Oklahoma State begins run toward title

Dave Smith, head of Oklahoma State's cross country and track programs, grew up in Olympia, Wash., and then competed collegiately at Michigan State. In that time, he never really ventured down into the Great Plains states.

He had not been to Oklahoma, and chuckles when admitting the impression of it he had his mind was, "Grapes of Wrath."

Suffice to say, the creepy black-and-white images of the Dust Bowl days do not give you an accurate picture of the beauty -- albeit markedly different from the Pacific Northwest -- that you can find in the Heartland.

And it's a terrific place to train for cross country. The Oklahoma State course, in fact, lays claim to being home to the oldest cross country race in the United States, the Cowboy Jamboree. It began in 1937 -- when the state really was still part of the Dust Bowl.

"I came here and was shocked by how green it is, the amount of water around, the rolling hills," said Smith, who began at Oklahoma State as an assistant in 2002, became head coach in 2006, and last year elevated to oversee cross country and track for both the men's and women's teams.

"We have good training weather all year long. It's agricultural land. There are all kinds of dirt roads and great trails to run on."

The city of Stillwater and the Oklahoma State campus have made a lot of improvements, too, in Smith's time there, and he's eager to put that on display this weekend to the rest of the Big 12.

The conference championships in cross country will be held there Saturday, as the Cowboys look to win their third league men's title in a row. And they are beginning the stretch run, so to speak, toward defending their NCAA men's title. Last year, Oklahoma State won the school's second national championship in cross country; the first had come in 1954.

Among the competitors back from that squad is junior Colby Lowe, who finished eighth in the NCAA meet and third in the Big 12 race last year. Lowe, you might say, was born to be a Cowboy. He's from Southlake, Texas, and has followed both his parents and grandparents in attending Oklahoma State.

It was the perfect fit for him: The school he had such longstanding family ties with also had strong cross country and track programs.

Lowe is an only child, and his parents and grandparents travel to all his races.

"It's a wonderful thing that they're able to come see me run and just experience this time in college with me," Lowe said.

What his family and everyone else out at the course Saturday will see is one of the best conferences in the nation for cross country. On the men's side, there are four Big 12 teams in the top-30 rankings: No. 2 Oklahoma State, No. 5 Oklahoma, No. 9 Colorado and No. 30 Texas.

On the women's side, there are five ranked Big 12 squads: No. 4 Texas Tech, No. 7 Colorado, No. 11 Iowa State, No. 15 Texas and No. 27 Oklahoma State.

The Oklahoma State men's squad is led by Lowe, Tom Farrell, German Fernandez and Girma Mecheso. The OSU women's top performer is Mihaela Susa. That's a group of athletes who hail from all over the world, including the United Kingdom, Ethiopia and Romania.

Smith took on the role as sort of "uber" head coach -- supervising both cross country and track for the Cowboys and Cowgirls -- in August 2009. That's become a more common staff structure in athletic departments nationwide over the years, but Smith still had some hesitance about it. However, he's come to enjoy his job even more.

"It was a stressful time, a lot of sleepless nights wondering if it was the right thing to do," Smith said of combining the programs under his authority. "We had our men's team rolling, where I felt we were in position to contend for a national championship. And I was a little worried that changing the dynamics could upset the apple cart.

"But it's been amazingly positive. I can't believe I ever had a second thought about it. I think the women's team makes the men's team better, and vice versa. The interaction between the two helps them. I think male and female athletes often look at their performances and themselves and competition somewhat differently. And both of them have strengths, and they learn from each other."

Still, that's a lot of student-athletes to be overseeing.

"Honestly, it's easy when you have good kids," Smith said. "It's not by accident. We recruit really carefully. I have five full-time assistant coaches, and another half-dozen or so volunteer coaches.

"And if you do things right, by the time kids are juniors or seniors, they're like almost intermediate coaches themselves. The younger kids would rather listen to them anyway. Last year, Ryan Vail was a huge part of what we did because the younger guys would do what he said."

Vail was a senior in the program last season, and finished seventh in the NCAA meet. Now Lowe has evolved into more of a that leader-of-the-pack type, which Smith has been happy to see.

"For some reason, he's a kid that I always underestimate, and I don't know how it's possible that I keep making that mistake," Smith said, laughing. "Somehow, he always surprises me. At some point, I think he can't do that again, and then he'll step up and do something bigger than before.

"He's got a great family situation, but as much as he's had advantages, he is probably one of the most blue-collar kids I've ever coached."

Smith, a standout in cross country and track at Michigan State, got a Ph.D in pharmacology at Washington, where he started his coaching career. From there, he went to Texas Tech for four years (1998-2002) and then onto Oklahoma State.

The blue-collar aspect of middle-distance and distance runners is largely a universal trait; these are disciplines where you simply can't just rely on talent without significant and consistent training. And cross country, in particular, is for a certain breed of athlete.

"You're battling terrain, the elements and yourself as much as anything else," Smith said. "It's a sport where each kid can see rewards for the hard work that they put in. It's a special kind of kid who thrives on that.

"This is also a big wrestling school, of course, with 34 national championships. And I tell people all the time, cross country kids are just wrestlers who don't have the upper-body strength. But it's the same mentality, the same toughness, the same attitude."

And at Oklahoma State, it's also become the same outlook toward winning championships. The Cowboys have reached the NCAA title-level again, and now Smith would like to get there on the women's side, too. Oklahoma State will compete in the Midwest Regional on Nov. 13 in Peoria, Ill. The NCAA meet is Nov. 22 in Terre Haute, Ind. But first, there's the league race.

"And I'm thrilled to have the Big 12 meet here," he said. "It's a really strong conference for men and women, with a lot of history and great coaches, like Mark Wetmore at Colorado.

"I'm excited that the community of Stillwater gets to see great cross country. We host the Jamboree every year and have good teams there, but this is 12 really good teams on both sides. And I'm as excited to show Stillwater off to the Big 12 as I am to show off this level of cross country to Stillwater."

Mechelle Voepel is a columnist for ESPN.com. She can be reached at mvoepel123@yahoo.com.