George Mason University took what it sees as a big step toward restoring its track program to national prominence by hiring Andrew Gerard from Stanford, athletic director Tom O’Connor announced this week.
Stanford won a national championship in men’s cross country just months after Gerard returned to the school as assistant track coach and men’s head cross country coach in August 2003. He previously coached at Stanford from 1993 to ‘96 and at William & Mary from 1997 to 2003.
The former steeplechaser was Pacific 10 coach of the year in 2003 and ‘04 after capturing Pac-10 titles and was named 2003 NCAA men’s cross country coach of the year after winning the NCAA title by a 150-point margin.
At William & Mary, Gerard was named Colonial Athletic Association cross country coach of the year five times and was the 2000 Southeast region coach of the year. William & Mary’s cross country teams finished in the top 16 at the NCAA championships every year, including top-10 finishes in 1997 and 2000.
More than 20 athletes have earned All-America honors in cross country and track and field under Gerard.
“He has a terrific background in coaching,” O’Connor said. “He’s had success with individual athletes and his teams. Andy has those accolades — champions at the NCAA, the CAA. He knows the CAA and the area from a recruiting prospective, which was part of what we were looking for.”
Gerard was quoted in a university press release as saying “I was impressed with Tom O’Connor and the athletic department’s vision for the program. George Mason was at the top of the CAA when I first coached at William & Mary, and the opportunity to build that program back to that level as well as the chance to excel in all three seasons and push for national recognition was what committed me to coaching the Patriots.”
But this could be the greatest challenge of Gerard’s career.
“George Mason is not Stanford,” said longtime Patriots coach John Cook, now the program’s harshest critic. “The CAA is not the Pac-10. The athletes he will get will be also-rans. It took us 20 years to build this program and two years for Mason to kill it. It would be nice to see it come back to some respectability, and it would be nice to see Andy do it.”
When Gerard coached at William & Mary, George Mason’s track program was at the pinnacle of the sport. The men’s indoor track team won the NCAA indoor championships and took second in the NCAA outdoor championships in 1996, with 12 All-America awards in indoors and 10 in outdoors that year.
Behind that success was the hard-charging, intense Cook, who came to George Mason in 1979 and left in 1997 after he and O’Connor, who was hired in November 1994, had irreconcilable differences over the direction of the program.
“The handwriting was on the wall that it wasn’t going to be the John Cook show any longer but it would be the Tom O’Connor show,” Cook said.
Cook counted some 38 All-America honors for his athletes in indoor track and another 60 in outdoor track between 1982 and 1996, coaching 1987 world 1,500 champ and 1993 world 1,500 bronze medalist Abdi Bile of Somalia; 2000 Olympic 400-meter bronze medalist Greg Haughton of Jamaica; and Olympic decathlete and Fairfax native Rob Muzzio along the way. His teams won nine outdoor IC4A titles and another three in indoors until George Mason stopped competing at the meet to focus on the NCAA championships.
Since Cook’s departure, George Mason’s running program has been a skeleton of its former self. With Dalton Ebanks at the helm, the Patriots fell as low as 65th at the NCAA outdoors in 2003. Five of the 16 All-America awards in Ebanks’ eight-year tenure went to Jamaican long jumper Maurice Wignall, whom Cook recruited.
George Mason was just third in the CAA outdoor championships three months ago.
“We’ve had success, but we may not have had the success at the level we had before,” O’Connor said. “It can be cyclical. Certainly we didn’t win the indoor national championships like we did a few years ago. … We emphasize track, and we hope to get back to that level again.”