In some ways, BYU and Ed Eyestone, the Cougars’ guitar-playing track and cross-country coach, has come full circle. When he left BYU, the school’s distance-running prowess went with him; when he returned 15 years later, so did their prowess. It’s that simple.
Like the rest of the country, BYU fans focus on basketball and football fortunes, but success in those sports pales in comparison with the Cougars’ running feats, and Eyestone has been a big part of it as an athlete and coach. For 35 years he has been a major figure in distance running, first at Bonneville High, then at BYU, then as a professional and Olympic road racer. He has been everywhere for running, as an athlete, TV color analyst, magazine columnist and coach.
For his latest act, he has been restoring BYU as a runner’s mecca. Distance running — and endurance sports in general — seems ideally suited to the Mormon culture, with its strictures on alcohol and tobacco and its roots in hardy pioneer stock who, like distance runners, persisted in the face of mental and physical discomfort.
“Abstaining from alcohol and tobacco is certainly not a bad thing in terms of cardiovascular improvement,” Eyestone notes. “And the whole culture of setting goals and working hard toward them and believing there is a divine hand helping guide you to become the best you can be.
"Not that we have a corner on the market by any means, but as we do our part we believe we have a loving Heavenly Father out there to help us do our best, whether that means win, place or show, and that’s a comfortable psychological advantage when you go into competition. It helps with the stress. Whatever happens, it’s going to be OK.”
Over a 40-year period, BYU collected 150 All-America citations in distance running, many of them under the gentle guidance of Clarence Robison and Sherald James. In the ’80s, BYU distance runners gained national prominence. Magazines dispatched reporters to Provo to do in-depth articles to see how they were doing it. “The Stormin’ Mormons," one magazine called them. In the 1984 U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials in Los Angeles, BYU alumni Henry Marsh, Doug Padilla and Paul Cummings swept the three distance races just two weeks after Eyestone won the 10,000-meter run at the NCAA championships. A year later, Eyestone became the third man to claim the collegiate triple crown, winning NCAA championships in cross-country and the 5,000- and 10,000-meter runs on the track while setting a long-standing collegiate record in the latter.
And then the Cougars quietly faded from the scene. They still produced the occasional star — Olympic miler Jason Pyrah, for one — but they were no longer a national force — that is, until Eyestone returned. Consider this: From the time Eyestone graduated in 1985 until he was hired as a coach in 2000 — 14 years later — BYU produced 19 All-Americans in the distance races (track and cross-country). In the nearly 14 years since Eyestone was hired as a coach, BYU has produced 62 All-American citations in distance running (track and cross-country), including five national champions — Miles Batty, Kyle Perry, Josh McAdams, Josh Rohatinsky and a distance medley relay team.
After qualifying for the NCAA cross-country championships only four times the previous 14 years, the Cougars have qualified all 14 years under Eyestone, including team finishes of fourth, sixth and fourth the last three years, respectively. Since 2000, only four cross-country programs have qualified for the NCAAs every season — Colorado, Stanford, Wisconsin and BYU.
This weekend, the Cougars will compete in the NCAA West Region track championships in Fayetteville, Arkansas. BYU’s male athletes have achieved 32 qualifying marks — second most in the country — 15 of them in distance and middle-distance events.
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