Following His Heart
Sept. 6, 2007
by Jeff Smith
At age 65, it can be said without much doubt that Al Carius has led a successful life.
A native of Morton, Ill., Carius has lived his whole life in his home state and has really never had a reason to run away. Except of course for when he "made a mistake" by enrolling at the University of Kansas instead of pursuing his dream. Shortly thereafter, he rectified his mistake and "followed his heart" to Champaign, Ill., where he would later become a Big Ten Champion.
Carius is one of the Fighting Illini's and the Big Ten's top distance runners, having claimed consecutive conference cross country championships in 1962 and 1963. He is one of only 18 Big Ten runners to record multiple individual conference titles. In addition, Carius claimed the two-mile run title at the Big Ten Outdoor Championships in 1963.
But Carius only had the 1962 and 1963 seasons to compete in Champaign. Back then freshmen were not eligible to compete and because he initially chose to attend Kansas, which had won two straight NCAA Track & Field Championships prior to his arrival, he was forced to sit out his sophomore year as a transfer.
"I did not become eligible to compete until the indoor track season of my sophomore year," Carius said. "I always wanted to go to Illinois - it was my dream - but I was very naïve about the bigger world when I was younger and I just went to Kansas because I had relatives there. I didn't even make my college decision until after I graduated high school."
Following a two-year stint as a graduate assistant at Illinois, Carius traveled to North Central College in Naperville, Ill., to take over the reigns of the cross country and track programs in 1966. At that time, no one would have been able to imagine the dynasty he was about to build.
Now in his 42nd year at the Division III school, Carius has been responsible for bringing 17 national championships and 12 national runners-up showings in 34 years of Division III competition. His teams, who won three-straight NCAA Division III Championships from 1997-99, have finished out of the top four just three times. In track, Carius has guided his teams to four NCAA Division III Outdoor Track and Field Championships and one NCAA Indoor Track and Field title.
The dominance of Carius' teams is even more visible at the conference level. North Central has won 33 consecutive College Conference of Illinois & Wisconsin (CCIW) Championships and 40 of 47 overall.
Carius has been honored with distinction on several occasions, specifically when he was tabbed as cross country "Coach of the Century," as well as being named a five-time NCAA Division III Cross Country Coach of the Year.
"It's very satisfying to look back and see what we have accomplished here, but there is so much more to it," Carius said. "I think at every place you try to find young men with talent, but also with character which you can continue to develop. Being a smaller school, we don't need major contributors as freshmen. We have time do develop them and I feel really good about the consistency we have had training young people to be successful."
When asked to compare life as a student-athlete in the 1960s to life as a student-athlete today, Carius is quick to bring up the concept of team versus individual. He speaks passionately about how significant the dual meets were to his Illini squad in the 1960s. His most memorable experience at Illinois was being able to contribute to the team.
"The thing I really loved about the Big Ten is that there was this team atmosphere in track and field," he said. "The Big Ten Championship was always our main goal. I remember I used to double in the mile and two-mile events in track to contribute to the team total. It always made me proud."
But 40-plus years as a college coach with no squad-size limits has led to a different opinion as to where college sports, specifically in cross country and track and field, has become more centered around the individual.
"In our sports I think we have become a little more time-oriented, a little more individualistic," he said. "I think a little bit of the team aspect has been lost and now everyone is focused on making time and distances and qualifying for the national championship. It's no longer the old-fashioned dual meets and conference championships. That was everything to us at Illinois."
But perhaps that opinion is skewed a little with the fact that North Central College has dominated the conference scene over the past 33 years. The Big Ten is also in the midst of cross country dynasties, with the Wisconsin men's squad looking for its ninth-consecutive conference title in 2007, while the Michigan women will be running for their sixth-straight.
Carius is not solely focused on team performance however. His philosophy over the years has been "Run for Fun and Personal Bests," and he is the first to admit that can easily be misconstrued.
"It doesn't mean you are laughing all the time, but it means it's a perspective," he said.
Carius elaborates by telling the story of when Ted Haydon, U.S. distance coach at the 1968 Olympics, was walking to the start line with standout Jim Ryun. The runner asked his coach to say a prayer for him. When Haydon refused and Ryun asked why, Haydon replied with "I'll save (my prayer) for something important."
"That's just it," Carius said. "There is more important things in life than running. I want everyone in our program to maximize their God-given talent, but I expect everyone to meet the second part of my philosophy, personal bests. Part of the fun is seeing you get better."
When asked about his memories of Illinois, the veteran coach is quick to point out how attending the university was a dream come true. He talks about having classes with football legend Dick Butkus and having former Illinois head football coach Pete Elliot as a teacher.
His memories of the Orange and Blue are still being made today. When Carius was the athletics director at North Central Colllege, he hired Hank Guenther as football coach, who in turn hired his brother, Ron, as associate head coach. Ron would later be named Illinois' director of athletics, a position in which he still serves today.
But perhaps one Illinois connection that makes Carius most proud is the fact that a former All-American of his at NCC, Wendel McRaven, is now the men's cross country and distance coach for the Illini.
"I live vicariously through him and still feel as if I'm at Illinois," Carius said.
This fall, NCC is focused on its 34th straight conference cross country championship. And now that he has reached a point in his life where retirement is acceptable, Carius explains now is not the time to leave.
"I think what we are doing today in college athletics is more relevant in young people's lives that it ever has been. (Former UCLA basketball coach) John Wooden always talked about building champions from the inside out and I feel very motivated that that is my mission right now."
At least that is what his heart is telling him.