Bringing a program from a non-factor to a regular contender is an extremely difficult process. Turning that same program into a champion is even more difficult, and taking down a dynasty in the process is near impossible. Yet that is what head coach Ryan Vanhoy and the Ole Miss Men’s Cross Country team accomplished this year by winning the SEC Championship in October.
Vanhoy wasn’t 100 percent sure that this was going to be the year the program finally took that leap from contender to champion, but he could see that there was something special about this group.
“I had a moment or two where it just felt different than it had in previous years, and sometimes it’s hard to put a finger on exactly what that is or why,” Vanhoy said. “This year you could just feel a sense of seriousness, focus and everybody working in the same direction. And we’ve had that in the past, but (this year) it was more evident than ever. And to me, that’s the highlight of the year.”
A graduate of the University of North Carolina, Vanhoy has been a crucial part of Ole Miss’s meteoric rise to national relevance as a cross-country school. In his six years at Ole Miss, Vanhoy has proven to be among the best coaching hires in any sport for the school, generating unprecedented success for both the men’s and women’s programs.
He led the men’s team to a 4th place finish in 2016, won its first regional title in 2014 and this year, ended Arkansas’s eight-year run by winning the SEC for the first time in program history.
Adam Smith, who was at UNC at the same time as Vanhoy and is currently a track coach for Reebok, had nothing but positive things to say about Vanhoy’s impact on Ole Miss’ program.
“He has always taken advantage of an opportunity and has made an impact everywhere he has coached. He has taken a program that was never given a shot at the distance level and (has) brought them a podium finish in cross country,” Smith said. “That’s pretty impressive for a 30-year-old coach.”
Both the men’s and women’s programs have had historic years under Vanhoy, with both teams achieving firsts. The men won Ole Miss’ first-ever SEC title, while the women earned their best finish at the National Championships. Both accomplishments are evidence of how the culture has shifted at Ole Miss.
“Anytime you are trying to establish a program, especially at a place where it has never been done before it’s hard to say (how long it will take), but we had three or four recruits that got here when I did, and they helped jump-start the process,” Vanhoy said. “We were slowly able to increase the reputation of the program and get a few more (recruits) here, and they helped us turn a corner.”
The work he did with the men’s team this year earned him both SEC and South Region Coach of the Year awards. These awards recognized the impressive feats Vanhoy has accomplished with this program. Vanhoy’s former colleague and current Texas head coach Pete Watson expected nothing less from Vanhoy.
“He deserved them. I would argue he should have won SEC a few years back when his boys finished 4th in the NCAA’s, but this one was well-earned,” Watson said. “Winning your first conference title and knocking off a storied program like Arkansas to do it is impressive.”
Despite his and the team’s success this season, Vanhoy admits the men’s team was not content with how the National Championships played out.
“We were a little bit disappointed, to be honest,” Vanhoy said. “We thought top 10 or 12 would be realistic. We didn’t quite have the showing we wanted, but we were pretty close.”
While the men finished 17th at the NCAA’s for their second highest finish in program history, the women’s team finished 22nd, good for their best finish in team history.
“I was really pleased with our performance at NCAA’s,” Vanhoy said. “That was one day where we had our best showing top to bottom. Anytime you can do that in the last race of the year, you’ll leave with a good feeling.”
Vanhoy has a young team with a bright future that can improve on an already impressive resume in the next few seasons. Vanhoy’s remarkable coaching career has many years remaining, but he’s pretty happy with how it has gone to this point.
“My main career goal when I was starting out was to be at a Power 5 school in the South and try to build a program where it hadn’t been done, and that’s the dream I’m living now,” Vanhoy said. “I’m in a perfect place and feel really fortunate to be a coach at Ole Miss.”