Thursday, April 22, 2010

University of Albany Track & Field Coach Celebrates 25th Year

Coach Roberto Vives has overseen the growth of UAlbany track an average dIII program to a dominant DI force.

Over the past 25 years, the University at Albany has seen its track and field team rise from an average Division III program to a dominant Division I force — and Roberto Vives has been there every step of the way.

Vives, UAlbany’s director of track and field and cross country, has coached the Great Danes since 1985. During his tenure, his teams have won 40 conference championships, including 17 America East championships, and three IC4A championships.

He has garnered a bevy of awards for his coaching as well.
Vives, who grew up in housing projects in the South Bronx and used to run at Macombs Dam Park near Yankee Stadium, began his coaching career at the age of 14 by founding an organization that grew into the Bronx International Athletic Club.

“I fell in love with track as soon as I started competing in it because it was something that everybody could do,” Vives said. “I started to work with the kids in the neighborhood. I would walk out with a stopwatch, we measured a track around the building and I just started to time them. We kept a little notebook and it was a way to keep young people engaged and out of trouble.”

Vives said he had to compete against better competition when he was a 5-foot, 90-pound freshman in a Catholic high school, and he pushes his athletes to compete against tough competition as well. Even when the program was at Division III, he wanted to push his athletes.

“From the very beginning we had the mindset: shoot for the stars,” Vives said. “Our student-athletes have really bought into it, so that’s why for us making the transition from Division III to II to I was a smooth transition.”

For all its success, the UAlbany track and field team cannot host home meets at the school because the school’s track does not meet NCAA regulations. Vives said the team is anticipating a new outdoor facility as soon as 2012.

“We’re road warriors. We’re never home; we travel every weekend, which is wearing on students,” Vives said. “Plus, their friends and the university community don’t get an opportunity to see them compete.”

Senior sprinter Jeffrey Barnes put it bluntly.

“This is not a facility of a championship team,” he said. “Nobody can come here, you can’t run in front of your school. It’s kind of depressing as an athlete. You want to show off in front of your school and show them what you have got and build some school spirit in your sport.”

Despite this, Vives continues to recruit athletes to improve the program and further its success.

“What we tell young people is that we’re a big family. A lot of programs can be like a factory or they bring in quality athletes and don’t develop (them),” Vives said. “[The athletes here] are going to get a lot of support, they’re going to get quality coaching, and we don’t treat them as a number, we take care of their individual needs.

“We have people from all walks of life, from every part of the state of New York, all religious backgrounds, all ethnic backgrounds. They work together and function together,” Vives continued. “We’re the true meaning of diversity.”

Senior mid-distance runner Octavia Clarkson said Vives encourages his athletes to not take any race lightly.

“He’s about opportunity,” said Clarkson, who was originally a walk on. “Every time we have a race he says, ‘Take advantage of the opportunity because you don’t know if you’ll be injured.’”

The men’s and women’s teams are coming off one of the best years the program has seen. They are continuing to compete well in the outdoor season with athletes already breaking three school records and trying to sweep the America East championships.

“Men and women won indoors (America East championships) and if we can do that in a couple of weeks,” Vives said. “That’ll be the first time we’ve won four championships in a year.”

Vives continues to try to expand and advance the program.

“The biggest success (since I’ve been here) has been to take a program that was Division III and now start to compete in the highest levels of Division I,” Vives said. “We’re already one of the top Northeast Region schools and we’re trying to make the move to a consistent national-level program.”

Last Saturday, the UAlbany track team went to a new dual meet at the University of Connecticut that has been dubbed the “Dogfight” in reference to the Great Dane and Husky mascots of the two schools. Vives is trying to foster competition and rivalry between the teams, two of the Northeast’s best.

“It’s the beginning of something great,” Vives said. “They do it on the west coast: USC vs. UCLA, with Stanford vs. Oregon and now it’s going to be UAlbany vs. UConn. That’s going to be the beginning of a great rivalry.”

Though he has come a long way from timing neighborhood kids running around his building with a stopwatch, Vives’ early experiences still resonate in his team philosophy and enthusiasm.

“I still feel like the kid from the South Bronx,” he said.

By Eric Thrasher

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