In the shadow of a different school

Jim Schortemeyer

To anyone who follows track and field, it might seem like there’s a funnel cloud from Kansas following prep runners from Minnesota. Oddly enough, a high school coach with close ties to the University has been feeding the frenzy.
Phil Lundin, the head coach of Minnesota’s track and field team, and Scott Christensen, the head cross country and track and field coach at Stillwater High School, have been friends since the 1970s.
Christensen’s cross country squad was No. 1 in the nation last season, and Lundin’s track and field team won the Big Ten indoor title this year.
Yet none of Christensen’s athletes have competed for Minnesota during Lundin’s tenure. In fact, four of the last six Division I track and field athletes from Stillwater are either competing for Kansas or have committed to the school — even though Minnesota is thought of as a better track school in many circles.
For a number of reasons, a natural pipeline between Stillwater and the University — although logical in many ways — has never materialized. While Christensen says he would like to see his athletes become Gophers, the unusual link between Stillwater and Kansas has strained a friendship and made Lundin’s job a little tougher.
In the beginning
Lundin was coaching at Burnsville High School when Christensen, then a student-teacher, started working out with the runners. Both coaches worked with Dave Griffith, Burnsville’s longtime head coach.
“He was the guru,” Lundin said.
Lundin continued his coaching career in Burnsville until 1989, when he became an assistant at Minnesota. In 1995, he received the promotion to Minnesota’s top office in track.
The coach has turned Minnesota’s track and field program around, evidenced by this winter’s first-place indoor finish. Lundin also coached four individual Big Ten champions last year, and the team’s ninth-place finish at the NCAA outdoor meet was its best in over 25 years.
Christensen took over the helm of Stillwater High School’s track and cross country teams in 1981, and rebuilt the running program. Before Christensen arrived, Stillwater had never won a state championship in either cross country or track.
His resume at Stillwater now includes three consecutive cross country titles and two Minnesota State High School League track championships. Stillwater track alumnus Andy Tate described the program in glowing terms.
“Stillwater is kind of a prep school for college, because Scott runs it like a college program,” Tate said.
So with all this talent on Stillwater’s teams, it would be logical to assume Christensen would help out his old buddy Lundin.
As it turns out, Stillwater is the only powerful running school in the state with no graduates on the Gophers. Local powers like Apple Valley and White Bear Lake both have two representatives, while Stillwater has remained conspicuously absent.
Follow the leader
The Stillwater-Kansas connection started in 1996, when Tate, a state champion in the 1,600 meters, decided to become a Jayhawk.
“When I was at Morris, my dream was to be a Gopher,” Tate said. “With my asthma, I had to go somewhere warm.”
Since then, three more Stillwater runners have committed to Kansas. Trevor Mitchell, one of those three, and Christensen both indicated that Tate was involved to some degree in the recruitment of Stillwater runners.
Although Tate only went to Stillwater for a year, his name is still well-known by the distance runners, as well it should be. He was Stillwater’s first individual champion in track during the 1990s.
Christensen said Minnesota’s recruiting problems stem from other areas as well.
“Part of being from Stillwater is that kids travel a lot, and they’re not so stuck to home as others might be,” Christensen said.
Another factor in the recruiting game is Christensen’s relationship with Kansas coaches. He readily volunteered that he is friends with people in Kansas as well as Minnesota.
An example is found when looking at the roster of coaches appearing at Christensen’s summer camp. While Lundin and Christensen will be in attendance, Kansas’ sprinting and hurdling coach will be as well.
Kansas head coach Gary Schwartz explained the recruiting process: “One of the things that college coaches do is try and find high school coaches who consistently develop talent,” he said. “That does not mean it’s an automatic pipeline (from Stillwater). We’re just being smart, doing what we need to do.”
A transfer of power?
The hot-button for all the coaches this week was a potential transfer. Mitchell confirmed Tuesday he is leaving Kansas, and he said he has narrowed his choices to Minnesota and Tennessee.
Mitchell cited numerous reasons, including a two-month lung illness and academic struggles his first semester as influencing factors in his decision to transfer. The lure of a home-cooked meal was also a factor, making it sound like Minnesota will get one Stillwater product.
“I feel like coming home,” Mitchell said.
Mitchell was a three-event winner at the MSHL’s state championships in his junior and senior years. Minnesota coaches are cautiously optimistic about getting a transfer.
“Obviously we wouldn’t pursue him if we thought he wouldn’t help the team,” Lundin said. “He’s certainly one of the more gifted middle-distance athletes to come out of this state in recent years.”
The move is not at the behest of Christensen, but was facilitated by him. Mitchell called his old coach, who provided contact with Minnesota coaches. Christensen has a policy of staying in contact with all of his former runners.
“If they’re 50 and in jail, I’m going to be there for them,” Christensen said.
Perhaps the best prospect in recent history out of Minnesota is Stillwater’s Luke Watson. Watson won last year’s cross country individual championship, took second the year before, and won the 1,600 meter and 3,200 meter events at last year’s state track meet.
He’s a senior this year, but he committed to Notre Dame rather than staying in Minnesota.
Although Christensen didn’t talk about Watson in particular, he did offer some thoughts on what he wants from his recruited athletes.
“What I would like is for every one of my athletes have one of their five visits be at Minnesota,” he said. “Then it’s up to Phil and those guys.”
Recruiting pressure
Ultimately, Christensen wants his athletes to make their own choices on where to go to college.
But when every year turns up one or two new Division I recruits from Stillwater, the friendship between Lundin and Christensen gets awkward — especially when the athletes don’t even take a recruiting visit to Minnesota.
“I think the word is sheepish around him,” Christensen said. “He’s at a higher level, where I almost feel like kind of a subordinate.”
Christensen teaches biology at Stillwater, and it’s clear he’d like to devote more time to track and field.
“While I enjoy taking someone who hasn’t run, there’s a part of me that would like to coach elite athletes.”
Christensen came close to being an associate of Lundin’s last fall. He applied for the vacant men’s cross country head coach position at Minnesota, and was one of the five coaches interviewed. Steve Plasencia got the job, and Christensen says he believes Plasencia has earned the position.
The final tape
One shouldn’t get the impression that Christensen has anything against Minnesota. Although he’s a graduate of Gustavus Adolphus, Christensen wouldn’t mind seeing his runners go to Minnesota.
“I would love to see my kids be Gophers for selfish reasons,” Christensen said. “I’d love to see them every weekend, or read about them in the paper.”
With a solidified staff and a possible transfer in Mitchell, maybe the two old friends can begin to relax a little around each other. Although both coaches have admitted to awkward moments, they’re making do with the situation.
“That’s just the way it is,” Lundin said. “I respect Scott’s success.”