Q&A: Gary Towne, CCAA cross-country Coach of the Year

Cross-country head coach Gary Towne rallies his team during the 2013 fall season. Photo courtesy of Gary Towne. Courtesy photo Gary Towne

During the past 19 years, Gary Towne has become one of the most decorated head coaches in Chico State’s history.

Towne has turned Chico State’s cross-country team into a national powerhouse that has reached the NCAA championships every year since 1999.

During this previous fall season, the Wildcat men’s and women’s cross-country teams came in first and second place in the NCAA West Regional Championship respectively and were ranked fourth in the nation going into the national championship.

However, the men’s and women’s cross-country teams finished 13th and 14th respectively at the NCAA Division II Championships this last season and missed a top ten finish for the first time in 15 years. The Orion sat down with Towne to talk about how the team will get back to its winning ways.

The Orion: After experiencing so much success during the past 15 years, was it difficult for yourself or anyone on the team to not break the top ten at nationals?

Towne: It was pretty tough. Anytime that you’ve got a string of success that’s extended that long, it’s difficult to process and accept it to some degree. But then again, it reminds you of how fortunate we have been to have put those streaks together and to have walked away from the NCAA Championships so many years in a row with top-ten finishes — it’s quite an accomplishment. Streaks are always going to come to an end. Now it’s time to learn from it and getting back to path to the top five (at championships).

The Orion: What changes are going to be implemented in this offseason?

Towne: I feel pretty good about our training. I’ve never really veered too far away from the training that’s gotten us to where we are. This year was no different. I’m always tweaking things and I feel like what we did to get ready for the NCAA Championship was as good as any training we’ve done leading to the big race. There were things I would do a little differently, more in just emphasizing things that we need to be thinking during the race. Just the mental aspects of handling what they’re going to be up against out there. I probably didn’t do a good enough job of really preparing them for that. When it comes down to it, that’s 90 percent of your success of how well you handle the mental side of the championship run.

The Orion: How do you motivate the team to compete at such a high level year after year?

Towne: Our goals are high and the athletes understand from the beginning that to achieve success on the highest levels takes a high level of commitment. Our motivation stems from our desire to achieve high goals.

The Orion: During the past 19 years, what accomplishments are you most proud of during your time as the cross-country head coach?

Towne: There isn’t one race or day that stand out as my favorite. I’m most proud of our overall record. Our program really wasn’t very good when I ran here in the 1980s, so I’m most proud of the overall portrait that we’ve painted since then. Don’t get me wrong — there have been some great moments along the way, but nothing beats the overall tradition that we’ve built through a lot of cumulative hard work.

The Orion: What are some of your favorite memories in your time as the head cross-country coach?

Towne: One was taking our first men’s team to the NCAA (championship) in my tenure as head coach in 1999 and coming home with a sixth place finish really stands out. That day set the stage for everything that we’ve done since. That group barely qualified for the NCAA meet and hadn’t been ranked nationally all year. We went to NCAA (championship) with no expectations, and as it turned out we missed a top-four trophy by less than 10 points. We’ve had some great days since, but that one stands out because it is a symbol of the beginning.”

The Orion: How is Chico State able to recruit so many great runners every year?

Towne: There are a number of reasons. Chico is a very natural setting for distance running and student athletes who enjoy our sport. Having Bidwell Park so close and (having) a smaller city setting is definitely nice for the type of athletes we recruit. Of course, our success and tradition helps the recruiting process as well. We have a lot of high school and junior college coaches across the state that know that Chico is a great option for their kids to continue to compete and develop their talents. Also, our team atmosphere is top-notch, and visitors and new athletes are welcomed in as a part of our family each year. Recruits often recognize this during their visits and it’s helped them visualize themselves as a part of our team. And of course we spend a fair amount of time and energy with the recruiting process each year.”

The Orion: Do you have a coaching philosophy?

Towne: Basically my philosophy is to create an environment where our kids are absolutely enjoying their experience as members of our team, while working hard toward achieving their degrees and preparing themselves for real life. As we pursue our dreams within sports, we generally live a lifestyle that helps this process along.”

The Orion: Who are the other key coaches and team leaders that have helped the team reach the NCAA Division II Championships year after year?

Towne: Honestly our current team’s success is the byproduct of the work of many people, some currently on our team — coaching staff and others who preceded them. For instance, my former assistant Matt Schubert played a lead role in helping to recruit our three-time All- American Johnny Sanchez five years ago. Without Matt’s contributions it’s fair to say that Johnny might not be on our roster today. On the same token, our alums who have turned qualifying for NCAA (championships) into a secondary goal, to being one of the best teams in the country year after year deserve a ton of credit for the success and focus and goals of current teams. Without all those who set the stage in previous years, this team probably wouldn’t have been as good as it was. I have a lot of people to thank for our continued success, both current members of our team and coaching staff and of course those from the past.”

The Orion: What is your favorite aspect of cross-country?

Towne: Chasing team goals on the national stage and being able to step to the plate against top teams and take a good swing at them during the regular season.”

The Orion: I understand you are still competing in long distance yourself. Do you have any events planned that you will be competing in coming up?

Towne: My competition days are mostly behind me. I was doing some national championship events in cross-country when I had turned 40, but time constraints and a deteriorating body have limited my recent effectiveness. But I do enjoy getting out for a nice 12-14 miler with the guys on any given Sunday.”

Lars Gustafson can be reached at [email protected] or @larsonsports on Twitter.