Griak to take place without namesake

The annual meet is named after Minnesota coach Roy Griak, who passed away in July.

Roy Griak

Photo courtesy of Gopher Sports

Roy Griak

Tommy Jaakola

The 30th running of the annual Roy Griak Invitational will take place this weekend at the Les Bolstad Golf Course, but for the first time ever, its namesake won’t be in attendance.
 
Longtime head coach of the Minnesota men’s cross country and track and field teams Roy Griak died this summer
 
During his tenure, Griak won three Big Ten titles, and worked at the University of Minnesota for more than 51 years.  
 
“He had a ridiculous passion for the sport but also for the kids,” women’s head cross country coach Sarah Hopkins said. “It was always about the athletes and the kids and who they were. Track was always kind of secondary and sort of his vessel to connect with the kids.”
 
The meet
 
The Griak Invitational itself has evolved throughout the years. It went through a number of names in its early existence, but it finally settled on its current moniker in the mid-1990s, while Griak was a prominent figure in the program.
 
Men’s cross country head coach Steve Plasencia said it was simple why the meet was named after Griak.
 
“He earned it,” Plasencia said. “He was a very hard worker, and he poured his heart and soul into Minnesota track and field and cross country from the time he got here.”
 
Starting as just a Division I race in 1985, the race quickly added Division II and III races, Hopkins said. 
 
Soon after that, high school races started for both boys and girls.
 
Today, Hopkins said there are more than 4,000 runners competing in the various races. She said the event creates an atmosphere that is hard to find anywhere else at a cross country meet.
 
“It’s one of the biggest meets in the country. It’s fun to have it on our home course and have a bunch of really good teams here to compete against,” women’s cross country
senior captain Kaila Urick said. “It’s an exciting day. It’s really amazing to race in front of a large group of people like that.”
 
Hopkins said she is very passionate about making the Griak Invitational a full-day event.
 
“We want cross country to feel like football and basketball for a day,” Hopkins said. “Often there’s not a lot of hoopla, and so we try and make the Griak hoopla. Whether that’s the jumbotron, T-shirts for sale, everything you could think of for everyone that’s running it [to] feel they’re really important and that it’s a really important event.”
 
Making connections
 
Before Hopkins arrived as an athlete at the University, the Griak Invitational helped her make an important connection in high school.
 
After finishing a race on campus in high school, Hopkins ran into Griak himself.
 
“I had the Roy Griak Invitational T-shirt on from that fall, and he came out and saw me there outside the field house,” Hopkins said. “He looks at me and goes, ‘I like your shirt,’ and I knew who he was, so I said back, ‘I like your meet.’ ”
 
Hopkins, who went on to race at the University before taking over as head coach, said people loved Griak because he cared more about helping an athlete with their life than them winning a race.
 
“He made an impact on people. For me as a young coach, that’s a huge thing to remember: how much of an impact you do make, and to make that impact as positive as you can,” Hopkins said. “You can leave those huge legacies no matter how many titles you win.”
 
Griak stayed connected to the program even after his time as a head coach, by remaining with the 
 
University as an administrative assistant for the cross country team.
 
Going forward the event will serve as a tribute to the longtime University figure.
 
“He was different than other people I’d been around and been close with,” Plasencia said. “He was a big figure in terms of his personality and the degree of class he had. I felt his charisma a little bit, and I was influenced by that.”

Read stories on past Roy Graik Invitationals in 2013, and 2014