By Jim Henry
Globe Sports Editor
Tom Rutledge’s first few months on the Missouri Southern campus were interesting to say the least.
New Lions football coach Charley Wade hired Rutledge as an assistant coach. Rutledge’s contract began in March 1988, putting him on campus in time for spring football practice.
Rutledge, who coached football and track and field at Adams State before coming to Joplin, also was going to start a track program at Missouri Southern in two or three years.
But in mid-August — 18 days before the football season began — Wade abruptly resigned.
“Al Cade (another assistant coach) and I were walking down the hall when we heard about it,” Rutledge said. “My wife had just given up her insurance business in Colorado two or three days before that happened. Now we’re wondering what’s going to happen here.”
What happened was Rutledge was retained on the football staff of interim coach Bill Cooke. Then after the season, athletics director Jim Frazier told Rutledge he would no longer be a football coach. Instead, he would start the Lions’ track program sooner than originally planned.
So Rutledge began not only the track program but also the cross country program. He started basically with a roster of walk-ons, but he has built strong programs that won a total of 10 MIAA men’s championships this century — eight in cross country and two in indoor track.
His cross country teams have appeared in 11 of the last 13 Division II championships, highlighted by a sixth-place finish in 2000, seventh place in 2002 and eighth place last fall.
He’s been named MIAA coach of the year five times in cross country and twice in indoor track. And, he was regional coach of the year in indoor track three times and cross country one.
Rutledge has coached four national champions, eight cross country All-Americans, 55 track and field All-Americans and many academic All-Americans. In 2005, Missouri Southern pole vaulters swept the top five places in the conference outdoor meet and the top three spots in the national outdoor meet.
In addition, Rutledge designed and built a cross country course on campus that has been the site of seven regional meets and five national meets (two AAU, three NCAA Division II). It’s also the host of the Missouri Southern Stampede, an event that now attracts approximately 2,000 college and high school runners.
Rutledge was inducted into the Missouri Southern Athletics Hall of Fame in 2008, and he’s going into another shrine this Sunday — the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame in Springfield.
“I was lucky to be at the right place at the right time,” said Rutledge, who has announced he will retire after this school year.