Is Northern Arizona Poised for A Three-Peat? Are We Witnessing The Building of A Dynasty in Flagstaff?

November 23, 2017

When the Northern Arizona Lumberjacks pasted the field by scoring 74 points at Saturday’s NCAA Cross Country Championships in Louisville, they became the fifth men’s team in the last 16 years to win two consecutive NCAA XC titles. None of the previous four were able to add a third straight title, though the last three — Oregon in 2009, Oklahoma State in 2011, and Colorado in 2015 — came agonizingly close, finishing second at NCAAs in their three-peat bids.

We acknowledge that it’s very early to be talking about this stuff. Transfers, injuries, and unforeseen circumstances can change a lot in 12 months. But given how NAU dispatched its challengers last weekend and the fact that the Lumberjacks return five of their top six next year — including three of the top eight runners in the country in Matt BaxterTyler Day, and Peter Lomong — it’s hard not to think that a three-peat is very much a possibility for NAU in 2018.

(Editor’s note: In our NCAA recap, we said we didn’t think Baxter had eligibility left for XC as he was listed as a senior on NAU’s website, but NAU’s site now lists him as a junior. We confirmed with NAU that he was indeed granted another year of XC by the NCAA).

NAU - The 2017 National Champions- photo by Mike Scott NAU — the 2017 national champions. photo by Mike Scott

In the short term, Baxter, Day, and Lomong give the Lumberjacks a great chance to become the first men’s school to win three straight titles since Arkansas did the same from 1998 to 2000. In the long term, NAU has several advantages that figure to keep the talent pipeline rolling. The school’s location in one of the country’s training meccas — name a prominent American runner from the last decade and chances are he or she has trained in Flagstaff at some point — is one of the biggest. Situated at 6,900 feet, the city is high enough to reap the benefits of living at altitude but is less than an hour’s drive from a spot like Sedona (elevation: 4,300 feet) where you can turn it over on the track without feeling like death. Northern Arizona coach Michael Smith is a Flagstaff guy through and through, having trained there as a post-collegiate and founded Team Run Flagstaff, and he can extol its virtues as well as anyone.

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The city’s popularity with distance runners makes NAU’s track a valuable piece of real estate in the spring, but the benefits outweigh the drawbacks.

“We gotta call ‘track,'” Smith said. “We’ve gotta say, ‘lane one.’ Our sprint coach is over there, Mo Farah almost hit him during our sprint practice. Those aren’t normal problems that you have usually in a college practice…

“It’s a busy place but some of that’s really good for us too because these guys have access and influence to a lot of great personalities in town, people that have had hard roads. When you think your injury is the end of the world, and then we can tell you a story of a guy that you saw in the coffee shop this morning that had surgery and things like that. All that stuff is really good for our athletes.”

Being located in a vibrant running community doesn’t just help the athletes. Smith has been able to pick the brains of coaching legends such as Jack Daniels and Dan Pfaff, the latter of whom informed Smith’s peaking strategy at NCAAs. Pfaff told Smith that there are three key variables when it comes to coaching — density, intensity, and volume — and that you can only change one at a time. So the week before nationals, NAU still had several guys running upwards of 85 miles.

Us distance coaches, we pull back way too much and we leave them very lethargic,” Smith said.

While Smith overall coaching philosophy draws from several sources, he credits one man above all for helping the Lumberjacks succeed this fall.

“I’m the head coach, but this is as much Eric Heins’ national championship,” Smith said, referring to the longtime NAU coach who stepped away from the sport after last season. “I could not do what I do this year without his support. But also, I’m a year in and I got handed a really wonderful team culture, I got handed wonderful athletes. I got handed just a really fantastic situation. I got the pressure, I gotta make it work, but Coach Heins taught me a lot. I’m not sure I would coach the same way I did this fall without being able to work with him coaching last fall. Ten years from now, maybe that one will be mine. This one, we gotta share though.”

Success also breeds success. In addition to back-to-back NCAA titles, NAU has now landed on the podium seven times in the last 11 years — the most of any team in the country during that span. That track record speaks loudly to recruits, as does the fact that NAU has succeeded in developing both U.S. (Day) and international (Baxter) talent.


Okay, before we hand NAU the next three national titles, let’s pump the brakes. NAU has had a great run of recent success, and is positioned as well as any team in the country to sustain that success moving forward. And while training in Flagstaff offers its share of benefits, NAU is hardly the only school with a recruiting advantage to exploit. Colorado and BYU are both located at altitude as well. Oregon has Phil Knight‘s Nike money. Oklahoma State has T Boone Pickens’ cash. Stanford has the Palo Alto weather and a world-class educational reputation.

Then there’s this thing called recency bias. A school strings together a couple of titles, an article like this one explains how they did it, and suddenly it becomes impossible to envision them losing. Man, with the advantages they have, they should be winning every year.

But in a sport like cross country, where the championship is determined by your performance in a single 30-minute race, it rarely works out that way. Your #1 guy might be just a little off at nationals. Another team might run out of its mind. In the right environment, with the right coach, putting together a string of podium appearances is tough but doable. Putting together a string of championships is significantly harder.

There isn’t a lot of error at the NCAA Cross Country Championships. At first glance, it appears that NAU dominated the team competition this year — the Lumberjacks’ 53-point margin of victory was the largest since 2012. Yet if NAU’s #3 had run 10 seconds slower and their #4 & 5 had run 20 seconds slower (just three seconds a mile for #4 and #5) then Portland would have been your national champions.

Additionally, while NAU returns three from the top eight, they aren’t the only team returning a lot of firepower up front. Stanford returns three from the top 15 in the team scoring. Alabama returns two from the top seven and three from the top 30. So it appears that 2018 will be all about who can develop or bring in a #4 and #5.

Plus, as an astute messageboard poster pointed out, the last time a men’s team was poised to return three guys from the top 10 was after the 2010 champs, where Oklahoma State won its second title in a row — just like NAU this year — and its top three went 7-8-9. In actuality, Oklahoma State returned its entire top seven (which placed 5-6-7-25-30-54-137 in the team scoring) but they didn’t win it all in 2011 as they were second to Wisconsin (OK State did win its third title in four years in 2012).

And while Smith did a masterful job of guiding NAU this year to the title after taking over for Heins, we probably should remind people what happened the last time a coach took over for a head coach who departed on top after winning a national title. In 2002, Stanford won it all under all under Vin Lananna with a really low score of 47. The next year under Andy Gerard, Stanford was even better — the Cardinal won again (their fourth title in eight years) with a mind-boggling 24 points. However, Stanford has not won since as they found things to be a lot tougher once their senior-laden 2003 team was gone.

And while a three-peat is a possibility for NAU, if they did win in 2018, it would be with a very senior-laden team, so we probably shouldn’t even be discussing the “D word” — dynasty — at this point. We know one thing: Smith wouldn’t like that we’re even contemplating it. He is the first to point out that talk is cheap.

“There’s so much talk about this stuff,” Smith said after watching the Lumberjacks win on Saturday. “Talk, talk, talk, talk, talk. We just stayed away from that talk…The talk isn’t real.

And right now, that’s all that an NAU three-peat is: talk. Check back in 12 months to see if it’s real.

If you didn’t see our post-race interview with Coach Smith, it’s below.

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