By Jonathan Gault
July 23, 2018
Reebok is back in the running game.
Later today the sportswear manufacturer will announce the formation of the Reebok Boston Track Club, naming former Syracuse University coach Chris Fox as head coach. The team’s first major signing is Justyn Knight, who put together an illustrious career under Fox at Syracuse that saw him win the 2017 NCAA cross country individual title, the 2018 NCAA indoor 5,000-meter title, and finish 9th in the 5,000 meters at the 2017 World Championships for Canada.
Reebok opened its new global headquarters in Boston’s Seaport District last year, and while the team will spend some time in its namesake city, Charlottesville, Virginia, will serve as the group’s main training base, where the team plans to use the University of Virginia’s track for workouts. In addition to Knight, the Reebok Boston Track Club will also include at its inception Jamaican Olympian Kemoy Campbell (13:20 pb) and American steeplechaser Tori Gerlach, the NCAA third placer in 2017 (9:46 pb), both of whom will be moving to Charlottesville. Martin Hehir (13:29/28:08), a teammate of Knight’s at Syracuse, will also be on the team, though he will remain in Philadelphia, where he is currently attending medical school.
Reebok is planning on adding more athletes by the end of the year; Fox said he expects the group, which will contain both men and women, to eventually include eight to 10 athletes, who will compete in events from the 1500 up to the marathon. Fox’s experience coaching marathoners is limited in number but not accomplishment, as he coached his wife Kristy Johnston to a second-place finish at the 2000 U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials.
Adam Smith, 30, who has worked under Fox for the past six years at Syracuse, will be joining Fox in Charlottesville as an assistant coach. Smith was best known at Syracuse for his recruiting efforts, where he played a key role in securing the commitment of Knight four years ago.
Reebok’s formation of a new elite pro track club marks a stark reversal from what the brand had been doing over the last decade. While the company sponsored the Reebok Enclave team in the 1990s and numerous pros in the 2000s, it made huge cuts to its running department in 2009. In 2013, it went further and basically got out of pro running altogether, forcing Reebok-sponsored pros like Olympic 1500 medallist Nick Willis to switch over to adidas, which owns Reebok. Aside from its sponsorship of developmental group ZAP Fitness, Reebok had been out of the professional running game since then. So why start a professional group now?
After all, adidas already sponsors a professional group in Boston, the B.A.A. High Performance team — though that group did take a hit when coach Terrence Mahon left at the end of 2017 and took the team’s best athlete with him, British miler Chris O’Hare.
“Our CEO (adidas CEO Kasper Rorsted), his view is we’re one company but two brands,” says Paul Astorino, senior director for specialized at Reebok, who will oversee the Reebok Boston Track Club. “Ten years or so ago, [Reebok president] Matt O’Toole outlined the brand ambition [for Reebok] to be the best fitness company in the world. And the group started on that journey and has done a really nice job of getting to a certain point. But three or four years ago, it was recognized that to be the best fitness company, we had to be in running…To get to the point where we are right now, we had to have superior product. And it’s not a negative comment on anyone, but four or five years ago, the product just wasn’t up to the level that we would put this type of runner in the product.”
“Now we’re ready to re-engage at the highest competitive level, which is important because if we’re going to be the best in the other sports that we participate [in] — CrossFit and others — and we want to be the best brand, then we need to be the best in running. And to do that, it’s our belief that you have to support the sport.”
It helps that O’Toole is a fan of the sport: his son, Garrett, was a 4:01 miler in high school and this winter captured the 2018 Ivy League mile title for Princeton. Matt O’Toole was watching his son compete at a meet at Princeton last year when he noticed some athletes competing for the Hoka ONE ONE NJ*NY Track Club.
“Matt was like, ‘What is that group, why don’t we have one?'” Astorino says.
Astorino declined to share how much money Reebok is committing to the project, but said that “we have a long-term plan; we’ve made some long commitments.” Fox said that, in the long run, the goal is to develop national champions and athletes that can compete at the world and Olympic level. Astorino will judge the group’s success not by medals, but by its ability to raise Reebok’s reputation in the running world.
“Syracuse was respected before they won their national championship,” Astorino said. “And that arc of success from zero to championship, somewhere in that arc, people began to really take note and respect what they were doing. And that’s what we’re hoping to achieve, that exact same arc. I don’t think [the medals] are as important as how we behave and the stories we’re creating along the way…The importance of what Chris accomplished at Syracuse is part of what inspired us to do the whole thing, and the way he was able to change opinions. That’s crucial to what we’re hoping to achieve.”
Fox’s task with the Boston Reebok Track Club is similar to the one he faced 13 years ago when he took the Syracuse job. Back then, Fox, now 59, inherited a program that had been a Big East bottom-feeder and, armed with a generous budget and the full support of Syracuse University athletic director Daryl Gross, was tasked with turning the Orange into a national power in the distance events. Over the next decade, Fox and his lieutenant, assistant coach Brien Bell, authored one of the most impressive turnarounds in collegiate running. Fox took a men’s program that had not been to the NCAA Cross Country Championships in over 30 years and transformed it into a perennial power, peaking with Syracuse’s upset of Colorado at the 2015 NCAA meet, the school’s first national title since 1951.
“I love Syracuse, Syracuse has been, obviously, a pretty great ride for me for the past 14 years, but this opportunity came up several months ago, and there’s only three or four of these jobs in the whole country,” Fox says. “It was appealing to me to take a chance and try something a little bit different.
“It was a very tough choice. I contemplated it back and forth for a long time. Maybe the transition was a little easier because it was kind of the end of the group that won nationals two years ago…I don’t know that there was ever going to be a right time. I could probably have coached here until I was 70 years old. But as I said before, you only get this chance maybe once. I’ve been doing this a long time and this professional opportunity, I was probably going to get one shot at it.”
Now instead of going up against schools such as Oregon and Colorado, Fox’s main competition will come from other professional training groups, such as Nike’s Bowerman Track Club and Oregon Project, the Brooks Beasts, and Hoka ONE ONE’s NJ*NY Track Club.
Unlike in college, however, there are no team scores in professional running, which means Fox will be taking a different view of the sport than he did at Syracuse, where he relished watching his team battle it out with the country’s top programs.
“We’re not trying to beat those guys,” Fox says of the other professional groups. “We’re just trying to have good people in our group. This is different than college…I just want to see my guys do great. And I want to see if what I do works at this level. And I think it does.”
One difference this time around? Fox will have a blue-chip talent (Knight) from the very beginning. At Syracuse, it took Fox years to build up to the kind of talent necessary to win a national title. Knight, who ran 8:07 for 3,000 meters as a high schooler, was one of the top recruits in North America in 2014 but elected to sign with Syracuse as opposed to one of the sport’s traditional powers. Reebok appealed to him for the same reason.
“I wanted to be a part of something special,” Knight says. “What I’m about to do, and what we’re about to do, actually, is try to create a new dynasty and a new program. As you know, I went to Syracuse, and a lot of people wondered why I went there. Some people thought I was making a mistake. But we ended up making a dynasty over there, and I plan to do the same with Reebok.”
Knight, who chose Ray Flynn as his agent, has one race remaining in his 2018 season as he will run the 5,000 at the NACAC Championships in his native Toronto on August 11. As a professional, Knight says he will plan to continue focusing on the 1500 and 5000, noting that he was especially proud of the 3:36.07 personal best he ran in April.
“When you run times like that, I’d rather use my speed while I’m young and then I can transition into the 10k as I get older,” Knight says.
Indeed, while the 5k is Knight’s best event at the moment, Fox has told Knight that his best event may ultimately be the 10k. Remember, this is a guy who came into college running 30 miles per week and won the NCAA cross country title while rarely running any weeks higher than the mid-60s.
“He can do more [miles]; it’s not a problem for him to do more,” Fox says. “We’ve just been judicious about it.”
Whatever event Knight runs, he will be shooting for the stars.
“When I train, when I compete, I want to be the best to do it,” Knight says. “And whether that’s likely or not, that’s something I’ll always be striving for. With that comes Olympic championships, hopefully a lot of big PRs and some fast times.”
There will be challenges along the way. Even more so than at the collegiate level, professional running is about talent, and talent costs money. How much money will Fox have to build his roster? And will he be able to convince top U.S. talent to eschew the established groups for an upstart? Knight is a blue-chipper, the best distance runner to come out of the NCAA this year, but he is Canadian. Campbell, the team’s next-best runner, is Jamaican; if the Reebok Boston Track Club is to make noise in the U.S., it will require at least one American star.
Fox was also a far more successful men’s coach than women’s coach at Syracuse. His men’s teams finished in the top 15 at NCAAs every year from 2009 to 2017, including a run of 5th-1st-3rd from 2014 to 2016. The women only cracked the top 10 once during Fox’s tenure (10th in 2010), though they did finish in the top 20 on three other occasions, only missing out on NCAA qualification twice in Fox’s final 10 seasons. Of course, Fox never had a talent as big as Knight to work with on the women’s team.
“I mean how often do you get a Justyn Knight, men or women?” says Fox. “You get a Marty Hehir and that changes the culture. We’ve had good women’s teams, we just haven’t quite hit it big. We haven’t quite got over the top. But I don’t know, it’s pretty special to get that men’s team we had. We’ve had great [female] individuals but just haven’t been able to get over the top healthwise or luckwise.”
Fox will be missed in Syracuse, and the feeling is mutual. He says he’ll miss coaching cross country most of all — that was the foundation of Syracuse’s success, and the team aspect is impossible to replicate at the professional level. When Fox thinks back to his proudest accomplishments at Syracuse, the 2015 national title is the first thing that comes to mind, but he also mentions his final ACC track championships in Miami. The Syracuse men finished second in that meet with 108 points (eight behind champion Florida State), 80 of them in the distance events, including a 1-2-3-4-6-7 finish in the 5000 to close out the meet.
“I kind of think the way we did at ACCs this year, we did it with hurdlers, distance runners, and one guy in the 100,” Fox says. “College coaching, to me that’s what it was all about.”
Moving forward, Fox believes the program is in good hands. Brien Bell, who has been with Fox since Day 1 at Syracuse, was named interim head coach upon Fox’s departure, and Fox fully expects him to earn the title permanently.
“I cannot imagine them going any other direction than to go with Brien,” Fox says. “You know him, he’s more than qualified. We treat each other as equals in this game and he’s ready to go…I would be stunned if Brien’s not the head coach. It’s just logical. He’s ready to do it, he’s got a great group, and I don’t see this program missing a beat.”
“Taking Care of Business” was the Syracuse motto under Fox, a nod to Elvis Presley, and Fox and Knight took care of plenty of business during their time in Central New York. But Knight is among the planet’s biggest Drake fans, and as Knight starts his next chapter, it’s more appropriate to borrow one of the Canadian’s most famous verses. The Reebok Boston Track Club is starting from the bottom. How high can it climb?
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Related. From The LRC Archives: The Rise of Syracuse: How a Cross Country Powerhouse Was Built From Scratch in 10 Years