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Rojo Interviews Oklahoma State Coach Dave Smith

By: LetsRun.com
From April 3, 2009

When LetsRun.com went to Amman for the IAAF World Cross-Country Championships, we ended up spending a good amount of time with Oklahoma State coach Dave Smith. Smith traveled to Jordan to see Oklahoma State runners Ryan Vail and German Fernandez run strong races as both ended up as the #1 Americans in their respective races.

After we got back, Smith said he'd be glad to do an interview with us over the phone and here's what came out.

(Rojo had hoped to interview Smith in London as they were on the same plane from Amman but they ended up in different terminals. It's just as well that they didn't do the interview there as Smith might have been a little upset as Rojo almost got Smith taken to a Jordanian jail, as somehow after checking in at the airport, Rojo took both his and Smith's passport past security and the locals were skeptical to Smith's claims that someone must have taken his passport)

LetsRun.com: Coach Smith, thanks for taking the time to talk with us. First of all, I want to say congratulations not just getting two of your guys to World Cross but also having them do really well. Were you happy with how they performed? People might forget that you didn't just have German Fernandez but also Ryan Vail in the men's senior race.

Dave Smith: Yeah, I'm really happy for Ryan Vail, because I think he's one of those guys that - I always say this, but - he's just such a blue collar kid. He came in, he's worked hard for five years, improved every year. And he's kinda been, well, he was the third-best guy maybe coming in out of Portland his senior year, behind Galen Rupp and maybe Stu Eagon, maybe not, but he's kind of unheralded there, and then he got here and has run behind some pretty good guys and then ... his chance to shine, he climbs his way to the top of our program and then German comes in and bumps him right back down again and he just never complains, he just keeps working and keeps improving and I'm just really proud of him. I thought that was great.

LRC: Going into the race, did you have any expectations as to how he could do?

DS: You know, we talked about being top 50 and I thought that would be a real good place for him I thought, "If you play your cards right and run a smart race ..." - and he's a really smart, patient runner. We've worked on that since the day he got here and he just runs patient races, and I said, "If you run that way " - that's what he did at the Trials, you know, and he ended up 6th - I said, "If you run the way you did at the Trials, you could be top 50, I think that would be huge." And so, again he exceeded expectations. I was shocked. He came by with a loop to go and he's about 46th or 47th and, "Whoa! He's really coming back on people in this last loop," and ended up 33rd, which was much better than hoped for.

LRC: Yeah, great! What about German? I mean, 11th - what did you think of his race?

DS: There was a lot of hype around him and I kept trying to keep him grounded. I said, "German, people talk about medaling, they talk about top five and you've gotta realize what that means." I said, "Galen Rupp was 20th and Galen Rupp is a stud and just remember that. And everyone will point to Matt Tegenkamp and Dathan Ritzenhein and, again, those guys were studs. And the conditions were a little different, but those guys are, you know, two of the best guys the US has seen in a long time." I said, "Don't get caught in the hype and I think if you can be top 15, you're gonna be great. Last year, you were 25th and you were almost two minutes behind the winners. So don't think you're gonna jump in there and be in the top three and don't make that your measure of your success or you're gonna be disappointed."

I didn't want to bring him down and I didn't want to be negative with him but I wanted him to be realistic, and he's very good at staying grounded and every time he talked about his goal, he'd say either top 15 or top 10, he kind of went back and forth and as it turns out, he was probably about right. It can be top 10 or top 15 - probably either one was a good goal. And from my end, I kept saying, "Hey, if you can make it in the top 15, you're doing a great job." And that's what I was focused on and hoping for, and then when the race gets going, you see "Wow! He's got a shot at the top 10." Then you're revamping that - "Hope he gets top 10!" But I was thrilled with 11th. I thought that was a great job for him. And I think a lot of the guys he's competing against develop at a much younger age. I think, typically, you look at some of the East African guys and they get closer to their potential earlier in life than, sort of, Western cultures do. And so I think just because you're 11th now doesn't mean you're not gonna improve and climb the field over the next few years against the same group of people.

LRC: Right. Talk a little bit about his injury. I mean, how much do you think that set him back and ...

DS: I think it's hard psychologically. You know, he's so good that he can miss training and you try to tell kids this. I said, "German, you've been running well for months. You know, six, seven, eight days here spread over two weeks of not running isn't gonna kill you." But, you know, he's like every guy at that age, like I was, probably like you were, you miss a few days and you think, "I'm not fit anymore, I'm not sharp, I'm not ready to go." And you start to doubt yourself. And so I think overcoming that was the first battle and getting into the race feeling confident, feeling like, "I deserve to be here, I'm fit enough to be here, I can compete with these guys." That was tough, but he got that way and when he left, when he got on the plane, I don't think he was there, but by the time I got to Amman and talked to him, it sounded like he'd gotten himself to that place mentally where he felt like, "You know what? Yeah, I've missed some days and training might not have been perfect, but I'm fit and I'm a good athlete; I can go in there and compete." And we talked about it. I said, "German, if you wanna be 100% or feel absolutely perfect every time you race, you're never gonna race." And that's reality, you know, in our sport. You gotta realize that, you know. He loves basketball. I said, "Kobe Bryant plays hurt." He loves Kobe Bryant. I said, "Kobe Bryant plays hurt. And on our own basketball team, Byron Eaton plays hurt. He's not 100% when he plays a lot of times, but he goes out there and gives it his best." I said, "We've gotta have the same mentality in our sport." You can't say, "I'm a little dinged up here, I'm a little dinged up there, I can't do it, I haven't trained as much as I want to." You know, every sport has to deal with setbacks and it's how you deal with those things that defines you, not how you do when you're 100%.

LRC: Right.

DS: And so I think it played a factor early, but I think once he got to Amman, got around Chris Derrick and Luke Puskedra and some of the other guys on the team, I think it brought his spirits up, he had a good time, he got competitive and wanted it, wanted to run with those guys. He's been talking about that for a year, you know, saying, "Hey, it'd be great to be on a team with them and represent the US," and so I think once he got around them, his spirits came up a bit and he was ready to go.

LRC: Right. I'm kind of curious as to what it's like at practice with you guys. I mean you've got a lot of talented guys. Do Vail and German work out together? What's German like in practice? Sometimes on our own team here at Cornell, I'll have guys that sort of work out with the group and then in the race, they're way, way better and you're like, "Wow! Where did that come from?" and then sometimes there's guys that are way ahead in practice and you kind of know they're gonna be ahead in the race, so do those guys work out together? And what's that like?

DS: No, we try to work out together as much as possible because I think there's a lot of benefit from the team dynamic and being together and being in something together, kind of that foxhole mentality. And so we try to do that as much as possible. Now at times, we have to be creative with the way we structure things so that you know, you don't want a young freshman developmental kid in there trying to bang heads with German, Ryan and John Kosgei because it's not gonna be good for their development or their ego or anything else. And so we do things like ... we do repeats, sometimes we stagger the groups and we cut down the pace so that the guys who start, they're running hard, by the time they're running hard, the other guys are starting and it works out where they get to train three or four of their repeats together but they're not having to do the final couple with the top group. Or if we're doing our 10 mile steady states, which we like to do out on the dirt road, sometimes we'll give some of the young guys will get a two minute or three minute or four minute or even five minute head start and I'll say, "You just run 5:45 pace until a group catches you, which'll be about mile 7 or 8, and then see if you can finish with them at 5:00-flat." So we try to be creative with it but at the same time keep people working out as a group as much as possible.

LRC: Right. And how would you rate Vail's fitness compared to German's fitness at this stage?

DS: It's hard to say. I think Vail is on top of his game right now. I think he is mentally, emotionally, physically really dialed in right now and I think he's ready for some big things this spring. He's way past where he was this fall. I think the fall was tough on him. We really made a big jump up in mileage over the summer and I think it took him six months to adjust; we were hoping that after three or four months he'd adjust. I think he's starting to see the benefit of that jump in mileage right now. As far as the two of them, I think they're pretty spot on right now. I think if they were in a 5k together, they're both capable of running in the 13:30s, maybe the 13:20s in the right race. And it's hard to say who's gonna be - and throw John Kosgei in that group, too - I think the three of them, it's hard to say who'd come out on top in a race right now.

LRC: I see. And what's the goal really for those three guys outdoors? I guess the two that are healthy. I mean, what events? And Vail's been more of a 5k guy in the past; is that still gonna be the focus?

DS: You know, we had really talked about the 10k a lot for Vail this year. But then this World Cross came in and kind of cramped the season a little bit. And we decided to back off on some of our plans because he made the World Cross team and that was huge for him and obviously he wanted to go there and do well. And so we made that - for both German and Vail - kind of the focus let's go there and not have any distractions and just worry about that and after we're done, we'll decide what comes next. And now, looking at it, we decided there's probably not enough time in the season to run a good 5k and a good 10k and then go to the Big 12s and then Regionals, Nationals and the US Championships and all that stuff. So we haven't decided exactly yet, but we're gonna pick between a good 5 and a good 10 and that'll be it for Vail's season other than the conference meet, the Regionals and Nationals. And we just gotta decide, "What's it gonna be? Focus on the 5 again one more year or do you want to go for a 10?" He's never run a 10. I think that, ultimately, is his better event, but it might not happen at OSU. We might have to wait for next year for a 10.

LRC: Right. And what's the status with German and the foot and all that stuff?

DS: Yeah, he's got a sore foot. And that's the number one thing - he's got symptoms. And the MRI shows there's a bit of a stress reaction there. As it turns out, our orthopedist saw him yesterday and looked at the films again and thinks that it's not really tending toward a stress fracture. We had some more films done yesterday. He thinks that it's fine, but we're gonna be very careful and very slow with him. Right now, he's biking for the week and we'll make a decision in a week. We'll evaluate again and say, "Okay, where are you? Are you ready to go?" And ... he's nervous. Again, he's a young guy. He gets nervous and thinks, "Well, if I'm not running right now, I'm not gonna be ready to go at the end of the season." And I point out to him and say, "German, you weren't running in the middle of December either and you came out in early January and ran a 3:56. So don't underestimate your ability." And again, I told him, "Seasons are never going to be perfect. If you wait for that perfect season to race, you're never gonna race." He's starting to get that and realize that, "You know what? ..." I really think the analogy with the basketball players made sense to him. I say, "Hey, Byron Eaton plays hurt, Kobe Bryant plays hurt, Shaquille O'Neal plays hurt. They might not be 100% but they can go out and do what they can do." He gets that now. And we're not gonna ever do anything to risk his development or his future, but if it's a sore foot that our doctors, who are very good, think, "There is no risk here, he's fine, he's not gonna make himself worse or hinder his own development," then we'll race. If they say, "You know what? This is .. we're gonna watch it carefully ..." If they think it's tending toward being something more serious, then we won't race.

LRC: Right. And ... sounds like the focus would be the 1,500 this year? Outdoors?

DS: Yeah. I'm kind of partial. You know, what I always say is train high and race low, especially when you're young. And keep the volume up and let's train like we're a 5k guy or a 10k guy and prepare to do that ultimately, but let's develop the speed and racing skills and, you know, kind of "race savvy" when you get a chance. And the whole thing with running him in the mile this year was I thought if he goes out and time trials a bunch of 3ks in small races, he's not gonna learn how to race and so we thought, "Let's go to the mile. You'll be challenged, you'll be bumped, you'll be pushed, people will try to outkick you." As it turns out, just the way the season went, the two miles he ran ... well, one he actually had a race and one kind of ended up being a time trial, which is what we were trying to avoid. But I guess when you're gonna run 3:55, there's not a lot of guys who are going to race with you. So, yeah, I tend to want to concentrate on the 15 for the next year or two and let him develop those skills and keep training for his ultimate event, which is probably the 5 or 10, but let him race in the 15 and 3s and maybe the 5 here or there, but not necessarily.

LRC: Right. What about, like, after the NCAA season? I mean, he's a young guy, he's sort of had a few injuries here and there. Do you think you guys think will try to keep going or do you think maybe he needs a break and get ready for cross-country?

DS: You know, again, we kind of have to play that as his body responds to what we're doing. And he's gonna have a very, very, very limited NCAA season, you know. He might run one race. Maybe not. He might just go to the Big 12, Regionals and Nationals, that might be it. Maybe we'll run him in one race before then. So we're not gonna do a lot. I think he's already had a lot. And people want to see him race, I understand that. I understand he's a talent and people want to see him race, but we are always gonna do what's best for him first and ... you know, I want to see him race, I want to see him win, I want to see him go up against the best. But at the same time, I don't want him to get to the end of the season and feel like, "I've done too much, I'm burned out" or become injured or anything like that. I want to be careful. You know?

LRC: Right. What's it like for you as a coach? I mean, when you came to Oklahoma State, they had a nice tradition already of making NCAAs as a team and that type of stuff. But this year, you're sort of getting a lot more attention with Vail and German and all these guys. But it seems also like there's probably a lot more pressure ... and then you have the highs of going into NCAAs and then the injury there and then Kosgei false starts at NCAA indoors, and then a week later, everything's great. So just tell me a little about what that's like for you personally. It's got to kind of be exciting and stressful at the same time.

DS: Yeah, for me, as a coach, probably like you, it's that way every year. It's just that people don't notice it. You know, every year, we have these highs and these lows and good things and bad things and one meet, I go out and we run and we're so bad at Pre-Nationals. You know, we're 12th - trying to win it - and we end up 12th. I come home thinking, "That's it. I'm done. I'm quitting coaching. I'm not gonna coach anymore." And then we come back and finish 3rd at the National meet the same year, you know? We've had those highs and lows every year since I .... I've had that every year since I've been coaching. It's just that no one noticed before because we were at a level where people didn't pay attention. But for me personally, it's the exact same this year it's been every year. You have your ups and downs. Every coach does and I think a lot of people don't notice that because most programs aren't receiving the attention that - largely because of German and Vail and guys like that - we're receiving this year. But, like you said, when I got here, it was already a great program. They had been to the National meet nine times in a row. I had a great, great product to sell to kids I was recruiting - the Ryan Vails and the guys ... and Joe Greys and David Jankowskis and guys who kind of built this program. I could call them up and say, "Hey, listen, this program is great. What we've done, it's been great. Coach Weis has done amazing things. You know, they've been to the Nationals nine years in a row. We've been 3rd and 4th in '95 and '96. We can do it here. If you'll come and take a chance, we can build it here to an even higher level." And I think now seven years later, we're at the point where we're seeing that development and that step to the next level. I think the next few years, we've got a team that's gonna be very, very competitive at the National level, which is fun. But, honestly, it was fun getting there, too. It was frustrating, just like this year was frustrating at times, but there was also a lot of reward in the building process.

LRC: Right. And then I guess one or two more questions. Is it a lot easier to recruit now, with being high profile? Or is it just as hard as always?

DS: It's funny. It's just as hard as always. And it may be a little harder this year. And maybe it's harder because I thought it'd be easier. But there are a lot of great programs out there. There's, what, about 300 men's programs in the Division I? And we're all talking to the same kids and you never know what's gonna appeal to an 18-year-old kid, you know? Who would have thought that Oklahoma State's set of positives/negatives would end up being the school that German Fernandez picks? Or [what] some other 9:40 guy I tried desperately to get didn't want. You just never know what a 17-, 18-year-old kid's gonna want. And I think for the right kid, Oklahoma State is an amazing place. I mean, for a kid that doesn't want to be in a big city, for a kid who's very serious and blue collar in his approach to training, I think it's a great place to be. But if you're looking for a lot of, you know -  I say this all the time - if you're looking for bells and whistles and a lot of hype and a lot of glitz and glamor, this probably isn't the place for you, because it's a rural community, it's hard work and it's blue collar and it's ... you know, it's what it is.

LRC: Yeah. And speaking of hard work, when I talked to you in the fall just a couple of weeks after NCAAs and you told me you'd already sort of caught German out on the golf course running when he wasn't supposed to be running. I mean, it seems like he's got a real high work ethic in addition to the talent. Is that ...?

DS: No doubt about it. No doubt about it. I think probably one of the hardest-working guys I've ever been around is Ryan Vail. And German Fernandez is probably equally hard-working ... with a little less self control at this point. I mean he just wants to be out there. He does not want a day to go by where he's not improving. And so even now, he's on the bike. He wants to bike 90 minutes, then he wants to come in and get on a weight routine and he's asked us to develop a weight routine for him and he wants to go to the pool, he wants to get on the Alter G. I mean, he just gets paranoid that people are outworking him. He doesn't want to be outworked. And I think that's what's gonna ultimately be what makes him great, but it's also gonna be a little bit of his weakness, because he ... he will overwork himself if you let him. He's willing to do too much.

LRC: He's already doing all that stuff? I mean I haven't even recovered from my jet lag.

DS: Yeah, he got back the next day, was on the bike for 90 minutes or two hours or whatever it was. He came in and did the Alter G for 45 minutes and then went and got on the bike and he's just extremely focused on becoming better and he does not want to feel like someone's outworking him. You know, he feels like any given day, if he's not doing something, somebody is. And somebody's gaining on him or passing him or distancing themselves from him and he does not want that situation. So you've got to pull the reins on him a little bit and try to calm him down and say, like I said, you gotta point out to him, "Listen, you weren't running in the middle of December and you ran 3:56, you know, a month later. You can take some time off." You know, one of the things he said after that race was, "I feel so good. My legs are fresh. I felt great today." And I say, "Remember how you felt then? And when your legs were fresh? And a little break was good for you. A little break'd probably be good for you now." And he gets it now, so he's not pushing to run and he's accepted the fact that we're gonna go to the bike for a week and see if his foot cools down and feels better again and we'll just kind of honestly play it by how his foot responds.

LRC: Well good. Well, thanks for your time and good luck outdoors. Hopefully ... hopefully I'll finally get somebody to the NCAA meet! Maybe we'll see you out there.

DS: Yeah, that'll be good, man. You'll get someone there.

            
  

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