Updated to show NC State Communications credit, January 8, 2016
Rollie Geiger is the second in a new series that we have requested from David Hunter. Once a month, David will be focusing his talents on an interview with a key coach in athletics.
I know Rollie Geiger by reputation. His breadth of knowledge, his concern for his athletes, and the development of his athletes and teams over the past three decades describes a man who understands what coaching is all about.
In my mind, anyone can explain training methods. Coaches build teams, coaches hone racing skills. Coaches are cheerleader, confessor, teacher, among other skills.
Coaches prepare one for life. Life is the big race.
Rollie Geiger gets that. In the following piece, David Hunter captures Coach Geiger for the readers of RunBlogRun. We hope that you enjoy it.
Leading The Way...
Rollie Geiger: Leader Of The Pack
NC State's Coach Is Revered Veteran
November 29th, 2015
For a majority of the more casual track & field fans, Rollie Geiger is not likely to be a household name. But among the more fervent followers of the collegiate version of our sport, the 6-time Atlantic Coast Conference track & field Coach of the Year who has guided the North Carolina State Wolfpack since 1979 is revered as one of the most successful and respected head coaches in the game today.
Geiger - who came to Raleigh from Bradenton, Florida after a successful stint leading perennial track power Bayshore High School - started with the Wolfpack as a distance coach before taking over the head coaching reins in 1985. Since that time, the affable former Kent State athlete has cultivated a steady string of superior track & field performers that has included, Bob Henes, Katie Sabino, Laurie Gomez (now Henes), Bobby Mack, Julia Lucas, and many others.
The most currently-prominent of the Geiger-trained athletes is likely Ryan Hill - last summer's surprise winner of the USATF outdoor 5000m championship race. Hill not only grabbed the national 5000m crown at Hayward Field, he once again was a world championship 5000m finalist in Beijing where he finished 7th to improve on his 10th place finish in the 2013 world championship 5000m final. Hill topped off his breakthrough year with a 5000m PR at the Brussels Diamond League gathering where his 13:05.69 clocking placed him 14th on this year's world list and #10 on the all-time USA list. "He's special," declares Geiger in wasting no words in expressing his views on the 2013 NC State graduate. Hill - who currently trains with Jerry Schumacher's Bowerman Track Club - knows good coaching when he sees it. "I've been fortunate to have been aided by excellent coaches," notes Hill who, like other Geiger protégés, appreciates what Geiger's thoughtful assistance has meant to his continued post-collegiate progression.
Even though he has had his share of Wolfpack athletes who have gone on to perform at the global level, Coach Geiger - who has coached 50 All-Americans - is cautious to predict future world class potential based upon high school or even collegiate performance. "I think it is very difficult to say that a particular individual will be at the world championships. I think that is a hard thing to predict. In any case, even if they're that talented, it's about their commitment to the sport," explains Geiger. "We had Bobby Mack who a couple of years ago finished 19th in the world in cross country. I couldn't have predicted that. At NC State we have been very fortunate to have athletes at that level."
"What we attempt to do at NC State is a progression," states Geiger in outlining his approach of combining committed consistency with patience. "The idea is that by the 4th year or 5th year our athletes will be far superior to their first year and that will allow them the opportunity if they're at Ryan's level or Julia Lucas's level to continue to develop. That's one of the goals of the program."
With over three decades of Division I head coaching experience, Geiger has been able to refine his views on what makes a successful collegiate track & field program. "I think the coaches have to have patience. In the sport - say, running 1500m to 10,000m - it's going to take some years; it's going to take some patience; and it's going to take some commitment by the athlete," Geiger explains. "Sometimes there are no immediate results. You have to wait sometimes for these things to appear. And when you're looking for an athlete, you have to have an athlete who has talent, but who also understands the process. This whole thing is a process - totally a process."
Geiger has learned over the years an athlete's development of an even-keeled temperament is essential in the topsy-turvy world of track & field where - as Sinatra crooned - you can be riding high in April, shot down in May. "You get some positive feedback if you have a good race. But there are races that don't go so well. You learn from those situations," offers Geiger, who has been named ACC cross country Coach of the Year 28 times. "I've always said this about a race: whether the race is the best race or the worst race, the best thing to do is to leave it alone for about 24 hours and then sit and think about it. Prior to that, you don't use logical thinking." Geiger knows that mercurial post-event reactions simply aren't helpful. "You cannot come off a race and have an extreme high, because at the end of the day you have another race soon thereafter. And if you do not have a good race, it's the same situation. At some point, you'll have another competition. You've got to keep everything in perspective. If you have a good race, you learn from that. If you have a bad race, you learn from that. It's a process."
Over time, Geiger has never ceased learning. "Back in 1979, coming out of a high school situation, I thought I knew everything," chuckles Geiger. "Something I like to say sometimes is 'You don't know what you don't know,'" declares Geiger in a Rumsfeld-esque style as he describes the often-unknown quality of life's unknowns. "I think every year is a learning experience for me. The training that is in place now at NC State is different than it was in 1979. And I'm sure the training program in 2016 is going to be different than in 2015." Geiger also knows that different athletes often need individually-tailored training regimens. "I think athletes have running personalities. What works for you?" he asks. "If you don't like the training program, don't blame me: it's your personality," adds the head coach with a jovial laugh. "You have to find out what works."
The head coach of NC State's men's and women's track & field programs has reservations about the emergence and growth of the so-called Power 5 conferences. "There was a time when the ACC was 8 schools and now it's 15," states Geiger with concern. "And if you look at the larger conferences, if every institution has one outstanding athlete in the event - take the 100m - if the conference has 15 schools, that means 7 don't score." The Wolfpack leader has a remedy. "I think as coaches we should explore expanding the scoring. [NCAA championship] swimming scores it 16 deep. Let's say you go to the conference meet and you have a good track team and you score, say, only 4 points. But you have a good track team!," laments Geiger. "You have a hell of a track team but you only score 4 points at your conference meet. I just don't think that's good for the sport. I think we have to figure that out."
"Major conferences are so competitive." The competition is so steep, there is little time to develop an athlete. The pressure is on to find an athlete that can score now," notes Geiger as he explains how larger conferences with deeper talent are subtly nuancing coaching approaches. "I'm a coach that does believe in development. But that's kind of changing because of competition and such high quality and as a result development gets lost sometimes. It becomes challenging."
Geiger never stops challenging himself and his athletes to lift the already-successful Wolfpack program to a higher level. "In both men's and women's track and field, we're trying to secure athletes that are high quality in all of the events. I'd like to see a little more balance in the program. At the end of the day, for NC State, it's not about having a conference-level athlete; it's about having a national-level athlete - and having an athlete who not only makes it to nationals, but also scores. That's the goal of the program. And when only 8 score at nationals, it's quite a challenge."
Rollie Geiger can look back on his 36 years at NC State and the hundreds of athletes he has coached - guiding their efforts and helping them achieve the maximum from their potential. What does his future hold? "I haven't given it a lot of thought," admits Geiger. "I am reminded of what someone once said about retirement: 'Why would I retire and hang around with old people?'", he laughs. "I don't have anything in the immediate future. I enjoy - I really enjoy - the practice and the process. And I enjoy what happens at the end with the competition. Anytime you are in a profession and you're working with 18 to 22 year olds who are bright, athletic, and motivated, it's pretty good." Scores of Wolfpack track & field athletes - past and present - would likely add that it's been pretty good for them as well.