UNI Panthers

Dave Paulsen makes UNI track and field relevant again

Ogden column: Panthers have won last two men's outdoor titles

UNI track and field coach Dave Paulsen (left) talks to his team after the Panther men won the Missouri Valley Conference outdoor title last weekend in Terre Haute, Ind. (UNI Sports Information)
UNI track and field coach Dave Paulsen (left) talks to his team after the Panther men won the Missouri Valley Conference outdoor title last weekend in Terre Haute, Ind. (UNI Sports Information)
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Dave Paulsen admits he’s a bit spoiled.

But deep into his third season coaching his alma mater’s track and field programs, Paulsen has used his spoiled past to raise the future at the University of Northern Iowa — once again.

There was a time, not that long ago, when the UNI men’s team, in particular, was not only the best in the state of Iowa and the Missouri Valley Conference, but a Top 20 program nationally.

Chris Bucknam set a high standard for the Panthers during his 25 years, directing the team to six outdoor and nine indoor MVC titles and six Top 20 NCAA finishes, including two Top 10s.

When Bucknam left for Arkansas, another former Panther, Travis Geopfert, took the reins for one season and guided the team to MVC indoor and outdoor titles, keeping streaks alive of 10 and three, respectively.

But then, the program tumbled to the edge of irrelevance and an eight-year dry spell followed. That’s the worst thing that can happen to “minor” sports programs at Division I schools. That puts programs on the chopping block when budgets are shrinking.

But Paulsen has snapped UNI out of that drought and has made track and field relevant again at UNI, guiding the Panther men to the last two MVC outdoor titles.

“We’ve had a couple of good years,” said Paulsen, a native of Waverly who ran for the Panthers during those glory years, earning All-American honors in 2002 as a member of the distance medley team.

“I think we’re turning in the right direction.”

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He said the program was not that far off when he arrived from Central College, where he assisted in track and was head cross country coach.

But, he said, “it takes a lot of hard work.”

The biggest obstacle was getting that winning attitude back in the program. Eight years without a contender can do that to any program.

“It was just kind of a mind-set shift,” said Paulsen, who directed the Panthers to a third-place finish indoors and outdoors in his first season. “We started talking about winning again.

“It’s hard to do something when you don’t talk about it.”

Paulsen, now a two-time MVC Coach of the Year, credits his assistants and the athletes for buying into his message.

“We weren’t that far off,” he said. “We’ve got some good pieces.”

A lot of top college track and field programs focus on one area — distance or sprints, throws or jumps. Bucknam built his programs to be well-rounded, something Paulsen wants to do, too.

At last weekend’s MVC Championships in Terre Haute, Ind., UNI had winners in the discus (Isaac Holtz of Monticello), 400-meter dash (Evan Long), 110 high hurdles (former Solon prep Connor Ham), long jump (Cade Kirkpatrick) and decathlon (Austin Heitland).

Bucknam also believed in the Iowa high school athlete. All but one of those aforementioned MVC champs are from Iowa.

“It’s the right formula,” Paulsen said.

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UNI, of course, isn’t the state’s only relevant program these days. Iowa won the Big Ten men’s outdoor title on Sunday and Iowa State finished second to Texas Tech at the Big 12 Championships.

“I think that’s pretty cool,” said Paulsen, who was coached at UNI by Iowa Coach Joey Woody. “I think that’s pretty special.”

That makes all track and field fans a little spoiled.

l Comments: (319) 368-8696; jr.ogden@thegazette.com

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