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Program evolves after 4 pillars set

by Eli Lederman | May 25, 2021 at 2:03 a.m.

In the fall of 2013 -- two years into his now decadelong time in charge of Arkansas State University's track and field and cross country programs -- Jim Patchell gathered his team in an auditorium inside the arena then known as the Convocation Center and held a program-defining meeting.

"We weren't moving quite in the direction I wanted as quick as I wanted, and I knew what the problem was," he said. "There was some resistance in terms of buy-in to what we were trying to do."

Patchell split his athletes into five groups, handed them legal pads and asked them to write down 10 characteristics of a successful organization. The contents produced four common themes that Patchell formed into a mission statement that remains at the center of the program today.

The first pillar was a commitment to excellence in competition, the classroom and life; the second a pledge to moral integrity -- "honesty and hard work," Patchell said; the third was to pursue the individual sport of track and field as a team; and the final value was a commitment to the responsibility of developing talent to the maximum.

"Those four things became the bedrock of our program," he said. "We started doing that and recruiting based on that. Once I handed it over to the athletes and let them have ownership of it, it turned everything around pretty quick."

The turnaround is represented in the 16 Sun Belt Conference championships in cross country and indoor and outdoor track and field ASU has won since Patchell arrived in 2011, including two conference titles added by the men's and women's outdoor teams May 15. The victories marked the women's program's sixth consecutive conference championship across all competitions, and the second outdoor title in three years for the men.

Beginning Wednesday, a school-record 18 Red Wolves will compete in NCAA preliminary events with sights on qualifying for the NCAA outdoor championships from June 9-12.

In 10 years under Patchell, ASU has claimed a consistent spot atop the Sun Belt on the foundation of a culture conceived upon yellow sheets of paper in 2013.

"The symmetry of team is what has made us successful," fifth-year thrower Grace Flowers said. "We're individualized, but in reality, it can't be an individual sport. What it takes to win is to realize that as a whole and to put together all of our talents to achieve a goal. We figured that out."

Every Monday, Patchell sends his athletes an email with a message for the week, a tone-setter to use to attack whatever challenge lies ahead.

"It gives us a mentality," distance runner Bennett Pascoe said. "It'll be something about how to focus, how to train, all the little things that we need to do and not to let the pressure get to our heads. You look forward to it every week."

The notes typically include pertinent quotes, excerpted from books Patchell has read and kept in a file over his 27 years in coaching, which began as an assistant with ASU after his own track and field career with the program. Among his favorite writers to pull from is UCLA basketball coaching legend John Wooden. Patchell's emails can range anywhere from broad subjects of motivation to smaller aspects, such as reminding his athletes to make their beds, eat well and stay hydrated.

"Success doesn't come from one thing," Patchell, whose been named Sun Belt coach of the year 13 times, said. "It's an accumulation of doing all of the little things right."

The weekly emails are among the avenues Patchell uses to reinforce the core values of the program, which first yielded success later in 2013 when the women's program won the Sun Belt in cross country and indoor track and field, and Sharika Nelvis -- now a volunteer assistant -- followed a year later with national championships in the 100-meter outdoor hurdles and 60 indoor hurdles.

In 2015, the men won their first indoor title since 2007 and have earned six more championships across all competitions since.

ASU has a road map to winning, yet Patchell keeps front of mind the clean slate that arrives at the beginning of every year, no matter the accomplishments of the year before.

"It's harder to stay on top than it is to get there," Patchell said. "I don't consider it a battle or a struggle once you get it going. We know as long as we repeat the things that we know to be true and that we know to work, and recruit student-athletes to fit in that environment, success is going to come. But it's not easy to repeat championships."

Over the weekend, Patchell thought about the message he'd send his athletes on Monday before sending 18 of them to the NCAA qualifiers in College Station, Texas.

"We're going to talk a little bit about not being afraid to perform," Patchell said. "To not be timid. Don't be afraid to make a mistake because winners make mistakes."

While Patchell and the Red Wolves know future success in the Sun Belt is not a given, they have their eyes on making strides nationally, a goal they can further in the qualifying events this week.

"We're pretty close to making that jump," he said. "That's the next step for the program, to make that jump and not only be conference champions, but to consistently be one of the best programs in the country."


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