San Francisco State resurrects long-dormant men’s track program

As she sat in her office on the St. Mary’s campus in Moraga in March of 2004, then-Associate Athletic Director Stephanie Shrieve-Hawkins looked across her desk at a freshman wide receiver from Oakland, who grew up not 20 minutes from campus, and had to tell him that the Gaels were cutting their football program.

That wide receiver and his fellow first-year players were readying for spring football, when they were told they had to either give up the game and remain on scholarship as regular students, or find some place else to play. That wide receiver — Ryan Coogler — wound up at Sacramento State and did alright for himself, directing the Oscar-winning comic book adaptation Black Panther, but Shrieve-Hawkins remained affected by what she saw in that room.

“It hit me hard,” Shrieve-Hawkins said. “I’ll never forget it. You’re looking at these kids, and they’ve decided to come somewhere and then all of the sudden, their world is turned upside down. He was a local guy. I just can remember him and his teammates sitting in my office and really feeling — we all were — responsible for making sure that they continued their education somewhere, or if they stayed, that they were taken care of.”

In June of 2018, after Shrieve-Hawkins took over as athletic director at San Francisco State, her head men’s cross country coach Tom Lyons came to her with a proposal. During a meeting to find ways to improve the competitiveness of the Gators’ cross country program, Lyons suggested taking the unusual step of reinstating the dormant men’s track and field program.

“Our goals were aligned,” Shrieve-Hawkins said. “Tom wrote a proposal very early on, very eloquently stating all the reasons why: Recruiting, increased enrollment opportunities and low cost … To me, it was an organic decision.”

In the eight months since, Lyons and Shrieve-Hawkins have worked to bring back a program that was — like Gaels football — cut for budgetary reasons in 2004. On Saturday, they will compete in their second outdoor meet of the season.

The track team is just that — track only. There are no throwers and there are no jumpers. Both Shrieve-Hawkins and Lyons emphasized that, for now, the reintroduction of the track program is to service the cross country team.

Most NCAA cross country teams use the track season to gain additional in-season hours of training (because it counts as another sport), as well as additional competition opportunities. While the Gators did enter into several meets during an NCAA-dictated non-championship competition window for the spring, they could not have a full slate, nor could they practice as much as they could were they in season. That proved to be a disadvantage compared to other teams in their region that had a bona fide track season. San Francisco State was losing recruits to those teams because they couldn’t compete in the spring.

“This men’s track program, the ultimate goal for that is to fill out the cross country program, and it will be cross country athletes competing in track season,” Lyons said. “I realized it was something that’s been lacking, as I’ve been coaching here. [Shrieve-Hawkins] felt the same way, and she did the work … As a new athletic director, you’re not going to come in and try and increase spending everywhere. I’d been understanding that along the way, and I think it just took Stephanie.”

San Francisco State’s 2004 sport cuts that originally eliminated men’s track — a program which had won 10 conference titles and made 21 NCAA championship appearances over 73 years — were almost entirely budgetary in nature, due to the non-passage of an additional student fee to support athletics.

The men’s cross country team, as currently constituted, already ran regularly in several meets in the spring during an NCAA-dictated non-championship competition window. Lyons would only have to schedule a few more close-to-home meets to meet the NCAA’s competitive events requirement for sponsoring a team, and take a handful more athletes to road meets (upping the budget by the prices of hotel rooms and plane flights). The equipment for the men’s track team’s revival would be minimal — shoes and shorts, essentially — so  the financial calculus worked out.

There was one other concern: Gender equity.

In 1995, the school did away with its football team for financial reasons, as well as to comply with California’s initiative to refine Title IX for state schools: The percentages of student-athletes of each gender had to be within five percentage points of the given school’s gender balance — a school of 55 percent women had to have between 50 and 60 percent of their student-athlete population be female. When Shrieve-Hawkins, a former Cal State Fullerton volleyball player, arrived, San Francisco State was imbalanced; there were proportionally more female student-athletes than their male counterparts.

Adding men to the cross country team to fill out a track roster would bring the school into compliance with Title IX because of the way the student-athletes are counted: If a single athlete participates in both cross country and both indoor and outdoor track, they are counted as three for gender equity purposes. The seven wrestlers and soccer players, too, would count twice for the men’s tally.

With the current arrangement — the team participated in its first meet on Feb. 22 — San Francisco State has effectively 140 male student athletes (with 17 counted for men’s track) to 180 female student-athletes for a breakdown of 56.25-percent female to 43.75-percent male. The school’s enrollment is 56-percent female and 44-percent male.

“Those two factors [gender equity and budget] needed to align, and once it looked like we could use more men, or we would have to cut women, then we looked at the budget, and what it would be,” Lyons said. “It’s not that much more than what we were already spending on our cross country team in the spring.”

After several meetings between Lyons and Shrieve-Hawkins, Shrieve-Hawkins brought the idea to the school president, who gave it a resounding thumbs-up, and then met with the California Collegiate Athletic Association commissioner in Orlando at the NCAA convention in January. Then came a check with the school’s compliance department. Everything checked out.

“I kept asking, ‘Are you sure? Are you sure you’re sure?'” she said. “Adding an opportunity is always welcome. It’s when you have to downsize, that’s the difficult part. It was really an organic decision.”

Once it was decided that the program would move forward, it was time to do some internal recruiting.

At the end of the academic year, schools must submit a sport sponsorship page to the NCAA, declaring which sports were sponsored. In order to meet the minimum requirements for sport sponsorship, a certain number of athletes have to compete in a certain amount of competitions. For track, it’s 14 participants at at least four competitions. Cross country had 12 on its roster. So, before the team actually took to the track, the numbers had to be increased. An email was sent out to coaches of other men’s sports: Would anyone want to run track in the spring?

One of those who answered was Jonathan Orozco, a San Francisco State soccer player.

“I’ve been playing soccer my whole life, so I’ve done running, but I’ve never actually run track,” Orozco said. 

On Feb. 22, Orozco, along with three other soccer players and three wrestlers, were on the field at Chabot College, in the midst of a quad meet, learning from their cross country teammates how to stay in their lanes and how to pass a baton minutes before their first 4x400m relay race of the season.

Our main focus was just not dropping the baton,” Orozco said.

The 4x400m team of Orozco, Jackson Redhair (a wrestler), graduate student Austin Magin and redshirt junior Austin Sanchez finished fourth, edged out by the Gators’ other quartet of soccer player Erik Ornelas, wrestler Elias Rosales, soccer player Peter Swinkels and Jacob Garrisserre for third. Garrissere also finished fifth in the 800m and Orozco second in the 1500.

Shrieve-Hawkins said there is a potential gateway to establish a full-fledged track and field team, but that’s not the conversation that’s being had right now. For Shrieve-Hawkins, it’s about providing opportunities in the true spirit of Title IX.

“As a woman, you want to feel like you have an equal opportunity,” she said, “but that opportunity shouldn’t be given to you at the expense of someone else losing an opportunity. There is a cost to that [opportunity], but we were just really, really lucky that we could do it here.”

Niners face Seahawks in key game with postseason implications

The stretch drive is here and the Niners look ready

What we learned from Warriors loss to the Suns

It’s hard to ignore how good Phoenix looked against Golden State