Once a sub-2:30 marathon runner, Martin Smith’s task was within grasp: Maneuver from toward the back of the pack of about 90 runners to a top-12 finish.
Only this time, he’d have to do it without being on the course.
“When [Smith] puts his mind to something, there’s a very, very high chance he’ll be successful at it,” said Jim Hill, who ran for Smith in high school.
The Greenpark Racecourse in Limerick, Ireland, layered with a mixture of grass and dirt, exposed an inescapable weakness of Hill’s on the day of the 1979 IAAF World Junior Cross Country Championships.
A week of rain left the surface of the horse racing venue covered in a thick layer of mud, and on race day, Hill struggled out of the gate.
But then the voice of his coach, Smith, appeared, shouting words of encouragement to the Oakton High School distance runner.
“Somehow [Martin Smith] positioned himself on the course or in the stands or something, and I was really struggling,” Hill recalls. “I could hear his voice yelling encouragement the entire 8K and it totally helped me go from about 100th place up to I ended up finishing 12th place.”
Hill claims that had Smith not traveled with the U.S. team and cheered him on the entire race, he would not have finished anywhere near the top 50.
“His enthusiasm and focus and never giving up attitude made a big difference,” Hill said.
In Smith’s three years as the coach at Oakton High School in Vienna, Virginia, his team won a state title, and Hill added three AAA Boys Outdoor Two Mile Run individual state championships.
Any coach can pinpoint talented and skilled athletes, but Smith had a knack for developing talent from the scraps left over on the recruiting trail.
When every other cross-country coach took a pass on Tim Springfield, Smith, who was now a coach at the University of Virginia, discovered an athlete who had a strong work ethic and just needed to land in the right situation.
Smith didn’t have a one size fits all mentality and he knew building a distance runner didn’t happen overnight, but he understood exactly which buttons to push with which athletes.
He was patient, taking the time to figure out which training plan best fit each runner, as long as they were willing to give him 100 percent effort.
As a walk-on freshman at Virginia, Springfield didn’t have a means of transportation to his morning workout, so Smith would pull up in front of Springfield’s dorm in his 1970 Volkswagen Beetle at 6:30 a.m. every day to drive him to practice.
“Most coaches would say, ‘Oh, don’t worry about that, we’ll compromise,’” Springfield said. “‘You can go do your workout somewhere else so I don’t have to get up at 6:30 [a.m.].’ Martin kind of made that effort to communicate to me how important those details were, and how hard he was willing to work on my behalf kind of inspired me to work hard on my own behalf.”
Smith only spent three years as a coach at Virginia, but by the time he left, the Virginia women’s cross-country team had established itself as the best in the country, winning the national title in the final two of Smith’s three seasons there.
He also helped put the Virginia men’s cross-country team, which was the laughing stock of the ACC when he first arrived, Springfield said, in a position to finish inside the top five in the nation the year after he left.
“He was very demanding of us, but I always knew he was on my side,” Springfield said. “He wanted what I said I wanted — I wanted to be as good an athlete as I possibly could be. If I wasn’t living up to that ideal, he’d let [me] know about it.”
The next stop on Smith’s coaching journey was the University of Wisconsin.
His challenge as the Badgers’ men’s distance and cross-country coach in 1983 didn’t include building a program from the bottom up. Wisconsin had just upset Texas-El Paso to win the NCAA men’s cross-country championship the year before he arrived.
Instead, Smith had to convince a group of men whose coach, Dan McClimon, died in a plane crash to buy into an entirely new system.
He not only was able to continue the success McClimon, who led the Badgers to their first ever NCAA title in the sport, left behind but did it for 15 years.
A Smith coaching stop wouldn’t be complete without him taking on another walk-on project. This time it was Eric Stabb, a Wisconsin native who, by his own measures, was not a “star coming out of high school by any means.”
Stabb redshirted his freshman year and got injured at the start of his sophomore campaign, but instead of kicking him to the curb, Smith kept Stabb on the team as a team manager.
Stabb got to see Smith in a different light, rooming with him when the team traveled to meets and hearing from him exactly what he was thinking about and what he was worried about.
When a top ranking appeared inevitable for a Wisconsin men’s cross-country team that had firmly established itself as a championship-caliber program, Smith found an unorthodox way to ease the potential burden of high expectations.
He understood the dangers of letting success get to the heads of his athletes. So in the ’80s, when his team was ranked No. 2 in the preseason poll, he drove to the secretarial pool to have a new set of rankings typed up with his team ranked No. 16 and later posted the list on the locker room wall.
“Wisconsin had won nationals in the fall of ’85; this was like two years after that and it was a completely new group of guys,” Stabb said. “Maybe that new group of guys, Martin just didn’t want it going to their heads that they were ranked so high.”
Stabb not only became Smith’s gopher as the team manager but also his confidant.
The two spent the nights before big meets together, and Smith always made Stabb score the meet.
“He would read off a series of numbers to me and I’d have to add them up and tell him what the score was,” Stabb said. “We’d sit there and score the meet over and over and over, and he was always pessimistic about it. He was always worried we were going to get beat even if we were going to crush everybody.”
Tucked away near the far northwestern part of the United States, Hayward Field is home to a tradition as sacred as football at Notre Dame or Michigan.
It's the location the Oregon men's and women's track and field programs call home.
"If you haven't ever been to Hayward Field, you may not have ever seen a truly great track and field environment," said Bill Moos, former Oregon athletic director.
Oregon had established an identity of being a dominant distance program long before Moos hired Smith as the head men's and women's track and field coach in 1998.
The Ducks' men's and women's cross-country programs had won six combined national titles throughout the '70s and '80s, and the outdoor track and field teams had another six since the early '60s, with distance running being the backbone to their success.
But by the time Smith took over the program after 26-year coach Bill Dellinger retired, Oregon had begun losing its ability to recruit the best distance runners in the northwestern and western parts of the United States.
While Stanford was attracting many of the top distance runners in those portions of the country, Smith took another avenue to success.
"I think [Smith] realized, somewhat to the disappointment of track fans and cross-country fans, that he had to take a different approach and put his efforts into field events, jumps, hurdles and some sprinting ... to build up points to win a conference championship," Moos said. "He went that route and really developed, I thought, a very well-rounded track and field program."
But tensions started to boil over with the fans and boosters who didn't support Smith's philosophy and wanted distance running to return to being the strong point it had for so many years.
"If fans love [a] wide-open passing game in football and then you hire a coach who comes in and runs the option, and maybe runs it very well, wins some games, but it isn't what the fans are used to and how they built championship-caliber teams," Moos said. "They really wanted that back and felt we could do that and compete with Stanford for the talent if we did indeed have the right person."
Smith resigned from the program the day before the start of what would have been his seventh outdoor season at Oregon in March 2005.
Moos said a discussion had taken place earlier about how the school could return to being great in distance events.
"I don't think Martin really thought that that was going to be possible, with all things considered, and thought he could explore some other opportunities," he said.
Pollard's big hire
When Iowa State Athletic Director Jamie Pollard got the scoop that his head coach of the cross-country and track and field programs was considering a job at Boise State in June 2013, he didn't waste any time in his search for a potential replacement.
With a little down time on his hands, Pollard took a trip to the NCAA Track and Field Championships in Eugene, Oregon, to start gathering a list of candidates to potentially replace Corey Ihmels, who had been a coach at Iowa State for the past 11 years.
Pollard consulted Jerry Schumacher, who ran against Pollard in high school and had been a cross-country coach at Wisconsin during part of the time Pollard was there as the chief financial officer and senior associate athletic director, and later the deputy athletic director.
Schumacher named a list of up-and-comers, but Pollard had someone else in mind.
"I said, 'Well, I appreciate that, but I'm thinking about somebody like Martin Smith,'" Pollard said.
After leaving Oregon, Smith landed on his feet at Oklahoma, where he had been the head coach for cross-country and track and field since 2006.
Schumacher's reply to Pollard was simple: If you can get Martin Smith, get him, but I can't imagine that he's going to want to move. You're trying to hire the best.
Pollard got him.
A week or two after Pollard traveled to Oregon, Ihmels told him he was going to take the job at Boise State, and within 30 minutes of hearing the news, Pollard called the athletic director at Oklahoma to get permission to talk to Smith.
About an hour later, Pollard was on the phone with Smith.
"That began a process that went really fast," Pollard said. "[Ihmels] let me know I think on a Monday, and the U.S. Track Championships were here in Des Moines that weekend, and so we wanted to get after it right away because we knew we were going to have all these coaches here.
"But there wasn't any question who the No. 1 candidate was. It was [Smith's] job if he wanted it. He was our No. 1 target from the get-go."
The mad scientist
Smith was the ideal fit for the track and field and cross-country formula Pollard had in mind: "Distance first and then fill in around that with areas where you think you can be good in based on who your assistant coaches are in track."
"I believe that based on our history with [coach Bill Bergan], that our distance side is where we really needed to be good in because we can be good in cross, and then if you were good enough, you could score nationally in indoor and outdoor track," Pollard said.
Smith had coached Olympians and won five national championships since he first became an assistant at the University of Virginia.
"He's very committed," Pollard said. "He can be difficult at times because he's very set in his ways, but his ways have worked."
Smith prepares like a football or basketball coach would prepare. He's known for long practices, but those practices aren't only limited to running. He also focuses on the mental part of the approach to being a good athlete.
Iowa State distance runner Thomas Pollard, Jamie's son, has told Jamie that the team knows more about who it's running against "than you could ever imagine."
"I call [Smith] a little bit of a mad scientist," Jamie said.
Instead of focusing on how to get the team's best runner to perform his or her best, Smith focuses on how he can get his best runner to get the fifth or sixth runner to be the best they can be.
This method of coaching was on display Sept. 24 at the Roy Griak Invitational, where the Iowa State men's cross-country team's top five runners all finished within seven spots of each other — 17th, 18th, 19th, 20th and 23rd.
"That wasn't by total design, I don't think they planned it that way for that day, but they ended up that way [because of] the way they train," Jamie said. "When they do intervals, one person leads and everybody follows. It's a science."
It's a science that has the Iowa State men's cross-country team, which is ranked No. 14 in the U.S. Track and Field Cross Country Coaches Association poll, on path to return to first NCAA Championship since 2009.
The only challenge for Smith is he won't be able to convince his team that it has a lower ranking than it really does now that the polls are posted online.
Martin Smith declined to be interviewed for the story.