The Tri-Cities is home to a national powerhouse, and that program has been a hidden gem in Carter County. The Milligan Cross Country and Track and Field program has been making noise for years on the national stage. Is dynasty too strong of a word to describe Milligan’s dominance in the Appalachian Athletic Conference? With 12 straight AAC titles in women’s cross country along with countless individual champions, dynasty may not be strong enough.
All this success has occurred under the direction of Head Coach Chris Layne. Layne, who combines careers in coaching and sports management, has quickly turned the program into what it is today. Layne recently sat down with us to talk about the success and the future of the program.
1. How did you get your start in coaching and what brought you to Milligan?
I started as a student-assistant at Middle Tennessee State while I was finishing up my undergraduate degree. At that point, I knew I wanted to stay in the sport. During the summer of ’96 I worked as support staff for the medical team at the Olympic Games and then took a GA position at East Tennessee State to work with the new head coach, Milan Donley. Milan had just arrived from Arkansas to take over for Dave Walker. It was Milan’s guidance and direction that really solidified how much I enjoyed coaching at the collegiate level. I left coaching for a brief period to start a career in sport management and then the opportunity at Milligan College presented itself. This was an opportunity to start something from scratch and take everything I had learned from the exposure to the sport and from so many great role models and apply it to my own philosophy.
2. Who were some of your mentors that helped mold you?
I tried to learn something from ever coach I worked with along the way. From some it was how not to do things, but from most, it was how to do it right. All of my college coaches had a positive impact on my own coaching career – Mark Block, Mike Dixon and Dean Hayes. My high school coach at Murfreesboro Oakland, Melvin Daniels, recently passed away, and more than ever I’ve been able to reflect on how he operated as a coach and a school administrator. He had an edge but you could always see the passion in his eyes. During my second week at Milligan, I went in early on a Monday morning and there was a fax waiting on me. It was from Joe Vigil. Joe congratulated me on my new position and over the next few weeks he continued to fax me ideas on philosophy and training. Here was one of the greatest distance coaches in the world taking the time to reach out. Coach Vigil and Milan Donley were very close and both of them took a real responsibility of educating and guiding young coaches the right way. I now realize how much of an advantage I had being exposed to both of these guys early in my career. While all of the good coaches spend late nights in the office, there were many times we would find ourselves on the chalk board writing up training. Milan would challenge us to learn and we had to learn fast because it was a small staff and the program relied heavily on GA’s. Our Christmas gifts were books on training and methodology from the likes of Tudor Bompa and Dr. Jack Daniels.
3. What is your style of coaching?
I like to think we run a tight ship and do everything we can to pay attention to detail. Within our four walls, I think we make the same decisions that are being made at some of the best programs in the country. How I handle a situation in 2014 might be different than how I handled it in 2000. These young adults have changed since I started coaching, and I think coaches have to recognize the personality traits of their personnel and adapt. How you handle things with an experienced squad of juniors and seniors might be different than having a young squad of all freshmen and sophomores.
4. What is your training philosophy?
I think it’s extremely important to build the training around your student-athletes. Obviously there are characteristics that define our system but I don’t think anyone outside the sport realizes how much tweaking takes place on a regular basis. We’re not a high-mileage program but if we get an athlete that comes from higher-mileage, we’ll adapt the system to make sure they’re progressing the right way. In the NAIA, we have the unique opportunity to run the marathon, so while we’re preparing our teams to run the traditional track events, we’re also preparing another group to be ready to tackle the marathon – there’s a ton of range to each and every practice session. I believe there is a real danger in picking up a Runners World and hypothetically reading about a pro athlete running a 12 mile tempo run and thinking “Hey, that’s what I need to do next week” without taking into consideration how he or she got to that point, how they prepared and recovered before and after. A lot of folks ask what the real key is to running fast and I believe it’s doing the right workouts at the right time but the recovery program and how you taper will have a huge impact as well. We’re always thinking big picture versus immediate results.
5. How do you develop your philosophy around the athletes you are coaching?
First and foremost, I think it’s important to really know each athletes history as it relates to their quality of high school coaching and development, specific volume of training, durability and event projection. For example, I’ve always taken the line that you can’t run a 10k until your sophomore year and you can’t run the marathon until your junior year, but last year we signed Brandon Ellis, a freshman from Oklahoma. One of Brandon’s brothers was a national champion in the marathon and his other brother was an All-American in the marathon. Brandon showed us tremendous durability and he also displayed the right mindset to take on the marathon, so after a lot of thought we moved in that direction and he went on to finish 13th at our national championships in his first season with the program.
6. Could you provide a sample of a training session?
One of the workouts we really like during cross country is the race simulation session I took from Kevin Jermyn who was at Duke University at the time. You start with a fast rep to simulate the first part of the race (600-1500m), then settle in to a series of reps (400-600m) at race rhythm, then finish with a fast rep (600-1500m) and then a series of fast 200m reps. We adapt this depending on where we are in the season and how they’re progressing. Very seldom will we do the same workout twice, but this particular workout provides a benchmark at a couple key points in the season.
7. What makes your program at Milligan different from other institutions? What makes it unique?
As an institution, Milligan College has really started to separate itself from other regional colleges/universities that historically were considered very similar. Academically, we’ve continued to raise our profile and have now ranked as one of the top 10 colleges in the South. Having the opportunity to build a truly high-end education around a high-end athletic experience will no doubt continue to position us well down the road. Running is an individual sport, and the last time I checked, there are more than 30 former NAIA cross country/track and field athletes active at the professional level, so an athlete isn’t missing out on the high-caliber development. Look at Christian Brewer. Here was one of the top distance runners in Tennessee out of high school. He signed a full-ride at a D-1 school and it wasn’t a good fit. He landed at Milligan and has now become one of the top collegiate distance runners in the region, regardless of being D-1 or NAIA.
8. How much has the program changed since your arrival?
The college decided to drop the program in the late 80’s so we were really starting from scratch in 1999. When I look back, I think we’ve stayed true to our overall philosophy but it’s still safe to say we’ve made significant changes every year. It goes back to adjusting the plan to fit your roster. The day a coach thinks they know everything there is to know, they better retire as quickly as possible – you can’t ever stop learning or you’re in big trouble. Distance running in America is as competitive as ever and coaching education is one of the big reasons. If you’re not keeping up, you’ll be exposed.
9. The women’s program has won numerous conference championships and has reached the national championship in cross country 12 consecutive times. What has been the contributing factor to the success of your women’s program?
I think it comes down to the culture of the program and ultimately the institution. We’re finding the right kind of women that make for a good fit off the field of play. Our women continue to create a competitive culture each and every day in practice and this carries over to race day. We talk about “being a product of the environment” and each year the women have done a nice job of creating an environment of success built around individual development and tradition.
10. Where do you see the cross country and track & field programs going in the next five years?
I think it’s pretty simple. We want to build on our current success. If we’re going to nationals every year, let’s finish higher the next. If we have 8 athletes going to outdoor nationals, let’s take 12 the next year. Continuing to build a strong sprint, hurdle, jumps and throws group around our distances will be key on the track side of things as well. The last 3-4 years we’ve been so fortunate to have a staff that is educated at a high-level and also shares the same mindset. They get the training and development and have really worked hard on the recruiting trail.