Texas cookin' has Midwest flavor
EUGENE, Ore. -- There's something to that southern speed, and not just when it comes to football. Moving into the final day of the NCAA track and field championships in Eugene, Oregon, four of the top five teams hail from the south.
It's no surprise to see Oregon (43 points) and Texas A&M (41) at the top through the first day of finals. But a team that's tied for third, Texas (29) is coming on strong and taking a few by surprise.
After all, Mario Sategna has been at the helm of the program for less than a year. In June 2013, not only did he take over for veteran Texas coach Bubba Thornton, but he also had to ease the program through its initial stages of becoming a combined men's and women's team.
Sategna's first job was to surround himself with talented coaches who'd be able to get his athletes into a position to contend for a national title. Where did he look?
The Midwest, to Illinois women's track coach Tonja Buford-Bailey, who was born and raised in Ohio and attended Illinois in the early 1990s. Bailey became a three-time Olympian who later coached the Illini program into relevance for the first time in more than a decade. In 2013, Illinois won its first Big Ten title (indoor) since 1996 and finished the year with 13 All-Americans (outdoor). She was building a program in the Midwest that was getting noticed in the deep South.
"She was at the top of the list from day one," Sategna said. "It didn't matter having a male, female. It was just her personality, her results, her system, she can work with men and women."
Sategna approached Buford-Bailey with the opportunity and had the support of Texas to do whatever it took to get her.
Buford-Bailey had wanted to start coaching men again, and the idea of bringing her family to a bigger city also was appealing. She knew she'd be able to recruit a different level of athletes at Texas. For years, she had gotten letters from Illinois recruits that hurt her spirit.
"People would send me letters and tell me, 'I think you're really awesome, but I'm not coming to Illinois,'" Buford-Bailey said. "It was very frustrating because I knew what a great university it is and what a great athletic department is it and what a great program it could be."
But the opportunity came to be a part of a program at Texas that was even closer to those elite levels, and it also gave her other opportunities personally.
"I knew it was the right move for me," Buford-Bailey said. "But it was hard."
Texas would get more than just a coach. Not only would Buford-Bailey be making the trek from the Midwest to the South, but two of her top athletes from Illinois -- Ashley Spencer and Morolake Akinosun -- also would make the transition.
Both Spencer and Akinosun were raised in the Midwest, in Indianapolis and Aurora, Illinois, respectively.
"She's like a second mom to me," Akinosun said. "When she announced she was leaving, it only made sense for me to go with her."
The Midwest contingent helped raise the Texas program and bring it to new levels in Sategna's first season.
Heading into the second day of finals, it's neck-and-neck for the team title. In most races Saturday, Texas, Texas A&M and Oregon will face off against one another.
And if the Longhorns are able to pull off the win, it'll be a historic moment for the program. A national title under a first-year coach in a team's first year of becoming a combined program would be something no one could ignore.
Sategna will get much praise for that. But would Texas -- and all its southern speed -- be contending for the title this year if it didn't have that touch of the Midwest?
"No," Sategna said. "[Tonja] is that important to our program."