Thursday, November 08, 2012

Catching up with San Francisco State University coach, Tom Lyons...

Today we chat with San Francisco State University coach, Tom Lyons.  This past Saturday, his boys' team qualified for Nationals with a 4th place finish at the NCAA Division II West Regional Championship at the Kahuku Golf course in Kahuku, Hawaii (Not a bad gig!).  This was the first ever trip to Nationals for the Gators as a team.  Previous to his 8th years at SFSU, Tom coached at Redwood HS in the mid 90s and early 2000s and began his coaching career at Marin Academy (both in NCS).  In 2004, Tom was named the NCS Honor Coach for Cross Country.  

1)  What sports did you participate in during your youth before high school?  Highlights?
I played football, basketball, and baseball. Started running some road races heading into high school when I realized I was too short for the other sports.

2)  Where did you go to high school?  What sports did you do there and what were some of your highlights?
I grew up in Connecticut and went to Xavier High School in Middletown. They had a strong running program and I had started looking into that sport after one of my friends began running in 8th grade. Our team won the overall state championship in cross country the first two years and then we were 5th and 3rd. The track team won 100 dual meets in a row at one point (we got on TV) and our cross country team had a similar streak. I did 12 seasons - 4 years of xc/indoor/outdoor.

3)  Who were the most influential coaches for you as a competitor?  What did you learn from them that you use to this day?
My Dad helped coach my youth teams. He was a college basketball player and knew about being an athlete. He ran marathons after college. My high school xc/track coach, Robert Michalski, had a huge influence on all of us. His impact was the greatest. The environment he created at Xavier was incredible. I didn't realize it at the time, but he put everything into making us feel that we were doing something amazing. I called him after I started coaching and thanked him once I actually realized how much work coaching is. After college, while running with the Tamalpa Runners, I met Mike Fanelli. All my training plans and general approach to training/racing can be traced back to Mike. He is SF State's 10K school record holder coincidentally. However, he has coached so many in the Bay Area and has an incredible influence in the running community locally and nationwide. Such a great ambassador for the sport and he's been a big influence in my own running as well as coaching.

4)  How about your college xc and tf experiences?  Highlights?
I went to the University of Connecticut. I picked it for the Engineering school. I took the first year off from the team but ran on my own (did a marathon). I went out for the team the rest of the time there (ran four years of XC and a couple track seasons). We had a coaching change my junior year - Greg Roy came in and he is still there. The overall track program has always been strong and still is. Cross country is not much of a focus. I wound up winning a dual meet my last season. That was a highlight, but it had more to do with holding out our top 3-4 guys. I went to three Big East Championship cross country meets. I had no business being among that group, but I did work real hard to do as best as I could. Our team was like that - a bunch of blue collar guys. I'm grateful to Coach Roy for allowing me to be a part of his early years.

5)  What led you into coaching?  Do you teach as well?  What do you currently teach and coach?
I started working as an Engineer out of college and continued running. From high school, I always thought I wanted to coach - I think that had to do with Coach Michalski. I was fascinated how he looked at the sport so many different ways and had so much success. After a few years in the "real world," I decided to be self-employed and that allowed me to start coaching. For all the years coaching high school and even into college coaching, I was able to run my own business with a couple clients (building and programming automated machines in various industries). Currently I am just a coach - cross country head coach and assistant in track (coaching distance runners).

6)  Where did you get your start coaching?  What did you learn from that experience?
I was an assistant at Marin Academy with Dave Geoffrion in the fall of 1993. He related so easily to the kids on the team. That helped me a lot as I went to Redwood High School to be the Head track/xc coach in the spring of 1994.

7)  Tell us a little about your Redwood HS coaching experience.  How long did you coach there?  Accomplishments?
I started out in the 1994 track season and coached both track/xc for many years before cutting back in track season and then not coaching at all in the track the last three years (xc only). My last season was the 2004 cross country season. In the 12 years of coaching high school, I took a team or individual(s) to the state meet 11 of those years. My boys teams at Redwood in cross country and track had a lot of success and we had a really strong program (3rd in xc state in '98 and section track champs around that time too. Our girls made the state meet too and were better teams in my later years there. Jake Schmitt won the state meet and made it to Footlocker in my last season. I had great assistant coaches which led to most of our accomplishments.

8)  How did you end up coaching at San Francisco State?  What was the state of the program when you started there?  What changes did you have to make?
I planned to stop coaching at Redwood and was interested in coaching college. It worked out that the position opened up here and one of my former Redwood athletes (Josh Babiak) was on this team. When I arrived in the fall of 2005, Josh was in great shape and running well. He went on to become a DII All-American that season (the third ever at SF State). It took many years to develop the idea of being a college runner in this program. It's a huge lifestyle decision and it didn't exist when I arrived. Of course Josh understood it from our Redwood days, but it took longer for me to create an overall environment of dedication here than it did at Redwood. Our men and women teams progressed at about the same rate. I just looked for kids who I wanted to run with every day - men/women who love running and train on their own in the off-season. Pretty simple - get hard workers and the results follow.

9)  What have been some of your proudest accomplishments by your athletes and teams during your tenure at SFSU?
My main goal is to have the kids look back and say they had the time of their life running here. Making lifelong friends; learning a thing or two about the benefits of hard work; and taking an activity away from school that they can do for the rest of their life. I'm happy for all those that enjoy it here. Glad they had a good experience.
Josh and Anna Bretan are two All-Americans that I've coached. Both were local high school runners when I was coaching in the MCAL. Seeing our men's team develop into a nationally ranked program while we are one of only a few "cross country only" team to do so (we do not have an NCAA track program) is a big deal. I'm extremely proud of the men's performance this past weekend at the West region meet where we placed 4th and qualified to nationals. The first team in SF State history to do it. I feel like our women will be at the same level soon as well as they have moved into the top-10 regionally the past two years (and got a national ranking mid-season last year).

10)  If you were to go back and coach in high school now, what would you do differently considering your experience coaching college athletes now?
Not much. I would coach the same as I do now for the most part. I didn't chase results in high school. It was more about the experience and the journey. Same as college. In the case where a kid wants to go and run in college, I always made sure they were prepared with perhaps a little more mileage and some good racing.

11)  What is your advice for high school runners who want to compete at the college level?  What can they do in high school to better prepare for college training and competition?  
First thing I try to find out about a recruit is their interest in the sport. The ones who will do well in college are the ones who are interested in the lifestyle choices it takes to train like a college athlete. The commitment and interest in having "runner" as part of their identity. There are three characteristics of a runner who succeed in our program - work ethic, competitiveness, and ability. If you are missing the first two, it's probably going to be a short college career. Champions have all three. So to answer the question - a hard working, competitive kid with some amount of ability will do well in college. Worth mentioning as part of the "work ethic" would be someone who is self-motivated. In other words, I usually ask if kids run on their own in the off-season. That's a big one.

12)  Anything else you would like to add. 
Thanks. I still enjoy following the MCAL, NCS, and of course the state news as well. I think it would be great for every college coach to start out as a high school coach. It certainly has made me a much better college coach.

Thank you very much for your time Tom!  AJC

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