THE MEN’S TRACK TEAM HASN’T HAD THE PERFECT RECORD LIKE THE WOMEN, BUT THEY’VE EXPERIENCED PLENTY OF SUCCESS, WINNING 14 SUMMIT LEAGUE TITLES.
The men’s track and field team is standing on top of the podium more often than not when it comes to the conference championship meet. This year, they will look to add to their already impressive collection of championship plaques. Don Larson is in his 38th season as the head coach of the men’s track and field team. He arrived at NDSU in 1979. He has 54 conference titles in cross country and indoor and outdoor track and field. How does he make it happen?
Bison Illustrated: Coach, you’ve been here for nearly 40 years. Does anything about this job still surprise you?
Don Larson: “Well, when you’ve been coaching for over 40 years, when you say surprises, it isn’t like I never thought a person could do that. You recruit kids based on their abilities and all of them have a certain level of potential, so when kids do reach their potential or maybe exceed what you thought their limitations were, after a number of years you realize there may not be as big of limitations as you thought.
“That would be related to their athletic performances and obviously the thing you’re doing is recruiting a kid to be an athlete that’s going to help the team. You want them to be successful. If they’re successful it just helps the team that much more. And it’s all the other intangible things that aren’t specifically track, like where they end up. It may be because I’ve been here for awhile.
“I’m not going to use the word surprised, but I’ve certainly been impressed on several occasions. I’m giving a tour today for a young man celebrating a birthday. He was a seven-time national champion for us and a NCAA postgrad scholar and became a very successful mechanical engineer. It’s great when you recruit a kid and they come in and do amazing things, and it’s just as amazing when they go on and do things after college.”
BI: You deal with a lot of different perspectives on a day-to-day basis. From athletes to staff, fans or alumni, how do you bring your passion for coaching to all those different aspects of track?
DL: “I think the big thing is you just have to enjoy doing it. I’m going through life spending a great percentage of time with college kids that are interested in being good athletes or interested in getting an education and then moving on with their life. It’s a different lifestyle, it certainly is, but when you get a chance to spend the bulk of your life with 18- to 21-year-olds, and they’re all formulating their futures. They’re all uniquely different and you can’t necessarily do the same thing with every one of them, but for me, it’s the whole picture. Going from a high school recruit to being a college freshman, to eventually becoming a fourth or fifth year and going on and developing their own life. Then having them come back and reflect on where they’ve been and where they are now, and realizing those college years go rather quickly but it really shapes a lot about who they’re going to be.
“The thing is, it’s probably as much parenting as it is coaching in that obviously you get pretty close to your athletes but it isn’t a friend-friend relationship, it’s a coach-athlete relationship and that’s like being a parent. There’s a difference between being a parent and being a friend. For me, the transition that North Dakota State has gone through, with student enrollment, with facilities, with administration, I’ve been very fortunate to have worked under from the president of the university to the people in housing, financial aid, the professors, I’ve developed some pretty good relationships with a number of people in those situations and professions that really make my job rewarding. For me, that’s a big part of it, is having people involved in your program.
“I guess one of my philosophies has been: Hire good assistants and then stay out of their way. And it works. The people that we’ve been able to bring into the program, Justin St. Clair, who’s been with us the longest now as an assistant coach, what Justin brings to the table and then adding Andrew Carlson and Danny Gooris, and Clayton Pritchard, this past year, these are young assistant coaches who really know their stuff. It’s a better situation all around for the student-athlete, they get more individual attention and coaching.
“As the head coach, I’m just trying to keep it all connected.”
BI: What aspects of this program still have to grow? Maybe even if it happens after you leave?
DL: “To be honest, I haven’t really thought about that as far as the future. I thought maybe you were going to ask me what I look forward to and I basically look forward to the next day. Obviously, you look more forward to a meet than just a normal practice day, but every day is different. Again, it’s a unique profession and every day seems to be a little bit different.
“The rewarding part of it is when you see them succeed or excel athletically, academically or socially. One of our athletes just got elected to Blue Key National Honor Society, and we’ve had a number of them in it, so it’s what they’re like as you say a student-athlete, but it’s also what they’re like as a person. Sometimes your best motivators are the athletes that are the total package. I’m not saying they have to be All-American or a conference champion, but the kids that make the best out of their athletic limitations and do all the other things the right way.
“It’s rewarding for me as a coach, a husband, a dad, my children were greatly influenced by NDSU track and field athletes, significantly influenced. In behavior, mannerisms, in attitude towards life and attitude towards athletics. It was a positive effect on them, that says a lot about the student-athletes you have in your program.
“Head coaches get a lot of credit, but let’s be honest, it takes a lot of people, from the university all the way down to the student-athlete, and everybody that works with them. I’m just fortunate enough to be at an institution that cares about their people and have provided us an unbelievable opportunity for athletes.”