Catching Up With Ken Reeves (reprinted from 2011)

The following interview was conducted by Albert Caruana in 2011, for Cross Country Express. Reprinted here with permission.


1) What was your athletic experience in your youth and high school? What sports did you participate in?
I participated in football, soccer, swimming, track and field and baseball as a youth and in high school. Baseball was basically the only youth sport at that time and we had some great baseball coaches in our area. I went to a very good K-8 where we participated in just about every sport. Later in high school, I played in the old club soccer set-up where the junior team was a steppingstone to the adult team. I played for the Menlo Park Grasshoppers a long time ago. My main sport in high school was probably soccer although it started out as something to do between football and baseball seasons.

2) What about for college? Highlights?
I played soccer at UC Santa Barbara. Highlights included making it to the All-Cal tournament as a senior and beating UC Berkeley every year (when UCSB was not considered a soccer power). Also won conference championship and was All Conference for two years. We set a school record of 10 straight wins at the beginning of the season and think we had the school record for winning percentage at one time. I do not know if that still stands. I went on to be assistant coach for two years and head coach for one year. Biggest highlight probably was being exposed to Zolton Von Somogyi, our coach. Great man with a very positive coaching demeanor. Learned a great deal about coaching from Zolton.

3) What led you into coaching cross-country and track and field?
I always enjoyed track and field as I was growing up. I liked the numbers and the measurable stuff. I thought the cross country guys in high school were crazy for training for that 2 mile stuff. When I came to Nordhoff High School, I was the soccer coach. I stepped down when we had some health problems in our family and I could not dedicate the time necessary to be a good coach. I started helping out as a meet official at Nordhoff and eventually became an assistant coach. I thought was going to be a jumps coach, but the head coach asked me to help with distance since I was doing triathlons and marathons at the time. He ended up giving me the best athletes on the team. Next year, the cross-country coach asked me to help a little with cross-country since he was stepping down the next year. I didn't know if I really wanted to do that crazy sport, but after the athletic director told me that I won't get the job, the competitive nature in me decided to go after the job. Eventually, it turned out I was the only one crazy enough to apply for the job and the AD had to offer it to me.

4) Who are and have been your coaching mentors? What did you learn from them?
Lots of coaching mentors, way too many to list all of them but I will try. Biggest were my parents who certainly showed me the right way to do things and learn the value of hard work. I have had the opportunity to work with great coaches from youth baseball to college sports. And cross-country allows you to work with some the greatest coaches ever. Mr. Gillette at Woodside Elementary showed how much fun it was to coach. Woodside High School was a mecca for great coaches when I was in high school. Ted Tollner was just starting as head football and baseball coach there. He would go on to head coach at CSM, USC and San Diego State along with being quarterback coach for the 49ers during their golden (hopefully soon returning) years. I think he was still involved with the Raiders last year. Probably the most influential mentor there was Mr. Bill Guttormsen. I got to opportunity to have him as a teacher and worked with him in the summer swim program for many years. I never had him as a coach, but he certainly was a mentor. He was the one who would call me in to talk about my grades and help point me in the right direction. My father, who was a great mentor, died in high school. Mr. G made sure that both my sister and I had proper direction after that. Woodside High gym is named after him and my sister and I donate an athletic award in his name to Woodside High School. In college, have already mentioned Zolton Von Somogyi.

When I started coaching in high school, I had the opportunity to work with a man named Joe Nunez at Dos Pueblos. Dos Pueblos was a great place for a young coach to start with an outstanding coaching staff. Joe was a fabulous coach and gave a great insight into coaching high school athletics in general, and high school soccer in particular. He knew very little about soccer, but he certainly understood high school athletes. As a
result, he ended up developing a very successful program.

When I came to Nordhoff, another great place with an excellent coaching staff. My biggest influence there was Jack Smith. At the time, he was the head football coach, head track and field coach and the athletic director. He was magical to watch and still is a tremendous influence on doing things the right way. He has a very gentle way of tweaking your views so you can see stuff from a little different angle. H also helped me with making sure I was properly prepared for practices and meets. Jack went on to be the vice principal and the principal. Part of his philosophy was to make each season a once in a lifetime experience for those athletes. I have tried to incorporate that into my philosophy. He is a little bit of a trickster though. I remember in 1987, he asked me to take over the track and field team for a year or two while he took a break to focus on being the head girls' basketball coach. He never came back as the head track and field coach. I mentioned that every time we discussed the track and field budget. It was a huge loss for the school when he stepped down as principal (partly because the district would no longer allow him to be both head girls' basketball coach and principal at the same time). There were also many other great coaches at Nordhoff. I would go in and watch Dick Sebek coach basketball, Cliff Farrar coach football and Cher Glass coach volleyball often along with trying to watch all of our other teachers and coaches on a regular basis.

When I started in cross-country, Ventura County was loaded (and still is) with great coaches. Legends like Jack Farrell (Thousand Oaks), Steve Blum (Buena), Mike Stewart (Newbury Park), John Clark and Sandy Williams (Royal), Nori Parvin (Newbury Park),Mike Smith (Camarillo), Gordon Steward (Buena boys), Fella Scoggin (Ventura), Brian FitzGerald and Rick Torres (Rio Mesa), Roger Evans (Simi Valley), Tom King (Newbury Park, Buena and Moorpark) and Bill Duley (Agoura) were all more than willing to answer my countless questions. Kevin Smith (Oak Park), Bill Tokar (Ventura), Robert Lopez (La Reina), Ryan Luce (Royal) came along a little later with new and fresh ideas. Tuck Mason (Ventura College) was a rock in Ventura county and was certainly willing to share his knowledge. Jim Hunt was originally from Buena High School and has always made time for all coaches. Gary Tuttle, one of his former athletes at both Buena and Humboldt State has also been extremely helpful with coaches in our region.

In addition, Ventura County had a number of outstanding coaches you could watch, talk to and learn from. I loved to go watch Mickey Perry (Ventura High boys' basketball) and Joe Vaughan (Buena Girls' Basketball) coach and run a practice. Lou Cvijanovich (Santa Clara boys' basketball) I think still has the most wins in the history of California High School basketball and it was always educationally to go watch him coach a game. I spent a great deal of time watching how other people coached. Still do that now as Ventura County, just like any county in California, has a wealth of outstanding coaches. Both of my sons played multiple sports in high school and I have had the pleasure of watching their coaches in action.

Outside of Ventura County, the list goes on. A chance interaction with Morro Bay coach, Cary Nerelli, at the first CIF SS meet I attended developed into a long time friendship with one of the great coaching minds of Southern Section. Probably one of the greatest pluses for Southern California track and field and cross-country has been the free Coaches Education Programs and Clinics help by LA 84 (formerly AAF). Skip Stolley was the first director of this program and through his leadership; I was allowed to be on the ground floor for the cross country and eventually track and field programs. This has opened the doors to countless coaches and educational programs. Tim O'Rourke has certainly been a huge influence and Dennis McClanahan (Mt. Carmel) was the first person to invite me to do a track and field clinic. Doug Speck and Greg DeNike were willing to share everything. The list of mentors from this program is a who's who of Southern California Coaches. The list here is entirely too long to post. Have had the opportunity to work with almost every great coach in the state of California.

Other mentors grew out of this. Had the opportunity to work with Runners' Workshop. Bob Messina (formerly University High School in Irvine, UCLA and now principal at Canyon of Canyon Country) and Mark Celestin (Los Alamitos High School in addition to being the force behind the Runners' Workshop today) have helped with coaching education and camps for over 25 years. There, I got to watch how other coaches worked with their athletes.

Working with the Western Regionals for the Footlocker meet has allowed interaction with many of the top high school coaches in the Western United States. Meet director, Doug Todd of Mt. San Antonio College as a pioneer in coaches and athletes education in our area and helped Tim O'Rourke and me set up a clinic in those first few years Footlocker moved to Mt. Sac. Legends like Pat Tyson, Joe Kelly, Walt Lange, Chuck Woolridge, Jim Hunt, Jim Clendaniels, Jim Duarte, Bim Barry, Jim White, Steve Boaz, Joe Rubio, Tim Butler, Rene Paragas, Gene Blankenship, Steve Chavez, Ed Salazar, Mando Siqueiros, Ed Tweet, Tom Kloos, Helen Lehman-Winters, Marty Simpson, Brian Weaver, Rob Brunner, Bill Buettner, Lalo Diaz, Dave DeLong, Andy Leong, the quiet Dave Ponas and Jim Polite are but a few of the coaches I have had the opportunity to listen to or talk with at these clinics and/or meet. Found that most coaches were very relaxed when at the Footlocker. They didn't have to worry about where #5 was, the team or opponents. Instead usually could enjoy the beauty of great runners running and the progression of the younger athletes. Before the Nike meet, this always like a big homecoming where you got to talk training and the sport with the legends of the sport.

The weekend at the Footlocker had a special energy about it. That seems to be missing now with the two meets taking place on the same day and not all the coaches and athletes are at the same meet. I wish that something could be worked out along those lines for the benefit of coaches, athletes and the sport.

5) What was the state of the Nordhoff HS cross-country program when you first took it over?
The state of Nordhoff Cross Country was very good when I became head coach. The girls had been CIF SS runner ups and the boys were 12th in CIF, the previous year. The program had been successful for a number of years. Marty Young had started the girls' program in the 1970s and they were very competitive every year. Al Vail had continued the tradition of excellence and Mike Krumpschmidt had led them to their best season his last year. The girls had graduated a number of athletes and there were only a total of 5 girls returning in the program when I started. So, one of the goals was to recruit numbers and the other goal was to stay competitive. A was certainly a little more challenging than B. It was fairly easy to get people out. The more challenging part was training them well enough so they could maintain the high standards.

6) What changes did you make in order for your team to succeed at the state level?
There was no state meet when I started, so the bigger concern was getting out of league and advancing to the CIF finals. At that time, only two teams out of our league qualified for CIF and we had some rather strong programs including Agoura, Calabasas, Westlake (for a short while) and Santa Clara. I was lucky enough to have great assistants to help with numbers and coaching. Bob Arce was my first assistant. He was a athlete magnet. We went from mid 20s in the program the previous year to over 60 athletes in our first year. We tweaked the philosophy a little, focusing on a time to have fun, a time to be serious and a time to have serious fun. If the training was done right, the meets would be very serious fun and that was the case. I was a little more structured than the previous coach. The girls took that in stride and the guys rebelled a hair. As a result, we sat down and talked. Boys got to choose their long run every week. As a result, they ended up doing far more than we could have ever got them to do and eventually, we had to limit what they could do on the long run. Became a staple of the program. The long run was the responsibility of the team within certain time and terrain restrictions. Guys went on to have their best season ever, shattering the school record for Mt. Sac and CIF and ended up 3rd in CIF. Girls finished 2nd in CIF that year.

The girls continued doing well, but it took a while to build back up to the talent of that first boys' team. On that team, those guys would go on to be the CIF runner up in 3200, school record holder in 1600, Heyden Wooff's dad, (I know, could have done a better job of coaching here!) a 14.6 110 High Hurdler who also run 1:56, a member of the junior national cycling team who would eventually run sub 30 minutes for a 10K in a biathlon.  Not a bad group to start with at a school of about 850 students at that time. 

Eventually, we got to a pretty consistent training schedule that emphasized hill training and something at race pace daily. This would get the girls to the state meet every year except for 1988. The guys had a bigger challenge. Probably the biggest difference on the guys' side was a young man named Jesse Moore. He came into the track and field program to be a high jumper, but fell in love with distance running and infected the team. He got guys to work hard and to do the base work during the summer. He started our Mammoth summer camps and he helped get the guys excited about working hard. He created an expectation that carried over long after he left the program. Today, Jesse is racing bikes professional in the Davis area and is a full time professional coach for cycling. We were very lucky that he wasn't a better high jumper!

In addition, have had the opportunity to work with some great assistant coaches. Ted Cotti was a long time assistant and certainly provided very positive motivation to the top level runners.

7) Who were the athletes that bought into what you were selling and first established Nordhoff as a state power?
The first athletes to buy in on the girls' side was probably a young lady named Tami Dobel. Like Jesse, she convinced other people to work harder and better. She was a senior when we went to the very first state meet in 1987. Sarah Kunde and Maria Garcia were our first 4-year girls. Think Sarah and Maria were on two state champions and a runner up team. Jesse and Bill Tallakson were probably the catalyst for the first boys' state championship team in 1991 after finishing 5th in Southern Section the previous year. After that, it just became what Nordhoff athletes did. Many of the teams that won state were probably not as gifted as that very first team I was lucky enough to coach. However, they believed that they were going to be in Fresno in November AND they did the logical work to get there. The worst finish we ever had at a state meet was 7th place and that team had no right even getting out of league. That was probably the best ever over achieving performance by any of our teams. They certainly exceeded their limitations.

8) In your opinion, what are the keys during the season that are necessary in order for a cross-country team to compete at the state level?
1. A belief that in being successful and in the plan.
2. The willingness to logically do the work necessary to be successful.
3. Training that specifically prepares you to race the courses you need to run.
4. Training for a championship performance. Can't control what opponents do, but can control what you do.
5. Have the team's goals determine where you go. Their goals, rather than the coaches' goals will guide where the team goes. All of our training paces and sequences were decided by where they wanted to go.
6. Every race has a focus, every race has a purpose.
7. Remember the importance of rest and recovery in training.
8. The better the athletes, the better the performance. Great athletes usually make great coaches.
9. Have open lines of communication with your student-athletes. Get to know them as people as well as runners.
10. Most importantly, enjoy the journey. It is way too much work if it is not fun. It is way too much fun if it is not work.

9) You are as familiar (more than likely more) with the Woodward Park course as any coach in CA. What are the keys to running well on the course?
1. Have better prepared athletes than anyone else.
2. Segment the course.
3. Take advantages of your team's strengths on the course.
4. Prepare specifically for the course.
a. Practice starting out of the box to get all 7 out.
b. Prepare for that first 136 meters going off the grass to asphalt.
c. Be able to run a fast, but controlled first mile. Often the race is lost in that first mile.
d. Burn the dark side of the course. After the first mile, some runners tend to back off when there are no spectators. From the turn at the lake until they drop off the edge of the world (downhill asphalt just after 1 1/2 miles) pace tends to drop off. Consistency in this portion of the course will set up for the big finish.
e. Do the hill work necessary to be successful on "Killer" hill.
f. Practice cutting down the last 3/4 miles of workout to practice the finish
h. Find terrain in your area that simulates various portions of the course.
i. Ride the wave at the beginning. If you are better than everyone else, make the wave.
j. In the beginning, race the course. At the end, race the people.
5. Have a race plan for the course. Have an alternative race plan.
6. Treat it as a once in a lifetime experience. Enjoy the experience.
7. Celebrate your success at the end.
8. Understand that there is always another, better way to run this course. Find the way that works for the talents of your team. Break it down to use your strengths.

10) How does track and field fit into the process of a successful cross country program?
I think for most people, track and field is necessary to help set up a successful cross country season. It adds to the law of accumulation, allowing a runner to get a greater base. It allows the athlete additional times to be in a competitive situation. It also allows an athlete to know that he/she is faster for the 1600/3200 and thus could come through the mile at a faster, more relaxed pace the next cc season. Probably most of our runners liked cc a little better than track and field, but would put a very honest and consistent effort into getting better in track and field season. Unlike some coaches, I wanted track and field training to be vastly different than cross country training. I wanted to do different runs, different types of workouts and focus on different things. I wanted them to be excited for the change in training when they got to track and field and wanted them to be excited about training when they got to cross country. I wanted to apply the SAID principle to both types of training and train specifically for the events at hand. I just listened to Jim O'Brien (Arcadia) and Steve Chavez (formerly Murrieta Valley and now assistant at Arcadia) talk about track and field training last week. They use many of the same workouts for track as for cross and obviously they have been very successful. There are definitely different ways to skin the cat (that's an expression in case any of you are PETA members-I wouldn't skin the cat!).

I also had many who did different events in track and field including pole vaulting, hurdles, the jumps and the sprints. I had others who did other sports during the springtime. I did not discourage that as they only got one opportunity to go through high school and wanted them to experience a variety of sports and activities. Some would eventually come over to track and field and others were extremely successful in baseball, volleyball, swimming and tennis. I ended up playing D1 in my third choice of sports in high school. I was thankful that my various coaches did not encourage me to specialize.

11) What needs to take place during the summer in order for athletes to come into the season prepared for the road to Fresno?
I think that an athlete needs to learn to train on their own during the summer. I think the summer is the time to help develop the passion and the adventure of running. In the Southern Section, the summer rule was that coach was not supposed to have contact with athletes for three weeks. I would expand that to 4 weeks, having no contact with the athletes through phone, email or regular old mail during that time. That was family
time for me and decision time for them. What were they going to do when no one was watching them? How important was training to them during that time? I would ask them to send me what they had been doing prior to the start of summer practice so I could help create an individualized training program based on their current fitness. In the beginning, athletes might stretch the truth a tad about what they did. Over time, they became more and more open about what they actually did. The team personality would usually determine how they trained when I was away. Once we started meeting (usually the week after the Fourth of July), we would meet as a team on Mondays and Thursdays. If you were in town, you were expected to come to practice. If you were out of town, responsibility was up to you. The goal was to teach the vocabulary, the fundamentals, the little things and the training methods so that we could start the fall with a foundation and the knowledge necessary to start learning about cross country. It would expand to 3 days a week at the start of August (when we used to start school after Labor Day), 4 days a week the next week and 5 days a week the last week of August. Would go to team camp that last week at the beach. Primary function of the camp was to better create a team environment. While we would train, we also all would share in the work and do a variety of activities together. We would also do fund raisers and community projects during the summer to put an investment into the team. Wanted the new and old members to know and respect each other during the summer. Also wanted them to have a summer. Wanted them excited about the season and still excited when we got to post season. Therefore, I didn't want to dominate their time during the summer.
So in answer to what we needed to do during the summer:
1. Get fitter.
2. Become a team.
3. Learn some of the little things that it takes to be successful in cross-country.
4. Create some excitement about the upcoming season. Saw this more the responsibility of the team. Knew I was going to be excited.
5. Have a life outside of cross-country.

12) Anything else you would like to add.
Probably have written far more than you would have wanted. Alas, here is a little more.  As a coach, I always tried to learn a little bit more about the sport each day. I would dedicate 15 minutes each day to reading about cross-country or track and field. As an athlete, I asked them to get just a little fitter each day.

Also, I would say take advantage of your own coaching environment. Magical coaches make their area special. Ojai had all kinds of trails and hills. We had unique weather that would soar over the 100-degree marks several times and would dip below freezing at other times. We were in a rain shadow, so we received more rain than practically any place else in Southern California, so a little rain or cold at the state meet was perfect weather, it was Ranger weather. When I was lucky enough to coach with Bill Tokar in Ventura, we had the perfect weather. A hot day was 70 degrees, a cool day was 70 degrees and there were several outstanding parks to do pace work and hill work. When Tim O'Rourke coached Arroyo High School to the very first state championship in 1987, they had one run on a bike trail. Every day, he found a way to make that bike trail special and used it to his team's advantage. All of us have limitations in our coaching environment, but find a way to make them your strengths. You see state championship teams from well to do areas, impoverished areas, beach communities, mountain areas, desert communities, areas with hills, areas completely flat areas with youth track programs and areas with no youth programs at all. The common denominator seems to be good athletes, good coaches, a logical plan and good record keeping.

I appreciate that Albert takes the time to do this. If you have read this far, you are probably pretty addicted to the sport and already have your own philosophy, training plans and progressions and you probably spend that 15 minutes a day learning a little bit more about the sport. I have had the opportunity to coach a variety of sports at both the high school and college levels. I feel blessed that the AD told me I wasn't good enough to coach cross-country. Without that motivation, I probably wouldn't have taken the opportunity to coach this great sport. Eventually, the AD was comfortable with the decision, we became very good friends and I had way too much fun coaching cross country.

Thank you very much for your time Ken!  AJC


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