Spokane — including 18 consecutive state competitions, winning 12 titles and never finishing worse than third — Tyson’s name led the list.
“There wasn’t a more perfect candidate for this job,” Gores said. “We were elated to have him interested and take our job.”
A student of running legends Bill Bowerman and Bill Dillinger at Oregon, Tyson is revered in the running community. To GU, he brought a culture and system that developed multiple All-Americans and Olympians at Oregon over the years.
“It is always with you,” Tyson said. “Now, after 46 years of coaching, it is part of your DNA … You become like a doctorate, it is like you have a Ph.D. in what you do.”
On arrival, Tyson began instilling this culture at GU. He expected athletes to take the ability they had and master it. Whether it was the first or last person on the roster, Tyson demanded they develop a team mentality.
In return, he gives his runners an unmatched vigor and support.
“It is really hard to put into words, what we have is so special here. … It is a group of guys who really believe in each other because of how much energy and belief Tyson brings to us,” said Sammy Truax, a redshirt senior and captain of men’s cross country. “I think that is what it comes down to: he has this way of getting people to buy in.”
The results for Tyson’s team have been tangible. All the program’s top long-distance times have been set by his recruits and in the past three years, the program has established each of its track records as well.
At one time, running for Tyson was GU’s largest draw for high schoolers. Now, the program is consistently attracting some of the nation’s top athletes.
Sophomore James Mwaura was one of the top high school runners in the nation when he committed to run for Tyson. Freshman Evan Bates was one of the top runners in California and his classmate Myles Bach was a high school state champion in Iowa.
“When adding these six freshmen that came in, they are, as a group, better than any other group that has ever come in GU history,” Tyson said.
Tyson said he knows it seems that he is proclaiming each new recruiting class “the greatest in school history,” but it is hardly hyperbole.
Last fall, the team earned its first national ranking, No. 26, and this fall, for the first time in program history, two GU runners, Mwaura and redshirt sophomore Peter Hogan, were selected to the preseason All-West Coast Conference team.
“No one wants to miss out on being a part of something that is going to be better the next year,” Truax said. “Every year, we’ve gotten better and every year the seniors leave a little jealous that they are not a part of this next year that is a little bit better.”
This season, the team — the deepest group in program history, according to Tyson — has a chance to be more than just “a little better.”
The Joe Piane Invitational on Oct. 4 at Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana, and the Nuttycombe Invitational in Madison, Wisconsin, two weeks later give the Zags plenty of opportunity to gain nationally notoriety and much-needed points to secure GU’s first appearance at the NCAA Championship in Terra Haute, Indiana, this November.
“We aren’t just happy to be in a position that is ranked, because that is cheap, it is on paper, you’ve got to do it on game day,” Tyson said. “But I think these guys are going to deliver and where we go is uncharted territory, but it is definitely going forward.”
After almost a half-century in coaching, Tyson has paid his dues. He said it would be easy to retire and rest on his laurels.
Tyson doesn’t want to do what’s easy. Instead, he will spend the fall enjoying the success he built at GU, while continuing to strive for more.
“It took a while for the fruit to grow on the tree and now that we have fruit on the tree and can pick it, it is exciting to see where it can go,” he said. “So, for me personally, what drives me is seeing kids buying in or having success and we are now seen as a team that is top 25 in the country.
“I’d like to see Gonzaga become iconic.”