June 25, 2014
By Brian Rice KNOXVILLE, Tenn.
KNOXVILLE, Tenn.- The University of Tennessee may have formally announced Beth Alford-Sullivan as its new director of track and field and cross country on Tuesday, but the school and the town made the decision for her over two decades ago.
As a distance runner at the University of Minnesota in the late 1980s, running in Knoxville helped to stoke Sullivan's desire for the sport beyond her career as an athlete. When Knoxville called back, there was only one answer to the question.
"When I was a student-athlete in the 1980s, this was the place to come to and run fast and be in the heart of track and field," said the new Volunteer head coach. "Tennessee had such great men's and women's teams back then, I remember those things from the start of my passion to have a career in the sport. It's there for me, it's always been there for me. When I got the call from Tennessee, I really wasn't expecting it, I was going along as a Penn Stater. But I took a step back and said this is a place with so much history, so much potential and so much energy behind it, there was no way I could say no. This was an opportunity I couldn't pass up."
Alford-Sullivan spent 15 years as head coach at Penn State, the last eight as the director and head coach of the combined men's and women's program. She took the reigns of the combined program in 2006 after seven seasons directing the women's team at PSU.
The transition wasn't always easy. The programs were combined following the retirement of legendary head coach Harry Groves, whose 38 years with the Nittany Lions produced a long legacy to uphold and a long line of alumni that wanted to take a wait-and-see approach before embracing the change.
"What made it work was being a communicator, letting people know our plan, that this is one mission, one program, but there are still two teams in that program," Alford-Sullivan said of the plan she executed at PSU that she intends to bring to UT. "We will have the pursuit for success for both and we cant let anybody feel disengaged. When you have had the success that Tennessee has had in the history of the sport, you have to welcome that back into the fold and build around previous success and let everybody understand that we're going to move forward together and it doesn't have to be a battle to get that done."
As support grew at Penn State, so did the success. Alford-Sullivan's athletes earned 158 All-America honors and won nine Big Ten team championships, including a sweep of the indoor and outdoor Big Ten women's titles in 2014, an effort for which Sullivan picked up her ninth Big Ten Coach of the Year award.
Alford-Sullivan said just as engaging the alumni was a key to the growth of the Penn State program, the support of Tennessee's alumni will be vital as the Volunteers take the next step forward.
"I really care about the alumni, I understand the commitment and the passion for the sport and what they've given to their sport and their school over the years," she said. "Change is difficult, there's no way around it. What I want the alums to know is that I want to engage them together, I want to bring them back to campus, bring them together because that's what we are. We're one program. I want to get to know the alumni, I want to get them confident in the road we want to take and I want them to partake in the process of helping us do it."
The first challenge that stands ahead is convincing the next generation of athletes that, as it was for her, the only answer when Tennessee calls is "Yes."
"You have to sell them on where we're going, that's what young people want to know," Alford-Sullivan said of the recruiting trail. "They want to become a part of a process toward success. I want to get with the current team first and make sure I have an understanding of where they are and what their needs are, then bringing into the fold the next group that will continue to drive the program forward and buys into the staff and the ideals and the program."
And she wants all of them to be energized by feeling at Tennessee that she got as a student-athlete all those years ago running on the surface at Tom Black Track.
"How could you say no to coming here?" she said reflecting again on the offer that brought her back to coach on that same surface. "Becoming a Tennessee Volunteer is a dream come true."