April 30, 2007
When Penn State hosts the 2007 Big Ten Men's and Women's Outdoor Track & Field Championships on May 11-13, the weekend will actually be a chance for head coach Beth Alford-Sullivan to relax.
After adding the men's track and field and cross country programs to her résumé last May, the multitasking Nittany Lion mentor spent the indoor championships weekend splitting her time traveling between Bloomington, Ind., and Champaign, Ill., to spend a day with each team. For Alford-Sullivan, her program's chance to host the conference meet will not only be an opportunity for her teams to make a big statement in their home arena, but also the perfect showcase for the next era of Penn State track and field.
"We have some great competition stacking up, but we're right in the thick of it," she said. "I think it's going to be a great competition. We hope Happy Valley is just outstanding in support for the teams and their athletes. Our men hope to make a statement and let everybody know that we're going to be contenders in a handful of more years. We're ready to put on a great show for our crowd, and we're hoping for every advantage we can possibly find."
When longtime Nittany Lion coach Harry Groves announced his retirement after an illustrious 38-year career last spring, the athletic department did not have to look far to find to whom it should pass the torch. Since coming to State College to take over the women's cross country and track and field programs in 1999, Alford-Sullivan has proved she is undoubtedly prepared for the task.
She arrived in Happy Valley barely three weeks before the 1999 women's cross country season, but the aura around the program was intensely enthusiastic for the future. In her first full season, the track and field team rewrote 36 school records, including 19 indoor and 17 outdoor.
But one of the most important coaching philosophies Alford-Sullivan brought reinforces the idea of how to finish strong. While she knew raising the standards would be essential, holding her new team to expectations of immediate results would be unrealistic and potentially detrimental in the long run. Before Alford-Sullivan reached the helm at Penn State, the women's track and field program success relied primarily on the throws and distance programs. But with star athletes such as Connie Moore (2004) and Shana Cox joining the Blue and White, the team quickly developed its sprints, jumps and hurdles to find triumph across the board.
"Before I came into Penn State, I always looked at the Big Ten and thought that there are a lot of programs in the women's side that had their strengths in only certain areas but not necessarily across the board," Alford-Sullivan explained. "I always thought that if you got into the Big Ten and created a well-balanced team, you could pull off championships. I have a priority at Penn State to have a balanced team, and in my opinion I have a great track program to really get it done. It's really exciting to feel a full team presence, and I feel that is part of the mission to being a college coach - to produce a team at this level and not just an isolated area."
In 2003, the results started blossoming in a major way. The team leaped four spots to a third-place finish at the Big Ten Indoor Championships, marking its then-best-ever performance at the event. A couple months later, the Nittany Lions pulled off the same feat at the conference's outdoor meet as they tied Indiana for second, within 14 points of first.
With the league taking note, Alford-Sullivan's crew set out to make its presence felt around the nation. Behind Moore and Big Ten triple jump champion Chi Chi Abuba, the Nittany Lions scored a 10th place finish at the 2003 NCAA Championships.
The next year at the 2004 Big Ten Indoor Championships, seniors Moore, Abuba, Ja'Nai O'Connor and Sara Dougherty led the team to 115.00 points to beat two-time defending champion Michigan (98.33) for the school's first-ever conference crown in men's or women's track and field.
Moore, who closed out her career as an 11-time All-American, won both the 60- and 200-meter events in record-breaking fashion.
"[That group of seniors] was my first recruiting class, and they had been motivated from the start at Penn State as to what they wanted to do and how they could be a part of that history," Alford-Sullivan said. "I felt very confident when we entered that year and heading into the indoor season knowing that was our best shot. The team atmosphere and the chemistry were just so strong that we really felt we had the opportunity to pull it off."
Not only did they pull it off, but Alford-Sullivan's program has been able to sustain its level of competition among a fierce conference field ever since, finishing in the top three at the outdoor championships every year since 2003. At last year's event, Penn State took the podium 18 times, including five gold-medal appearances - two by Cox, the Athlete of the Championships, two more by All-American discus and hammer thrower Jennifer Leatherman, and one by the 4x400 relay team.
"When I inherited the women's program here we had been in a pretty big slump, kind of in the bottom of the Big Ten for a while, and the goal was to win a championship in the first five years that I was here," Alford-Sullivan said. "I put that out there the first year, and not only did we get it done but we have been keeping ourselves in the hunt for the next one.
"Between the Big Ten and the national scene we've really become a top presence. That's why I was really motivated to come to a place like Penn State where you can have that and you can get things done."
The philosophies Alford-Sullivan has instilled at Penn State have also earned her acclaim on the international level. After earning National Indoor Coach of the Year honors in 2004, she was named an assistant coach on the U.S. Olympic team for the Athens games where she was able to work with Moore, who earned her ticket as part of the 4x100 relay pool.
"I had a life-long dream of going to the Olympics, and knew a long time ago that it wasn't going to be through running fast," Alford-Sullivan said. "So I found a way to make that dream a reality. It was such an honor to be a part of the Olympics and to be in Athens just put it over the top. When Connie was selected to be on the relay pool, it was just a huge bonus. I have a picture of her in my office as we're dressed in our parade Opening Ceremonies uniforms - it was just a great honor to have a Penn Stater with me as we walked in."
The Olympic experience also put Alford-Sullivan back on the same roster as long-time mentor Vic Lananna, with whom she coached at Stanford from 1995-99. Lananna architected one of the nation's most respected men's and women's track and field programs at Stanford with five NCAA team crowns and 17 team title wins at the Pacific-10 Conference. Alford-Sullivan, the former Cardinal women's coordinator for cross country and track and field, played a crucial role in that lengthy list of accomplishments when she led the team to the 1996 NCAA title.
When she began merging Penn State's programs, Alford-Sullivan upgraded her already colossal year-round responsibility of keeping the women's programs among the nation's best to a commitment to putting all six squads to championship contention. She became one of five women in the nation to coach combined programs, and Alford-Sullivan said she is lucky enough to be close friends with all of them.
"That's when I think you have to have mentors and you have to have friends in the business that you can rely on," she said. "I'm lucky enough to have some great people who I've worked with and worked for, and have been really drawing upon their expertise in this transition."
Like her counterparts - Boston's Robyn Johnson, Cal Poly San Luis-Obispo's Terry Crawford, Sacramento State's Kathleen Raske and Wake Forest's Anne Schweitzer Bennett - Alford-Sullivan has seen the progress of women's track and field not only from her role as a sideline tutor but also as a former student-athlete.
The Nittany Lion head coach started her career in the Big Ten, as a three-time captain at Minnesota, where her father helped campaign the baseball team's 1960 NCAA title.
In 1989, she helped lead the Golden Gophers to their first NCAA Championships appearance in six years. By the end of her career, Alford-Sullivan knew she was destined to follow her father's footsteps and take on coaching.
"I knew right as I graduated college that I wanted to go into coaching," she said. "I was lucky enough to graduate in December and start coaching high school in the spring. The first day of high school coaching, I knew I wanted to move into the college coaching scene. I had grown up on championship sports, so it really kind of fit. I pretty much knew it was in my bones."
The former Gopher harrier said that she considers her days as a female student-athlete fortunate.
"I was lucky enough to be at a great place like Minnesota where, in that era, we felt like we had everything we needed," she said. "There was never a feeling of not being appreciated and not being aware of what women's athletics can become. Our sport has continued to grow."
And one of the main reasons women's track and field has flourished is dedicated proponents such as Alford-Sullivan herself, who continually works to develop the sport and currently serves as vice president on the U.S. Track and Field Coaches Board of Directors.
She says the forward progress is evident - especially at the international level where the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing will finally feature an equal number of track events for women and men by adding events to the women's competition like the hammer throw, triple jump, pole vault and steeplechase.
But perhaps the biggest indication of advancement is right in front her, as Alford-Sullivan is relying on her philosophies to help the Nittany Lion men's program catch up to the level of the women's.
"All these things have happened in my - what I think is relatively short - time in this career," Alford-Sullivan said. "I think that our women's athletics programs just continue to progress. Penn State took a risk at putting me at the directorship for our program here. That's saying a lot. That was a great showing of support, but it was also a tremendous show of being aggressive and believing everybody can be represented at high levels - that all the way through that success can be available to everybody."