The importance of history is often overstated yet underappreciated. Unless you are affiliated with IU’s cross country program.
It has been 20 years since its last Big Ten title and 69 years since its last national championship, but don’t let the large numbers fool you. IU’s cross country team is steeped in tradition, dating back to the early 20th century.
“Our cross country program has always been a very honored part of Indiana track and field,” said Chuck Crabb, assistant athletics director for facilities, who is now entering his 36th year in the department.
Indiana has seen its cross country team produce three team national championships in 1938, 1940 and 1942. It has also been witness to five individual national titles from four people, including Fred Wilt (’41), Kim Betz (’87), Michelle Dekkers (’88) and Bob Kennedy (’88, ’92).
The roots of success, though, began to emerge in the 1930s and 1940s during the era of track and field/cross country head coach Billy Hayes and research scientist and assistant coach Dr. Sid Robinson.
Their tag-teaming guided IU to eight Big Ten championships. Hayes’ dominance persuaded the NCAA to recognize his success by creating the Billy Hayes Memorial Trophy, which was awarded to all national cross country champions until the 1970s.
“When you go back to the ’30s, there were just unbelievable performances under Billy Hayes and Dr. Sid Robinson,” Crabb said.
The success of the program, however, faded somewhat after Hayes’ retirement and later death in 1943.
In the time since, the program has seen its fair share of peaks and valleys as a team but has managed to produce a steady number of individual stars.
“Coming in, I didn’t know a ton, but I knew they had been pretty good in the past,” redshirt junior Andy Bayer said. “I didn’t know all about the sweet history I know now.”
Some of that sweet history includes the IU men’s cross country team reaching the NCAA championships 33 times, ninth most among all Division I schools. There have also been 40 Hoosier participants in the Olympics, which have produced 13 medals.
One of those Olympians was Bob Kennedy, who head coach Ron Helmer said affected his decision to come to IU as the head coach in 2007.
“I knew Bob Kennedy, and for (him) it had been a really great experience,” Helmer said. “Part of (coming here) was the challenge of building something at a place where there is tradition.”
Since Helmer joined the Hoosiers, the team’s trajectory has shot upward. The men finished seventh last year, and the women appeared in the NCAA championships for the first time since 2004. But both teams have higher expectations.
“We have a legitimate shot of winning a national championship if everyone does everything right,” Bayer said.
Fifth-year senior Andrew Poore agreed with that assessment and said the future is bright for this team. He said as long as coach Helmer chooses to stick around, it would be hard to imagine the Hoosiers getting knocked out of the top 10.
That shouldn’t be a problem for Helmer, who said he has no plan of stepping away any time soon.
“I absolutely like where we’re headed,” he said. “If I didn’t, I’d quit.”
The sky’s the limit for a Hoosier team that continues to recruit class after class of talented young runners. And the success is not hard for Helmer to envision.
“We’re definitely going to compete for top 10 finishes and national championships, and we’ll just keep rolling along,” he said.