By Jim Fryar
Globe Sports Writer
It began as a tiny home meet for the cross country team, with runners from three schools.
There was no indication, 21 years ago, that the Missouri Southern Stampede would grow into the monster it has become.
“I think we had 39 runners and that includes some people who were just in the ‘fun run,’ ” said Tom Rutledge, Southern men’s cross country coach. “We finished on the track. It wasn’t that big a deal. It was an easy meet to score.”
Fast forward to the current era and the meet now draws almost 2,000 runners and 100 schools, from high school to junior college and university teams. It truly has become a stampede, as Karen Rutledge apparently forsaw when she suggested the name for the meet.
“It definitely makes an impact on the city,” said Tom Rutledge, the man with the plan for the Lions’ original home meet.
“You put 2,000 runners with a support group twice that size and they have to eat and sleep somewhere when they come to Joplin. People talk about it and this makes me proud. ... But I never figured it would be this large.”
Rutledge was originally hired as an assistant football coach at Missouri Southern. Expectations were for him to develop cross and country and track and field programs, taking advantage of the existing track at Fred G. Hughes Stadium and also adding the distance program. ... But not immediately.
But then, as often happens, things changed.
For Rutledge, the track and distance programs became a priority sooner than anticipated. Athletes arrived, mostly in walk-on fashion; schedules were arranged ... and yet money remained scarce.
“We needed a meet,” said Rutledge. “Our budget wasn’t that high, to travel. You have to make do with what you’re got ... and we had 60 acres out there (north and east of the Fred G, Hughes Stadium).”
This was the genesis of the Southern Stampede, now sponsored by First to the Finish.
It didn’t take too long for the meet to grow.
Carl Junction native Jason Riddle joined the Lions in their second season and eventually became their first All-American distance runner.
The second year of the Stampede, it was suddenly a major meet.
“It was a big deal,” said Riddle, now the Joplin High School cross country coach. “Adams State was coming in and they were the NAIA national champions. Arkansas was the Division I returning national champion. It was one of the biggest meets I had been in at the time.
“All the Southern runners, we were pumped up with the competition coming in. It was a great opportunity for us to lower our times.”
Joe Vigil, Adams State coach, was a former U.S. Olympic distance running coach. He presented a clinic the night before the Stampede.
“That was the first race where it all started clicking for me,” Riddle said. “I was the first non-Adams State or Arkansas runner and I was pumped up about that. ... It may have been the first time I broke 25 minutes for 8,000 meters, which is a sub-five-minute mile pace.”
Riddle finished in the same position at the Stampede as he did later that year in the NCAA Division II national meet, in 12th place.
And with that finish, the tradition of Missouri Southern’s Stampede and its successful cross country program was off and running.