By Jack Pfeifer
Dick Weis is hanging them up on Monday in Terre Haute, Ind. There couldn’t be a better day for it, because the school where he has coached for 26 years, Oklahoma State, is a contender to win the NCAA Division I men’s cross country championships that afternoon.
“This is the end,” Weis said from his office in Stillwater, Okla. “Next Monday, it’s over.”
He has carefully passed on the reins of his team to a younger man, Dave Smith. “I tried to phase myself out,” Weis said. “Dave came here for an interview, and we hit it off pretty good.
“Two years ago I gave the cross country job to Dave, and now I will retire, and he’s going to take over the whole thing.
“Our philosophies are pretty much the same: Discipline. Go to class. We’ve been academic All-American 10 years in a row.”
Smith has more than bookworms on this fall’s cross country team; he has the horses, too.
“I think this is definitely the best team we’ve had at OSU in 50 years and maybe ever,” Smith said.
“They won the national championship here in 1954 and that was obviously a great team. But this group is really good.”
The Cowboys, led by a brilliant freshman from California and a Kenyan transfer from LSU, are ranked No. 2 in the country heading into the NCAA meet. In the final poll, they received 3 first-place votes; Oregon, the defending champions, received the other 9.
“We’ve got a chance to win this,” Weis said. “But Oregon is Oregon. They’re the champions until someone beats them.”
Oregon, led by Olympian Galen Rupp, who will be running his final cross country race as a Duck, won the NCAA West Regional handily. He is backed up by senior Shadrack Kiptoo-Biwott and freshman Luke Puskedra along with a long line of contenders for the other four spots on the traveling squad.
OSU is led by John Kosgei, who transferred from LSU over the summer and who finished 3rd in the Midwest Regional, and German Fernandez, the spectacular young runner from Riverbank, Calif., who won the Big 12 championship on his first try. They are backed up by the veteran Ryan Vail and by another outstanding freshman, Texan Colby Lowe.
“Dave’s done the recruiting,” Weis said of his young protege. “He’s built this team. It’s his team.”
He even has a young New Yorker on the squad, and that’s a story of its own, because Weis himself grew up in Flatbush. “It was walking distance to Ebbets Field,” he said, “and I certainly saw my share of Dodgers games.” Weis, who is 70, moved to White Plains at the age of 12 and graduated from Archbishop Stepinac.
After a stint in the Army, he earned degrees in Physical Education and Exercise from Kings College and from Lehman College graduate school, while also coaching the Gaelic American AC in the mid-1960s. Dr. Norbert Sander, now President of the Armory Foundatiion, was a member of that team, which won several national road-running titles.
His first head coaching job was at Albertus Magnus High School in Bardonia, where he coached the track and cross country teams, and from there he moved on to Monroe-Woodbury.
“At that point, we got out of North Rockland,” Weis said. After a few years at Missouri, he moved to Stillwater, in 1983. He became the head cross country coach a year later, the track coach in 1987.
“It was good for the family,” Weis said. “This is home. This is the place to be. I can play golf every day. I can fish every day.”
He has been married for 42 years and has five children, most of whom live nearby. One son, Ray, was first-string on the legendary Oklahoma State wrestling team, and another, Joe, is a successful college track coach in Kansas. His daughters, Kate and Elizabeth, live in the Midwest, and another son, Jeff, lives in Las Vegas.
Some of his previous runners send their own sons to him now, although it isn’t that easy to get the boys to leave Brooklyn.
“We’re recruited in New York over the years,” Weis said, “but not with much success. They’re city kids, you know what I mean? They’re used to that environment. They don’t necessarily want a college town.”
Then there’s Brad McNiff, who ran on the track and cross country teams at Pearl River. He’s now in his second season at Oklahoma State.
“Coach Weis is a very good coach,” Brad’s father, Howie McNiff, said. “I thought that it was a very good spot for my son.”
“Howie just called me up one day,” Weis said. Brad had spent his first year of college at St. Thomas Aquinas, near the New Jersey border. “I told him, ‘Sure, send him out, see if he likes it.’” He stayed.
Howie McNiff completes the circle for Dick Weis. “In my first year at Albertus Magnus, Howie was state cross-country champion, he ran 9:07 indoors, he beat Matt Centrowitz in the 2-mile,” Weis said. That was 35 years ago.
Howie ran four years for Fordham and is now a New York state court officer. His younger son, Stephen, 14, is a freshman on the cross country team. At Albertus Magnus.
Stephen’s older brother, Brad, is not good enough to make the Cowboys’ starting seven, but he may be in Terre Haute anyway. “He’s probably going there on his own,” Howie McNiff said, “with some of his teammates.
“I was definitely going, too, if Brad had been on the team. Now I’m 50-50 about going.”
His old coach, Dick Weis, will be there for sure.
West Coast women are the ones to beat
Washington and Oregon went 1-2 in the West Regional, both defeating the defending national champions from Stanford, and they are ranked 1-2 in the final national poll.
The Huskies won while resting their No. 1 runner, the freshman from Saskatchewan, Kendra Schaaf.
Oregon was 2nd to Stanford in last year’s NCAA meet. Washington has never won a track or cross country team championship.
The individual women’s favorite is Sally Kipyego, the two-time defending champion from Texas Tech. There has never been a three-time female champion in this race.
The East is well-represented, as Pete Farrell’s Princeton Tigers, the Ivy League champions, are ranked 4th in the country, West Virginia 5th, Villanova 7th.
On the men’s side, Stanford is ranked No. 3, just ahead of Mick Byrne’s Wisconsin Badgers. Byrne, in his first year at Madison, won the Big 10 Conference and Great Lakes Regional titles.
Byrne’s old school, Iona, under new Coach Ric Santos, moved up one spot to 7th in the final rankings after a dominant win in the Northeast Regional. The Gaels are led by senior Mohamed Khadraoui.
Oregon’s Rupp is the individual men’s favorite along with Samuel Chelanga of Liberty – the school that produced last year’s winner, Josh McDougal – plus regional winners Hassan Mead of Minnesota and Shadrack Songok of Texas A&M.
The Ducks have not had an individual winner of this race since Alberto Salazar won in 1978.
The races will be televised live on CSN as well as webcast just after noon Eastern time.