Saturday, May 22, 2010
The Villanova Mystique under Marcus & Gina
The Villanova Mystique
O'Sullivan and Procaccio continue the school's legacy
By John A. Kissane
As featured in the May 2010 issue of Running Times Magazine
A bit of prophetic advice was passed along to Marcus O'Sullivan in the summer of 1980 as he prepared to leave Ireland to attend Villanova University. It came from his high school coach, Donald Walsh, a Villanova alumnus and runner-up to Steve Prefontaine at the 1970 NCAA cross country championships. "He told me, 'Don't be discouraged, but they have nothing ... and everything you need,'" recalls O'Sullivan, a former world-class miler who's been Villanova's head men's track and cross country coach since 1998. "What he really meant was that this place has exactly what you need to get to the next level. And when I arrived here, my sense was that I'd come to the right place."
For a full century now Villanova has been the "right place" for hundreds of outstanding athletes. The private institution, located in the western Philadelphia suburbs on the Pennsylvania Railroad's historic Main Line, may have lacked first-rate facilities during the 1970s, but that's certainly not true today. And Villanova's legacy of excellence is world class -- underlined by the fact that at least one Villanova track athlete has participated in every Olympic Games since 1948.
Though he developed into a middle-distance specialist at Villanova and went on to run in four Olympics and 101 sub-4:00 miles (third all-time behind John Walker and Steve Scott), O'Sullivan was no schoolboy track prodigy in his native Cork, Ireland. "I was a 4:25 miler coming out of high school and wasn't recruited anywhere," he explains. "I went off and worked for a year as a sail maker and trained at night through the winter, then popped out a 4:05 the next year and came to Villanova."
Sadly, O'Sullivan had less than a year 's running under legendary Villanova coach Jimbo Elliott, who died suddenly in March 1981. A trackman himself, Elliott graduated from Villanova in 1935 and served as part-time assistant until assuming head coaching duties in 1949. His athletes won eight NCAA team championships, amassed scores of conference titles, and set an astounding 66 world records. The list of Villanova Olympians coached by Elliott includes familiar names such as Ron Delany, Marty Liquori, Dick Buerkle, Eamonn Coughlan, Don Paige, Sydney Maree and, of course, O'Sullivan.
After graduating in 1984 and progressing to that summer's L.A. Olympics, O'Sullivan embarked on a brilliant 15-year international career that included three world indoor 1500m titles, a world record at that distance indoors (3:35.4) and five Wanamaker Mile wins at the Millrose Games. An accounting major, O'Sullivan earned his MBA from Villanova in 1989 and fully intended to make an impression on Wall Street when his running career came to a close. But something else was in store.
"After 15 years of athletic success," he says, "I felt like someone was tapping me on the shoulder on the way out after a big meal, saying, 'And by the way, the check is on you.'" That was the Villanova head coaching job, offered to O'Sullivan in 1998. He said yes -- and then hated it from the start. "I'd never realized how selfish athletes can be, and I suddenly understood what my coaches had done for me over the years." Undaunted, O'Sullivan stuck with it, "learning to finally give a lot after taking a lot," as he puts it. "After three years I started to fall in love with the job, and it became far more rewarding than any career I'd had in front of me."
Women's coach Gina Procaccio transferred to Villanova in the mid-1980s with only a year of eligibility remaining. But the 1987 graduate made her mark nonetheless, including running lead-off for the 4 x 800m relay team that won an NCAA championship in world-record time. Procaccio eventually ran in three world championships, regularly ranked in the U.S. top five in the 1500m/mile, and finished as high as third at the U.S. cross country championships. But an unfortunate injury cut her career short following the 1995 track season, after winning a U.S. title at 5,000m.
Coaching never entered Procaccio's mind while she ran as a collegian. "All my coaches had been men; I never thought it was something a woman could do," she says. And like O'Sullivan, Procaccio initially found working with collegiate athletes less than enjoyable during brief graduate assistantships at Tennessee and Georgetown. Nevertheless, when she stepped out of competitive running in 1995, Procaccio accepted O'Sullivan's offer that she assist with the women's programs, and in 2000 she became head women's track and cross country coach.
Given the school's impressive legacy, coaching at Villanova is no walk in the park. High expectations are raised with every new season, and each Penn Relays prompts Olympic-like excitement in Villanova athletes and their followers.
But O'Sullivan, 48, and Procaccio, 46, stop short of using the past to push teams toward success. "I'm very sensitive of my athletes, and I don't compare them to other Villanova athletes from the past," O'Sullivan says. "But I do impart messages I learned from those people. For example, Jumbo Elliott always said you can do two of three things well in college, but if you try to do all three you'll be only average at everything. He was alluding to running, studying and socializing. He'd put his fingers up and say, 'Now, pick two of the three.' It took me until my junior year to truly figure out what he was saying. When I finally did I made the Olympic team."
Current senior Dan Lewis began to grasp the Villanova legacy during his recruiting visit. "You walk down a hallway lined with endless Penn Relays wheels, it really opens your eyes to what goes on here," he says. "You want to be part of that, and the coaches do a great job of nurturing that desire and showing you how to reach the next level."
Recent Villanova NCAA champions Adrian Blincoe (now one of O'Sullivan's assistants), Bobby Curtis and Carmen Douma are the most accomplished athletes of the past decade. The 3,000m, 5,000m and cross country successes of Blincoe and Curtis helped belay Villanova's reputation as a middle-distance school with little interest in anything longer than the 1500m.
The benefits of being coached by former elite internationalists are many. Not least is the fact that O'Sullivan and Procaccio want their athletes to enjoy long, productive careers extending beyond college days. "That's always been a concern here," notes O'Sullivan. "Villanova was a very, very intricate part of why I went on professionally." And Procaccio recognizes that her elite experience enhances her credibility. "I think it gives me an edge, in terms of the kids buying into what I'm saying. They know I've been there."
Villanova has struggled through a few down years recently, but the current crop of Wildcat runners has changed that. Last fall the women's cross country team etched their names into their program's storied history by picking up Villanova's eighth NCAA championship and first since 1998. "We didn't even make nationals two years ago," Procaccio says, "but I knew these kids were going to be great."
An 11th-place finish by the men's team was unexpected by the pundits but in line with expectations of the team.
"I was just so ecstatic with that placing," O'Sullivan says. "It was a bunch of guys that had worked very hard, who were engaged in what they were trying to do all fall."