This week, David Hunter wrote his column on Beth Alford-Sullivan, Penn State’s head track & field coach. As David Hunter points out, Beth Alford-Sullivan, is a true track & field pioneer.
Blazing The Trail
Penn State’s Alford-Sullivan Is Track & Field Pioneer
Track & field coaching has a peculiar twist to it. Unlike some of the marquee collegiate sports like football, basketball, and baseball, the role of the skillful track & field coach is less obvious. And the coaches themselves are nearly invisible. For all but the most experienced and attentive fans of the sport, track & field coaches – un-uniformed and always in motion – are not easily observed and not fully appreciated. They toil in virtual anonymity, preparing their charges in the solitude of their university facilities. And on meet day, they keep one eye on the form sheet while they look for that fleeting moment when a well-placed comment to an athlete might help shave another second or capture another centimeter.
Without question, collegiate track & field teams need that accomplished coach just like the Cleveland Orchestra needs Franz Welser-Most – both need that skilled leader who knows the talent and can harness it in the most effective way. And one of the best is Penn State’s maestro: Beth Alford-Sullivan.
Alford-Sullivan has a coaching philosophy grounded on team balance and depth. “Our goal at Penn State is to always have a great, balanced team and to win championships off of that balance,” explains the Nittany Lion leader. It is a philosophy that has served her – and her cross-country, indoor, and outdoor teams – well over the years.
Her balanced approach to team success has not denied Alford-Sullivan her fair share of marquee athletes. She has had her stand-out performers – the likes of Connie Moore, Shana Cox, Aleesha Barber, Bridget Franek, and – more recently – current 800 star Casimir Loxsom. The Penn State coach has a particularly strong connection with Franek – the two-time World Championship athlete and 2012 Olympian in the steeplechase. What special insight prompted Alford-Sullivan to guide Franek toward the steeple? “I wish I had a great story that I saw something there. But in reality, she came to me and pushed it on me,” the coach explains. “Her freshman year right after cross country Bridget came up to me and said, ‘I could do the steeple. I think I could do the steeple.’ Every January, I start all of the freshman doing some hurdle drills to just see if anybody has a natural inclination to it. Bridget definitely did. But to be honest, I was skeptical. She was so valuable in the other events that I didn’t want to take the chance. She was going to score in so many events. I didn’t want to take the chance that she would get hurt. But she took to it like a fish to water,” explains Alford-Sullivan. “One of the motivating factors for her was that her dad was a steepler in college. And she is still chasing his P.R.” And with a smile she adds, “She is very, very close to his P.R.”
But there is another special facet to Alford-Sullivan’s successful track & field coaching career. It is well understood that at least since 1920 – when the passage of the XIX Amendment granted women the franchise – all sectors of American society have undergone a very distinct and important change – a broad transformation calculated to break down stereotypical barriers and provide equal opportunities for women. Track & field – particularly leadership positions in the coaching ranks – is no exception. Beth Alford Sullivan has been a pioneer for women in track & field coaching – paving the way for other women to obtain track & field coaching opportunities. After a most successful stint at Stanford, Alford-Sullivan came to State College, Pennsylvania in 1999 to head the women’s track & field program. Later, in undertaking the leadership role of both the men’s and women’s programs at Penn State University in 2006, Alford-Sullivan became the first woman to coach a combined Division I track & field program. “It [coaching a combined Div I program] is more common than you think. The Big Ten is a misnomer. The Big Ten still has some separate programs. If you look at the SEC, the PAC 12, the Big 12 – it is hard to name separate programs,” Alford-Sullivan explains. “The harder part of it is to find a combined program that has a woman in charge,” she adds with a laugh. At the helm at Penn State for 14 years, Alford-Sullivan and her success in guiding a combined Div I track & field program have promoted enlightened thinking that has made it easier for other women [e.g. Robyne Johnson at Boston University; Cathrine Erickson at Northeastern; Kathleen Raske at Sacramento State;] to follow in her combined program footsteps.
But old ways of thinking often die hard. How difficult has it been for a woman to gain acceptance and respect within a long-standing old boys’ fraternity like the track & field coaching community? “The thing that is difficult is this: results speak for themselves.” Alford-Sullivan offered candidly. “So as long as you are doing a good job, you’re following the rules, and your team starts to produce, you’re going to get credit. But it can be difficult at times,” she admits. “The hard part is the reaction if I get mad and I protest something, if I stay state my case. That’s when you might still feel it.”
If – as Alford-Sullivan suggests – results speak for themselves, the results for the Nittany Lion leader speak loudly and articulately indeed. During Alford-Sullivan’s Penn State tenure, her athletes have achieved at the highest level – with 138 All-Americans; 4 NCAA Champions; 3 Olympians: and 2 World Championship qualifiers. And that has translated into team success as well – with 6 Big Ten team championships and 2 NCAA trophy teams. As a consequence of these individual and program successes at Penn State and elsewhere, Alford-Sullivan has received an abundance of personal accolades for her coaching acumen – such as more than two dozen different Coach Of The Year awards, which includes the NCAA Div I Coach Of The Year Award in 1996.
The coach’s easily-observed attentive nature helps explain her success in connecting with her athletes – both women and men. “Right now, I don’t find any barrier in dealing with the guys,” she explains. “Part of that is I have aged. I’m not as young as I used to be and they don’t relate to me as a young person anymore. They respect the authority and the position. It is not a strange thing to them anymore.” And with a nod to the societal changes that have helped to promote the acceptance of women in male-dominated fields, Alford-Sullivan adds, “I think kids are growing much more exposed to women in positions of leadership and authority. So it is not a strange thing to them.”
The PSU coach also knows that playing multiple roles is yet another coaching challenge. “One of things you have to do in the job that I have is to switch hats constantly. But I think when you are a track coach you have to do that. You have one way to speak to sprinters, another way to speak to distance runners, and another way to speak to your staff. And if you can do that, you’re effective. We create a team and an environment around “Want To Win.” And our athletes want to win the right way: in a competitive environment by being pushed to their best. That’s what we teach and that’s what we try to enhance.”
It’s a family affair for Alford-Sullivan and her husband Jim Sullivan. The Penn State head coach met her husband-to-be while she pursued her Master’s Degree in Sports
Administration at Southern Illinois University and served as the assistant head coach for the Saluki track & field team. Now a full-time instructor in the Department of Kinesiology at Penn State, Jim Sullivan – a former Saluki vaulter – volunteers his time as Alford-Sullivan’s pole vault coach. “He’s a track guy inside out and upside down,” smiles his wife.
With many years of coaching left to embrace, Alford-Sullivan has yet to take stock on how she might like to be remembered. “I don’t know if I have ever thought of that [her legacy]. Nobody’s ever asked me that. One of things that I truly want to be known for is being a part of championship programs. I hope I continue to have a career that is exciting, rewarding, and enjoyable.”
But the Director and Head Coach of Track & Field and Cross Country at Penn State University hasn’t the time to dwell on what her legacy may ultimately be. Still in the full stride of her career, she is far from done. Earlier this year, another honor – and challenge – came her way. Alford-Sullivan was tapped to lead Team USA as the women’s head coach at the 14th IAAF World Outdoor Championships In Moscow.
Alford-Sullivan also revealed some unfinished business, yet another goal. “I want to win a major championship with the men. I want to win a big title, a big trophy with the men. We’re on a mission and we’re getting closer. That is on my bucket list for sure,” she confides. “I was the first woman to break into the top ten at the men’s national meet,” offers Alford-Sullivan. And she adds, “But no woman has won a men’s national team title. We’re looking to keep that at the forefront for me personally and professionally. It will be my goal until I get it done.” Those who know Beth Alford-Sullivan, know what she has accomplished, know what she has meant to women and to the sport of track & field, would harbor little doubt that she can.