Air Force's track and field program raises the bar

April 4, 2012
photo - Air Force track coach Ralph Lindeman watches practice Tuesday, April 3, 2012, at the Air Force Academy.  The men's team won the Mountain West title in indoor track this year. (The Gazette, Christian Murdock)  Photo by CHRISTIAN MURDOCK, THE GAZETTE
Air Force track coach Ralph Lindeman watches practice Tuesday, April 3, 2012, at the Air Force Academy. The men's team won the Mountain West title in indoor track this year. (The Gazette, Christian Murdock) Photo by CHRISTIAN MURDOCK, THE GAZETTE 

Ralph Lindeman reacts to most questions about Air Force’s disadvantages in recruiting or the challenges in building a winning program the same way.

The Air Force track and field coach gives a perplexed look, because he doesn’t know how to answer. He has pushed those obstacles out of his mind.

He acknowledges the challenges, and admits it is easier for his program to recruit elite athletes for an individually focused sport like track than it is for team sports at the academy. The World Class Athlete program, which allows graduates the chance to train in hopes of representing the United States in international events, might help in recruiting, too. But the track program’s approach – recruiting against big-name Big 12 schools for one of the top pole vaulters in the nation or powerhouse SEC schools for an elite decathlete - is a bit unusual at the academy, which sometimes struggles with a smaller pool for recruiting because of academic standards and military commitment. But Air Force track usually doesn’t recruit the same players as Army and Navy.

The Falcons’ men's track program has been competitive in the Mountain West, with 18 top-three finishes in Lindeman’s first 24 indoor or outdoor Mountain West meets. Air Force finally broke through with a MW championship in February, winning the indoor men's track title. The program takes another huge step this week, hosting its first outdoor men's and women's meet in six years after a $4.1 million renovation of the outdoor track.

The indoor championship was just the third Mountain West team title for Air Force. The Falcons won a men’s cross country championship in 2003 and a men’s basketball championship in 2004.

“It’s been our vision, it’s been our goal, to win the thing every year,” Lindeman said.

Many of Air Force’s programs, especially the ones that compete in the Mountain West, have struggled to be championship contenders. So what is the blueprint for success for Lindeman and his program, which is clearly one of the success stories at Air Force?

Lindeman begins by praising his staff. Scott Irving, the throws coach, is in his 14th season with Air Force. Juli Benson coaches the distance runners. Scott Steffan coaches the pole vault. Allen Johnson, in his first year on the staff, coaches sprints and hurdles. Lindeman praised them all as among the best in the nation. They brought good experience, all having spent time at other Division I programs. Irving said the size of the staff itself is a testament to the academy’s dedication to the track program. Irving said there were three full-time coaches, including Lindeman, when he arrived at Air Force.

“We made strides even though we were understaffed,” Irving said. “Now I think the big change is we have more coaches.”  

The staff has aimed high in recruiting (“To use a track cliché, you need to raise the bar in the caliber of athlete you’re recruiting,” Lindeman said), but those coaches pride themselves on getting the most out of every athlete they bring in.

“I tell every recruit we talk to, I tell them we’re a developmental program,” Lindeman said.

In recruiting, Air Force’s coaches use the benefits of the academy, such as a good job waiting upon graduation, to their advantage. Even basic training becomes a plus. Coaches explain that they’ll be in better shape and mentally tougher than at civilian schools.

“We tell them, you can be a better track athlete than you can at other institutions, because the values this institution brings out in you,” Lindeman said. “You’re going to be tougher.”

The success of the program, with 71 individual Mountain West champions (40 of them men) coming into this season, perpetuates success in recruiting. Air Force track carries itself as a top program in the league, and that could be a reason it is.

“If the coaches set high goals, you want to succeed and meet them,” said junior pole vaulter Cale Simmons, who has the third-best pole vault in the nation this outdoor season. “It pushes you past your previous best.”

Contact Frank Schwab: 476-4891

Twitter @GazetteAirForce

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