Bowling Green, Ky. — After leading Western Kentucky University to yet another Sun Belt Conference championship in October, longtime head cross country and track and field coach Dr. Curtiss Long has announced his decision to retire effective at the end of the year it was announced Friday at a press conference at E.A. Diddle Arena.
Long concluded his 28-year tenure on the Hill by picking up his 31st Sun Belt coach-of-the-year award after guiding the Lady Toppers to their second straight cross country league title. In fact, he departs after leading WKU’s women to each of the last six conference championships, as they also claimed both the indoor and outdoor track and field titles in both 2006 and ’07.
Although he is retiring from full-time coaching duties, Long will remain on staff as a part-time assistant. Current assistant coach and former Hilltopper Erik Jenkins will assume head coaching duties beginning Jan. 1, Director of Athletics Dr. Wood Selig announced.
“Greg Orman once said at our track and field hall of fame night that it was always about running fast times and titles, but when you look back it all has to do with the people. The memories that I cherish the most are the individual and personal ones that you have of each student-athlete,” Long said. “Obviously we have done some great things with four Olympians, a national champion, a national record holder and a sub-four minute indoor miler — all major milestones in a track and field career — but, it just comes back to the people on a day-to-day basis. It’s been a marvelous way to make a living without truly working.”
Long’s résumé includes one NCAA individual champion — Sean Dollman won the 1991 cross country championship, and he also claimed the 10,000-meter race at the outdoor meet in ’92 — 13 individuals who garnered All-America honors on 21 occasions and a total of 33 league championships, as well as 32 conference coach-of-the-year honors. And, when the SBC selected 30th anniversary teams for each sport during the 2005-06 campaign, Long was chosen the all-time head coach in both men’s and women’s cross country.
In all, Long has guided the Hilltoppers to 13 Sun Belt cross country titles, including from 1982-87 — WKU‘s first six years in the league — as well as back-to-back championship performances in both 1994-95 and ’97-98. The Lady Toppers have won the SBC meet on 13 occasions as well, their titles the last two years marked the fourth time since the conference began sponsoring the sport in 1985 that they have won two or more in a row, while WKU earned men’s outdoor championships in 2003 and ’04.
Long wasted no time in leading WKU to a title, as the Hilltoppers won the Ohio Valley Conference meet his first season at the helm of the program in 1980 as he would also pick up the first of his numerous coach-of-the-year honors that fall. Under his direction, Topper runners would win OVC individual titles in both of his first two years before the school moved to the Sun Belt. In addition to the team titles, Long has guided 11 different individuals who have been crowned Sun Belt Conference champion on 15 different occasions. Nick Aliwell won the SBC meet three years in a row from 1993-95, while Jon Barker (1984-85) and Dollman (’90-91) won the race twice each.
Eight Lady Toppers have won the cross country league meet since 1985 including Breeda Dennehy, who in 1991 would become the first-ever All-American in the program’s history.
In the fall, WKU has never finished lower than fourth at the men’s SBC cross country championships while the women have placed first or second each of the last 12 seasons.
In this decade, Long has added championships on both the men’s and women’s side in indoor and outdoor track and field, the first for both programs as a Sun Belt member. He was selected men’s outdoor coach of the year in both 2003 and ’04 after the Hilltoppers’ won back-to-back titles — the school’s first since claiming 12 straight OVC championships from 1964-75 — while also being chosen for that honor after the Lady Toppers won the indoor and outdoor meets each of the last two seasons.
Long’s ability to help his student-athletes gain All-America recognition has been a trademark throughout his career. Simon Cahill and Larry Cuzzort were the first to be honored in cross country in 1980, while Raigo Toompuu was his most recent All-American after his performance during the 2004-05 outdoor track and field season. Other cross country All-Americans include Ashley Johnson (1983), Dollman (1989-91), Dennehy (1991) and Eddie O’Carroll (1992), while Luby Chambel (1982), Johnson (1984), Victor Ngubeni (1987) — the youngest NCAA All-America ever at 17 years and seven months — and Dollman have been honored for their indoor performances. Outdoor All-Americans during Long’s tenure include Greg Wilson (1981), Steve Bridges (1982), Lori Kokkola (1982), Dollman (1991-92), Aliwell (1995), Jonathan Brown (2004) and Toompuu.
“Basically, there were three reasons why I’ve decided to do this now,” Long stated. “It’s something that others in my family have done when they were 63 years old — my father and my brother both retired at Florida State when they were 63. It’s a good time financially both for myself and the university to come to this decision. And, we also have an outstanding staff at WKU.
“It’s time to let them charge ahead.”
“I feel very fortunate to have worked with and learned from coach Curtiss Long during the nine years I have been at WKU. No coach in the history of WKU athletics has given any more of themselves than coach Long during his twenty eight seasons,” said Selig. “Additionally few if any have enjoyed greater success than that of coach Long. The quality I most admire in Curtiss is his ability to develop and build relationships both with his student-athletes and the hundreds of graduates who maintain contact with Curtiss and the program. Ironically, with the tremendous success and string of championships we have been enjoying the last several years, it appears as if Coach Long is truly just hitting his professional stride!
“We are very blessed that Curtiss will still be a vital contributor to the success of our track and field and cross country programs as he now becomes the most decorated assistant head coach in the nation.”
Long began his coaching career in 1969 at Northeast High in St. Petersburg, Fla., before moving on to lead the George Air Force Base track team in Victorville, Calif. the following year. In 1973, he joined his father, veteran Florida State coach Mike Long (who retired from the post in 1977) on the FSU staff, and he also was an assistant at Georgia from 1976-80 prior to coming to the Hill.
In addition to his father’s success in the coaching profession — the track has since been named in his honor at Florida State — Long has two siblings who have coached the Seminoles. Long’s oldest brother Terry retired as the coordinator of track and field at FSU following the 2003 season, and his younger brother Jim was also a member of the school’s staff.
Long earned his undergraduate, master’s and doctoral degrees from Florida State, where he lettered three years in track. He and his wife, Elizabeth, have three daughters — Erin, Brittney, and Ashley — who have all graduated from WKU.
“I really like Erik’s drive, ambition, and energy. Coach Jenkins is impressive and persuasive when describing his commitment to academic and competitive success, his coaching philosophies, and his core values,” Selig commented. “Coach Jenkins will not allow others to define our goals or the program’s level of success. He has his sights set on continuing our national competitiveness and our dominance of our league in both distance and sprint. As a graduate of WKU, a former all-conference student-athlete, and in his thirteenth year at WKU, Erik truly appreciates and values WKU and is certainly in a wonderful position to recruit most effectively to WKU.
“Coach Long has been grooming coach Jenkins for many years to take over the leadership of our six men’s and women’s track and field and cross country programs. Administratively, we could not be happier than to hand the baton to Erik Jenkins and watch him inject his personality and energy into our highly successful programs.”
“It’s quite an honor to take over for a man you have worked for and run for the last ten years. He has left quite a legacy, and we will use the groundwork he has set over the past 28 years and move that into 2008 and beyond,” said Jenkins. “This is a tremendous opportunity to take over for Dr. Long, who has had a long and successful career at Western Kentucky University. I think we have assembled a staff that will continue to work well, and we will continue to use that same formula in the future. It is a great time to be in a leadership position at WKU.”
Jenkins, a native of Quincy, Fla., came to the Hill as a student-athlete in 1995 from James A. Shanks High School, and he has been on the coaching staff ever since receiving his undergraduate degree in 2000 — he added a master’s degree from WKU in 2002.
A four-year letterwinner, Jenkins qualified for the NCAA Championships in the long jump as a senior after winning the event en route to being selected the most outstanding performer at the Sun Belt meet in 1999. In all, he earned all-league honors on six occasions while also participating in the 200- and 400-meter dashes as well as the 4x100- and 4x400-meter relays.
In his first seven years as a coach, Jenkins’ student-athletes have broken numerous sprint, relay and jump school records during both the indoor and outdoor seasons. WKU was one of only a few schools in the NCAA Mideast Region to qualify both the men’s and women’s short and long relay teams during the 2007 outdoor campaign. In all, 16 members of the WKU track and field team qualified for the region meet, 13 of those in sprint and jump events. There, Jason Browhow earned all-Mideast Regional honors by finishing third in the 400-meter intermediate hurdles, which also qualified him for the NCAA Championships in Sacramento, Calif. Terrill McCombs also earned all-Mideast honors with his eighth-place finish in the 400-meter dash.
The WKU women captured the first triple crown in Sun Belt Conference history in the spring after claiming the cross country, indoor and outdoor track and field titles, and the sprints played a major role in that endeavor. At the indoor league meet, NCAA provisional qualifier Carita Cole won the 55-meter dash for the second-straight year, while Temi Akojie was the runner-up in the event. At the outdoor meet, Cole won the 100-meter dash, freshman Kellie Morrison won the 200-meter dash, and the 4x100-meter relay also claimed victory.
The Hilltoppers were equally impressive during the 2007 season, led by freshmen McCombs and Gavin Smellie, sophomore Mandhla Mgijima and Browhow, a junior. At the SBC indoor meet, Mgijima claimed all-league honors with third-place finishes in both the long and triple jumps, while the 4x400-meter relay team of Raymond Diogo, Steve Wilson, McCombs and Browhow won the SBC Championship in the event. At the outdoor meet, McCombs won the 400-meter dash in a school-record breaking time of 46.39 seconds, while also taking runner-up honors in the 200 meters. Smellie was runner-up in the 100-meter dash and third in the 200 meters, and Browhow claimed the first SBC championship of his career after winning the intermediate hurdles. Both the short and long sprint relays took runner-up honors at the league meet as well.
Under Jenkins’ direction, Cole also ran an NCAA provisional-qualifying time in the 55-meter dash during the indoor campaign while six individuals and both women’s relay teams advanced to participate in the NCAA Mideast Regional. In 2005, Jenkins took four individuals and one relay to the regional meet — the women’s 4x100-meter relay team of Akojie, Shanea Wilson, Cole and Tiffany Porter-Talbert set a new WKU standard on multiple occasions including a victorious 44.81 seconds at the Sun Belt Championships, a time that earned them an at-large invitation to the NCAA Championships that summer. Six of his student-athletes advanced to the 2004 NCAA Mideast Regional, where two — Brown (with times of 10.16 seconds in the 100 meters and 20.40 in the 200-meter dash) and Dennis Mitchell (10.19 seconds in the 100 meters) — moved on to participate in the NCAA Championships.
Actually, Brown would become the first Hilltopper in school history to earn multiple All-American honors in the same meet after finishing sixth in the 100 meter finals and seventh in the 200 meters.
Jenkins’ efforts have helped WKU sprinters perform well on a national stage as well. Brown qualified for United States Olympic Trials in the 100-meter dash in 2004, while Smellie — representing his home country of Canada — finished fifth in the finals of the 200-meter dash at the World University Games over the summer after clocking the fastest first-round performance (20.81 seconds) of the competition. In June, McCombs qualified to represent the United States in the Pan-American Juniors following a runner-up finish in the 400 meters at the USA Junior Championships, as he broke his own school record in the event at the meet with a time of 46.24.
Jenkins has also built a strong reputation in coaching multi-sport student-athletes. Mitchell, a starting defensive back on the Hilltopper football team, had the ninth-fastest 100-meter dash time in the nation in 2004, while that spring Porter-Talbert was one of only a few female student-athletes to participate in NCAA postseason competition in multiple sports after her basketball performance that winter — both accomplished those feats competing on the collegiate level in track for the first time. In addition, Jenkins also has strong ties to the WKU football program as he has tutored six WKU football/track athletes including former school record-holder Rod “He Hate Me” Smart as well as current NFL defensive back Mel Mitchell.
Jenkins, who has also overseen recruiting while an assistant on the Hill, has earned USATF Level II certifications in sprints, jumps and throws.
“In order to continue the success of WKU track and field, we will continue to recruit outstanding and quality student-athletes,” Jenkins added. “We will recruit Kentucky students as well as abroad, as we have a long-standing tradition of recruiting international athletes. We will continue to go after student-athletes who have the ability to run at the NCAA level and perform in the Sun Belt Conference, as well as graduate from WKU and move on to become productive citizens.”