Sean Cleary believes West Virginia University is about to enter a “world class” track and field conference in the Big 12.
“The SEC and the Big 12 are everything,” WVU’s sixth-year coach explained. “The Big East was a very good track and field conference, but I’d say the Big East was always about a fifth- or a sixth-best conference the country. The Big 12, in my opinion, in various events is flirting with the best or the second-best conference in the country, rivaling the SEC.”
Cleary says Big 12 track and field is particularly strong in the sprints, jumps and throws – areas that have typically not been WVU’s strong suits in the past.
“You look at the results over the last five or six years, that is where they are,” Cleary said.
West Virginia’s track and field reputation has been built in the distance events (Cleary’s forte) and he says that will continue as the Mountaineers move into the Big 12.
“If I look at the strengths and weaknesses in our program over the last 20 years - not just the last four or five - when you look at the athletes we have had who can compete in the Big 12, it’s definitely the distance runners who can contribute (immediately),” he said. “We’re certainly not going to shy away from that.
“Beyond that, I am going to isolate an event area and that will always be determined by who my No. 1 assistant is and what their strengths are,” he added. “We are going to invest the appropriate amount of money to allow them to handle the Big 12 demands and the national demands. Then we’re going to let the chips fall where they may.”
Initially, West Virginia will likely have to approach the Big 12 track and field championships as a means to an end – specifically, to qualify athletes for the NCAA championships.
“I’d much rather save the kids’ legs from the Big 12 meet, rather than double-up a great distance runner in the 5 and 10K in order to allow them the opportunity to go to the national meet and potentially score,” he said. “I’d rather do that than burn a kid out in the conference meet when you are possibly fighting for seventh or eighth place.”
Since Cleary took over the head coaching reins in 2007, either track or cross country has enjoyed a top 20 finish every year, and Cleary believes his cross country program, having made four top 10 finishes at nationals in the last five years, is ready-made to compete in the Big 12. Because of that, Cleary says West Virginia’s identity at the outset will be very similar to that of Iowa State’s women or Oklahoma State’s men.
“There are a lot of programs that choose where they want to focus. For example, Oklahoma State has dominated cross country on the men’s side winning two national titles and as a track and field program they are finishing near the bottom at the Big 12 track championships,” he explained. “Iowa State, you can say the same thing on the women’s side.
“On the flip side of that, teams that have been winning the track and field championships, they are at the very bottom of the cross country. There are a few trying to do everything – they are trying to be good in cross country and very strong in track – but there is not one school in the Big 12 I see that has both a national-class cross country program and a national-class track program.”
That means West Virginia will probably have its work cut out to compete for Big 12 track and field championships right away, especially now that eight-time All-American Chelsea Carrier-Eades
“For our program, it’s a very difficult time to be going into the Big 12,” Cleary admitted.
Looking into the future, Cleary said his best option is to continue to focus on the program’s strengths as the athletic department makes a full transition into the Big 12 – both competitively and financially.
“I really feel like in the future our facilities will become better and as they do, and our resources are in place, I think the next question will be: Can we have a very competitive Big 12 track and field team while maintaining a national-class cross country program?
“When it becomes feasible, that is the direction this program should be going in at the appropriate time. For the time being, though, I think we have to stay with what has worked.”
Cleary says he will also continue to do what is in the best interests of his athletes’ careers.
“If kids choose to come to West Virginia to run in our program, they know their careers are going to be taken care of as individuals and when they rise to the level that they can help us, they’ll shine at the national scene and help put us back into the Top 25,” he said. “We’ve been in there every year for the last five years.
“We’re going to rebuild it. If we would have been in here 18 months ago, we would have met the demands of every aspect of the Big 12. Eighteen months from now, hopefully we will be back at that point. And I don’t see any reason why we won’t be,” he concluded.Check out Antonik's new book The Backyard Brawl: Stories from One of the Weirdest, Wildest, Longest Running, and Most Intense Rivalries in College Football History available in bookstores this fall. A portion of the sales benefit the WVU Department of Intercollegiate Athletics. Also, be sure to "Like" the new Backyard Brawl Facebook page and tell us your personal WVU-Pitt story.