Cross country coach has strong pedigree

No, Jay Bilas hasn’t shrunk. No, you haven’t seen him around town. And, no, new Kansas University distance coach Michael Whittlesey wasn’t driven out of North Carolina for looking too much like a Duke icon.

Whittlesey left on his own accord and brings with him an impressive record of success. At UNC, he coached Shalane Flanagan, the NCAA women’s cross country champion in 2002 and 2003. Flanagan competed in the 2004 Olympics and won a bronze medal in the 2008 Games. He coached two other Olympians and nine national champions in individual and relay competitions.

So why leave North Carolina for KU? The strict admission standards in Chapel Hill made it difficult for him to recruit the sort of depth he wants to coach.

“You couldn’t get that mid-level athlete you needed to get to come in as a walk-on and develop,” he said. “We weren’t able to get them into Carolina. They were great students, but still couldn’t get into UNC. The opportunity to be able to recruit those students is exciting.”

Whittlesey ran at UConn, was a graduate assistant there for six years, a coach at Charlotte for two and at North Carolina for 11. He talked about continuing the tradition of excellence in KU distance running, but is it really a continuation, or a resumption?

“A resumption,” he agreed. “Especially on the women’s side. I think we can develop the program on the women’s side. They went to nationals a couple of times years back. My job is to go there every single year. On the men’s side, I want to get back to where they were perennial powers on the national side every single year.”

Julia Saul (1992) was KU’s only woman to earn All-American status in cross country. Eighteen men have earned the distinction, most recently Benson Chesang (2004).

The trivia question to which the answer best exemplifies the rich Kansas distance-running tradition: Jim Ryun broke the world record in the mile with a 3:51.3 in 1966. Before that, who was the most recent American to break the world record in the event? KU’s Glenn Cunningham, who ran a 4:06.7 in 1933. Wes Santee and Billy Mills join Cunningham and Ryun to give Kansas a Mount Rushmore of distance runners. Those four and Charlie Gruber all competed in the Olympic Games, Gruber in 2004.

Cunningham, Santee, Mills, Ryun and three others — Herb Semper (NCAA champ, 1950 and 1951), Al Frame (NCAA champ, 1954), John Lawson (NCAA champ, 1965) — have statues at Rim Rock Farm, KU’s home cross country course.

“Talking to and sending e-mails to (recruits) about the heritage, they definitely know about it and are real excited about it,” Whittlesey said.

He’s an aggressive, confident guy who believes Kansas can attract big-time runners.

“It’s working hard and selling the program,” Whittlesey said. “You get athletes believing you’re going to make them better and the program’s going to make them better. You get more talent that way, and that’s the key.”

It always is. He has the personality to get it done.