(Photo by Mark Philbrick/BYU Photo)
During his 30 seasons at the helm of the BYU women’s track and field program, former head coach Craig Poole has made an impact on hundreds of lives. In 1980 Poole took over a program with little fanfare and turned it into one of the preeminent track and field programs in the country with successful recruiting, coaching and a commitment to excellence.
“Coach Poole is confident and people trust him,” All-American BYU jumper Mindy McClurkin said. “Not only was he a brilliant coach, but also a great friend, listener and person. It takes the whole person to make such a memorable coach, and he had everything it took.”
When Poole first took over as head coach at BYU, the women’s track and field team was a member of the Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women and had yet to join the NCAA.
In his first season, Poole led the women to a 26th place finish at AIAW Nationals. In his second season, Poole helped usher in the NCAA era of BYU women’s track and field, and wasted no time in preparing his athletes for the upgrade in competition. The women placed 18th in the NCAA during their first participating season, a success that signaled the beginning of a new women’s track and field power in the West.
“Coach Poole was such a successful coach because of his love of track and field,” current BYU 800-meter runner Nachelle Stewart said. “To be truly great at something you have to dedicate your whole heart to it, and that is what Coach did. He always knew his athletes and wanted them to succeed.”
After earning a top-20 finish during their first season in the NCAA, Poole’s Cougars placed in eleven consecutive NCAA Outdoor Championships until falling short in 1993. It was the 12 years following 1993, however, which solidified BYU and Coach Poole among collegiate track and field’s best. From 1994-2005, Poole’s teams finished in the top-25 at the NCAA National Championships in both indoor and outdoor competition. That consistency, which included 24 straight top-25 finishes, signifies the dedication that Poole brought to his team every meet and every season.
“He dedicated so much of his time to furthering talent, helping girls reach their goals, and in helping his athletes find confidence,” Stewart said. “He always brought his athletes to greater heights, to places they never thought they could reach.”
Although he was never able to quite grasp a team National Championship trophy (his teams’ best finish was a 3rd place finish in 2009) he did help several individual athletes realize their National Championship dream. A total of 14 of his athletes have been crowned National Champions 18 times. Most recently, in 2009, freshman Lacey Cramer became indoor 800-meter queen and junior Amy Menlove took home the indoor pentathlon trophy. McClurkin, a near-National Champion in the long jump in 2010 with a second place finish, credits Poole for keeping the team confident in big situations.
“He was confident and had a way of making the team feel like a family,” McClurkin said. “This made our team really stick together during the big meets, and motivated us to put everything on the line to win, which helped our team and me as an individual. He always said, ‘A coach becomes great because of great athletes.’”
Despite the success BYU saw on the national level during Poole’s reign, it’s his teams’ conference dominance that makes up the bulk of his legacy. In terms of conference success, Poole is arguably among the top collegiate track and field coaches in history. In each of the 30 seasons he led the Cougar women’s track and field team, Poole preached the importance of conference success, and rarely fell short of a championship.
A Craig Poole-led BYU team never finished outside the top three at a conference track and field meet, an accomplishment that is even more impressive considering Poole’s Cougars have competed in three different conferences during his time as head coach (HCAC, WAC and MWC). In fact, Poole’s teams never finished outside the top-two during outdoor conference competition, finishing second just twice. During indoor, Poole had two teams finish second and one third. Poole’s overall conference record as a head coach says it all, with 27 outdoor championships in 29 tries and 17 indoor championships in 20 tries. At one point, the BYU women’s track and field team won 20 consecutive outdoor conference championships, a streak that outlasted two conferences (HCAC, WAC) and finished in a third (MWC).
“His legacy is one of complete success,” Stewart said. “The mark of a champion was evident in everything he did. He is incredibly knowledgeable about track and field, and passed on as much of that knowledge as possible to his athletes.”
Poole’s wide range of success, at the national and conference levels, and at several big-name meets, earned him notice at the Olympic level. In 2004, Poole was named the Head Coach of the World University Games in Beijing, China. Poole was also hired as a coach for the Summer Olympics in Athens, Greece, where he coached athletes in the heptathlon, long jump and triple jump.
“Coach Poole met and coached athletes on so many levels, from high school to the Olympics,” McClurkin said. “His legacy has just involved so many athletes, friends, awards and respect. He always loved the school (BYU) and his athletes.”
During his tenure, Poole never had a shortage of great athletes. Due to his consistent teams and dedication to BYU, he brought in top recruits and discovered new walk-ons every season. His commitment to the athlete was the same for a returning National Champion as it was for a freshman trying to earn a scholarship. His ability to coach the whole of his team is what allowed his teams to be so successful for so many years. Not only did Poole coach his athletes on the track, but he also provided them guidance about everyday life.
“He really connected with his athletes,” Stewart said. “We came to him with concerns about any issue we had in our life, not just track and field. He was a father figure to every girl on the team, which was very important since so many of the girls on the team are from out of state and do not get to see their families often.”
Loved by his athletes and fellow coaches, Poole could also be an intimidating presence. His success and accomplishments may have put an aura around him at conference meets and other competitions, but its doubtful too many opposing teams were openly unnerved around him. However, it is likely that many young men over the years, specifically those young men planning to marry one of his athletes, found him to be a dominating presence.
“Coach would always have to interview the boys whom his athletes were engaged to,” Stewart said. “Not only did these boys have to worry about meeting the girl’s father, but they also had to pass his interview. He did have an unwritten rule that he did not want any of his athletes married before they turned 23, but not many athletes abided by that rule.”
Starting this fall, Poole will have a new group of athletes to prepare for the future. As the new head coach at the USA Track and Field Resident Program at the Chula Vista Olympic Training Center in California. Poole will primarily work with athletes in the jumps and throws as they prepare for the 2012 Summer Olympics. Poole’s new opportunities will allow him more time to coach his athletes, without the many recruiting, eligibility and academic responsibilities he had while at BYU.
As Poole moves on, so too will the BYU women’s track and field team. After 30 years of steadfast coaching, however, Poole’s influence will remain with the team for years to come. His commitment to excellence resonates through the track offices, and is made recognizable with the full trophy case that rests on a wall alongside the indoor track.
“Coach Poole lives in the minds and hearts of all his athletes,” Stewart said. “Although he will no longer be at BYU, his spirit always will.”