Rob Conner Explains The Strategy That Led to A Second Place Finish for Portland
Portland cross country head coach Rob Conner took some heat on the internet (particularly from LetsRun.com) after he decided to leave out some of his top guys at the West Coast Conference Championship. People on Twitter, Facebook and message boards were not fans of bypassing a chance at the conference meet to possibly perform better at the NCAA Regional meet or NCAA Championship.
BYU ended up winning the conference championship with a perfect score as their men went 1-2-3-4-5. However, the decision paid off as the Pilots finished second behind NAU for the highest finish at the NCAA Cross Country National Championship in school history. BYU took third at Nationals.
Conner joined the CITIUS MAG Podcast for an extensive chat.
We have transcribed some of Connor’s comments below on how it all came together for the team.
“Here’s the thing that has me very upset. That thing has discredited everything that our team just did…If you look at those top six guys and you had to give them a grade like some coaches do, you’d go A or A+ (if you give A+’s) on the first six guys. They all ran to the top end of their potential. If I had to sit back and think, ‘OK, where is Manu [Emmanuel Roudolff-Levisse] going to finish?’ I would probably say between 10th and 25th. ‘Where is [Jeff] Theis going to finish?’ Probably between 15th and 35th. ‘Where is [Nick] Hauger going to finish?’ Somewhere between probably 30th and 55th. Every single guy on our team went out and ran an A+ race. Hauger and Theis ran A+ races and they ran the conference meet as hard as they could and their butts kicked. This whole kind of fictitious argument of ‘Hey, that’s unfair!’ or something like that, it discredits what those guys did and it really has me pissed off. Last night at our team meeting, I apologized to the guys. I said to the guys, ‘Here’s what. My decision cost you guys a hell of a lot of attention. You earned it and I’m really disappointed you’re not getting it.’ That’s the only thing that I have a little bitter taste in my mouth about. That’s the greatest performance in school history. It has nothing to do with who did what.”
A listener asked how he managed to get his team to buy into his plan.
“The first guy that I approached with the idea was [Logan] Orndorf and we were in the van coming out of Whole Foods. He pipes up from the back and asks ‘Coach, what’s the plan? What’s the plan coming up?’ I said, ‘Well, I’ve been thinking about that plan as a matter of fact. I kind of reached back with my hand and patted him on the leg. I said, ‘I’m so proud of how you just ran that I’ve got an idea.’ Then I told him the idea. Then I said, ‘Caleb [Webb], you don’t have that many miles under your belt either by the way. I’m thinking about you too.’ He immediately says, ‘Hey, hey. I want to run conference.’ I also said, ‘Noah [Schutte], since you’re our fifth guy or our sixth guy, maybe this is a good thing for you too.’ So, I had three guys in mind – the fourth, fifth and sixth guys from Wisconsin [Invite]. Noah says, ‘I need to race because I had a bad race. I need to race because I ran slow at the end, I gave up and blah blah blah.’ I said, ‘No, no,no. You don’t necessarily need another race. You need to regroup and be ready to go.’ Caleb put up his hand and he did not want to do it. Noah put up his hand and did not want to do it. Normally, I’m the kind of coach who basically lets the guys decide what they want to do. Orndorf was kind of bought in because he kind of knew it was going to be hard for him to keep going. He’d never run a varsity race in cross country. He’s a varsity guy but that was his traveling trip. Two guys did not want to do it. I said, ‘Let me think about it.’ Normally, I’ll cave in and let the guys make their own call but this time I decided to wait a minute. We got back and on Monday, both those guys came in and said, “OK, I’ll do it.”
They thought about it. They knew. Caleb really didn’t run great at Wisconsin even though he was our 5th man in 54th. He was kind of dying at the end. Noah really was dying. He ran close to like 25 minutes. He also came in and said, “I thought about and I want to do that.” They didn’t want to do it and then they realized that they needed more training. That’s the biggest piece of it – They needed more training. I asked Noah afterward, ‘When was your first 70 mile week for training in cross country?’ He said, “The first week I got back?” I asked, “Well when did you get back?” He said, “Well I got back on the 15th of August.” So the 22nd of August was his first 70-mile week.
Then I asked Theis, “When was your first 90 mile week?” He said, “I don’t know maybe middle of July? Why?” And that’s what I thought.
So this guy was behind in his training because he was running European Championships in the steeplechase and stuff. Again, the guys did not want to do it and then I said ‘You’re doing it” after they actually thought about it and realized they needed to train.
It’s not resting guys. It’s training guys. These guys were working hard.
It’s funny how nobody seems to bat an eye with people holding guys out of regionals because they’re in a weak region. We have the toughest region other than the Mountain Region. Those are the two toughest regions and you pretty much better be ready to run or else you’re not going to Nationals. We ran our hardest at regionals – that’s about a week in front of the NCAA meet. A lot of teams did not run their hardest at regionals because they didn’t have to. Our guys came back on seven days and ran better. Holding out somebody for the conference meet has no effect other than the fact that I didn’t deter their performance I guess. Maybe…maybe. I hate to even say that because that’s not even a factor.
Theis and Hauger ran the conference meet – their hardest. Like I said in that interview, they were embarrassed to have five BYU guys beat them. The goal was just to break them up and then interpolate where the other guys might be and say ‘OK, here’s how close we are to these guys.’ Then they put five on us and we’re like ‘Oh crap. We’re not touching them.’
When we went to conference, we were having a run-off for the seventh man at regionals. And that was Reuben [Kiprono]. He really stepped up and he was about a minute behind Theis and Hauger at Wisconsin and then at conference he was 19 seconds behind them. He ran with the lead pack the whole way and that thing went out hard. 4:32ish for the first mile at conference. He hung in there for about four miles and then sort of faded at the end but he ran a great race. It was a big confidence booster for him. I thought he would run better at regionals but he didn’t have it that day. Then he got bumped to the alternate and brought in Matty Ice.”
The decision to run Matt Welch, the graduate transfer from Minnesota, actually came together in the weeks leading up to the national championship. Workouts after the conference championship solidified his decision to break him out at the right time. For more on that listen to the full episode of The CITIUS MAG Podcast.