Photo courtesy of GoRhody

Consistency and team mentality are the pieces to success that the University of Rhode Island men’s track and field and cross country programs have been built on since 1982. Both of these pieces have come synonymous with head coach John Copeland.

In his 36 years at the helm of the University’s most successful athletic program, Copeland has coached everything from All-American student athletes to New England Championship winners. His indoor teams have also won the Atlantic 10 Championships 22 times since 1993 and his student athletes have set 135 school records along the way. That’s just the tip of a very large iceberg.

As if that isn’t impressive enough, there’s a part to his resume that I am sure he would leave off: his individual accolades. For the fifth time in his storied career, Copeland was awarded the Northeast Region Indoor Coach of the Year by the U.S. Track & Field and Cross Country Coaches Association (USTFCCCA).

But, it doesn’t stop there. In his 36 seasons with Rhody Copeland has taken home the A-10 Indoor Coach of the Year Award nine times, the A-10 Outdoor Coach of the Year Award nine times, the New England Outdoor Coach of the Year Award twice, the USTFCCCA Northeast Outdoor Coach of the Year award twice, the NCAA District I Coach of the Year Award twice and the New England Indoor Coach of the Year award once. That’s a mouthful.

“I think it’s pretty fun to get those kinds of awards, but I always look at them as team awards rather than my award,” Copeland said. Copeland’s office is covered with championship plaques on all four walls. “Without my assistant coaches and without the kids I wouldn’t have any of the plaques.”

Championships are a constant for Copeland’s student athletes and program. So much so that his office is running out of space for the overwhelming amount of A-10 Championships and various other accomplishments.  

The walls to Copeland’s office hold just the team’s first-place finishes. Yet, he’s still running out of room. The most recent championship hardware lies along the floor of the hallway leading into his office.

All of the program’s second and third place championships now hang from the walls in the team locker room and assistant coaches offices. “All the seconds and thirds are relegated to here,” Copeland said as he looked around the locker room. “So when you say we are running out of space, we actually are running out of space. It’s a good problem to have.”

The championship culture continues to grow for Copeland despite the lack of resources he has as a head coach. The Rams utilize Mackal Field House for all their indoor track and field needs but their outdoor track, located behind the football practice fields on Plains Road, is not up to par. Rhode Island utilizes other outdoor tracks in the South County area to fill their needs.

In true Rhode Island track and field style, Copeland said that despite the lack of resources it takes a team effort from the University and program to keep the culture and success thriving. “It’s a team thing,” Copeland said. “Having support from the administration, having support from admissions and having support from my assistant coaches like Rob [Whitten] and Ben [Carroll] that just work so hard.”

Between the work ethics of Whitten, Carroll and Copeland it is no surprise that their team has so much success. Copeland said he and Whitten make recruiting calls four nights a week, each. While colleagues of his in the A-10 say they devote just one night a week to such tasks. The program’s success comes from the standard that his coaching staff sets and his athletes emulate.

“Track coaches don’t have 40 hour work weeks,” Copeland said. “You don’t sign up for 40 hour work weeks. I think the kids see that. When they come back to go to study hall and walk by the office at 7:30 at night and we’re still here they’ll stick their head in a say, ‘What the heck are you still doing here, Coach?’ Well, we are trying to get a team for next year. That’s what we do. I think the kids know that we are here trying to get them better and get better in everything we do.”

At the end of the day, Copeland said it’s about getting his student athletes ready for what’s after college. That all starts with leaving your ego at the door and getting to work.

“I think most coaches and athletes think they are pretty important,” Copeland said. “We don’t. We are ready to do the work that needs to be done to get stuff done. I think that mentality is what is going to make our kids successful when they get out and into the work world.”

With as many trophies that line his office or accomplishments his teams have, Copeland said that winning isn’t the end-all-be-all, making the effort to win is. “I’m not even sure that its winning. That’s the result,” Copeland said. “It’s the accountability. Which works into pride. There’s an expectation that goes with it. And if a kid does his best I will never be upset with where he finished.”

Those student athletes that Copeland is preparing for the real world are exactly what’s kept him at Rhode Island for the entirety of his head coaching career. “People say, ‘How about going into the SEC,’” Copeland said. “I have no interest in being in the SEC or ACC or any of those cut-throat types of conferences. I am more concerned with the kids than any individual titles. The day that I forget that I am not coming to work.”

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Stone Freeman
Stone Freeman is a junior at the University of Rhode Island majoring in journalism. He can be found at either the Ryan Center, Boss Ice Arena, Meade Stadium, or Bill Beck Field covering URI athletics for the Good Five Cent Cigar and WRIU 90.3 FM. To contact Stone you can email him at stone_freeman@my.uri.edu or on Twitter @StonePFreeman.