By Jim Henry
Globe Sports Editor
The program was expected to begin in the early 1990s.
But because of a change of football coaches, Missouri Southern launched its cross country program for men and women in 1989.
“I patterned it after John McDonald at the University of Arkansas,” Lions coach Tom Rutledge said. “He proved the value of recruiting distrance runners who are scoring three times a year — cross country, indoor track, outdoor track — with limited funds. I concentrated on distance runners at first. I wanted to make an impact.”
The Lions’ impact was almost immediate as they finished third in the men’s regional in the program’s second year.
“I felt I could do well,” said Rutledge, who also coached cross country at tradition-rich Adams State. “Looking at the strength of the conference at that time, Southeast Missouri was pretty dominant. SEMO and Central Missouri and Northwest Missouri and Northeast Missouri (now Truman State) were basically controlling everything.
“We started out as a walk-on program, then we had a scholarship, then a scholarship and a half, then three scholarships as we worked our way up the ladder.
“One of my first recruits was Jason Riddle. He went to junior college for a year and transferred in after he saw we had something started here. We got other kids to come in, and we placed third in the region in my second year here. We almost won conference but SEMO beat us. We had walk-on kids and almost won the regional.”
Riddle went on to become an All-American for the Lions.
“When Jason Riddle got here, you could tell he had a lot of talent,” Rutledge said. “He was ideal for us to come in and solidify the training I was doing was working. It was tough for the first seven years. It was hard to get people to stay out becaue we trained very, very, very hard and I was not going to lower my standards. Some complained about training too hard.
“Riddle did what I asked him to do, and with him having success, that allowed us to get one or two more good ones the next year. Finally about after seven years I was getting people to buy in what I was trying to teach them. We started having more success around 1999 or 2000. The women’s success came a little sooner than that because they had more scholarships.”
Rutledge coached both the men’s and women’s teams until Patty Vavra was hired as women’s coach in 1994. Under Vavra the Lions have won six MIAA championships, and the 2009 team did not lose to a Division II school until the national meet where the Lions placed third.
Rutledge’s men’s team has won eight conference cross country crowns — all of them in this century. The Lions have three top-10 finishes in the national meet — sixth place in 2000, seventh in 2002 and eighth in 2012.