How Coach John Hayes Led Wake Forest To Their Best NCAAs Finish Since 1989

By Kyle Merber

December 1, 2022

“I know their training – these guys are strong. They were built for a 10k.”

Halfway through the NCAA Cross Country Championships, when the Wake Forest men popped up as being in fifth place, I boldly called that the 12th ranked ACC Champions wouldn’t be falling back. And I was right. There’s some admitted bias there, as I ran for coach John Hayes at the University of Texas while in graduate school but that’s why the ascent of this program has not been one bit of a surprise to me. Since becoming the Director of Cross Country and Track in 2016, the Demon Deacons have consistently climbed the rankings each year and with one of the best recruiting classes in the country coming in, it seems that this trend may continue. I wanted to hear more about the journey, so we had a long overdue catch-up.

Let’s go back to 2016…after a few-year hiatus away from college coaching, you decided to return. Why? And specifically, why Wake Forest?

Going back even further to 2006, my wife and I sat down and said, ‘Where are some places that you’d like to finish up your career?” At the time the program here was starting to slide a bit from when they were really good in the nineties and the late eighties. I knew they were strong academically, it was a good area, and that the campus was beautiful. And so I said this was one of five or six schools that I would consider finishing my career coaching.

When I was coaching Leo Manzano and that small group with Duncan Phillips for my three years off from college, I knew that was not a long-term gig to generate money for my family. I missed going to NCAA championships. I loved the Diamond League and stuff, but NCAA cross country is such a special team event. The team stuff really gets me.

This role ended up being perfect for me as I wanted to be able to put my name on a program and not just inherit the success. It was important to me to build something, which has been both a blessing and a curse.

The year before you took over the program, the team was 14th at the ACC meet and 23rd in the region. How do you go from that to where you are today? Was this the time frame you envisioned?

I thought it would take four years. After four years, I don’t think we had fully turned the corner on the culture just yet. We just missed out on making the national meet, but the culture was coming.

Coming in from the outside, how do you change a team’s culture? What’s the first thing you do to start that process?

It’s different now than it used to be. Compare it to 25 years ago – I could’ve cut the people that don’t want to be there and bring in people that want to be great and who are willing to do the work. You can’t do that anymore.

The problem is you have kids, and they’re all good kids, but they get brought into a culture of apathy and that’s the lifestyle they get used to. It’s really hard to change who you are and some do, but the majority don’t. And so you bring in new kids gradually and the scales tip in the right direction. It usually takes three to five years. It took us five as we went from not qualifying, to 15th, to 10th, to 5th, at the NCAA meet.

How special is it to get a school like Wake Forest to turn that corner? They have the resources, the academics, and the athletic support, but just weren’t getting it done when on paper they should have been.

Our administration kept saying, “John, it’s going to take time! Relax. You may never get there!” But I’m not that guy. There’s got to be that commitment. People as a whole want to be great, but are you willing to make sacrifices? So getting the group as a whole to change that mindset over the course of five years and getting the administration to see that this actually could actually happen was the key. And they bought in – they had the sign up at school that we won the ACC Championships on our athletic building, and not many major universities would appreciate a cross country team’s accomplishments like that.

You have kids that attack you because you’re expecting a change in mindset and they don’t want to do it. It can become contentious and you just have to continue to try to do the right thing over and over again. Because what I’m trying to do is create memories of success and championships for young men and women within our program that they’re going to look back on in 20 years. And when some kids don’t want to buy into that vision, they have to do something different.

Something many cross country recruits probably don’t consider is the importance of the distance coach being the director. That definitely came into play at times when I ran for you in Texas, but now you’re in a position where you get to call the shots. What are some of those advantages?

Well, the philosophy of the program and a lot of your resources are put into the success of that group. We care about all event groups, and I have a great staff across the board to follow the blueprint, but I personally know what it takes for a distance program to succeed.

We have a Boost treadmill in our locker room and an underwater treadmill. We have great running here, however, I wanted us to have our own vans so we could be mobile so we can get to other trails quickly. We do blood testing often enough to have baselines of ferritin levels. We take lactate levels at practice to make sure they’re within range of what we’re looking for and in terms of the aerobic or anaerobic threshold. So we’re putting these resources in and taking the time to do it and setting these young people up for success. They feel important when you surround them with these facilities and how we do things.

How different is training in your philosophy now versus what it was like in 2012 when I was running for you? We did more threshold work than I’ve ever done in my entire life, but damn did I get strong!

The truth is we do even more of it now. What I found is the more I keep giving, the more they keep getting better and that’s kind of the philosophy. It’s safe and unless there is a plateau, they just keep getting stronger. We still work on speed development and all the basics – you have to be good at the basics.

Now, kids that are older and more developed we’re going to take more chances with. Like Zach Facioni, for example, at this point in his career, he’s ready to blossom and develop into someone who is well under a 13:20 guy.

It’s a lot of threshold work and it’s a lot of hills. And when I first got here the one thing that I felt like was missing was a place to do a great hilly long run. But Ryan Van Hoy, who grew up here, told me where to go and now we have that spot.

There are a lot of athletes who want to become college coaches. But I think of where you started at Morehouse up until today and it’s not an easy path, even for someone who knows what they’re doing – it’s a grind of a profession. So what is the best part of being a collegiate coach, and what’s the worst?

The best part is the journey with these young people. From meeting them in their house to bringing them on campus. Watching them come in as freshmen they can be like wild animals that are finally let out of a cage. Whether they become All-American or they improve a lot, it’s rewarding to see them do things that they never thought were possible.

Look at Luke Dewalt – I sat down to talk with him for an hour last night. A year and a half ago he was banged up and wasn’t on the squad that finished 15th. Last year he was somewhere in the 140s. But last week he goes out and gets 22nd in the country. That’s a pretty cool feeling! Late in my running career, I was also coaching a group when I was in the Army and realized it feels way cooler to be involved in others’ success rather than just feeling it for myself.

Consequently, it feels pretty crappy when they’re not successful and I have to look in the mirror and ask what I did wrong. Though the worst part about coaching is the time it takes away from your family. I’ve missed some key times in my kids’ lives that I won’t get back. That’s hard. I didn’t get to see my kid ride a bicycle for the first time when we were in Austin. You have to have an incredibly independent spouse and one that understands what you’re doing. But my kids and my wife are so important and I miss them often and really regret that.

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Kyle Merber

After hanging up his spikes – but never his running shoes – Kyle pivoted to the media side of things, where he shares his enthusiasm, insights, and experiences with subscribers of The Lap Count newsletter, as well as viewers of CITIUS MAG live shows.