When thinking about collegiate sports and dynasties, it’s unlikely that cross country (XC) running comes to mind. XC, and running in general, doesn’t garner nearly the same media attention as perennial spectator sports like football, basketball, baseball, etc.
Nonetheless, nestled up against the Flatirons in Boulder’s foothills at 5,328 feet, a dynasty hides in plain view.
The Colorado XC team is a perennial national-level contender that is synonymous with sustained excellence over the last 30 years.
Behind Skiing, XC has been far and away the most successful athletic program at the University of Colorado. The high altitude and running culture that Boulder is famed for has created the perfect environment for distance running success.
The stats speak for themselves:
Total team National Championships: 8
Podium Finishes (Top 3) under current head coach Mark Wetmore: 14 (not including the national championships)
Men's Cross Country team National Championships: 5
- 2001, 2004, 2006, 2013, 2014
- Colorado has the fifth most Men’s team titles in NCAA history and the most since 2000 They also boast the 3rd most top 15 finishes at 49
- The Colorado Men have appeared in 28 straight NCAA Championships
- Finished in the top-10 nationally in 25 of the last 27 seasons
Women’s Cross Country team National Championships: 3
- 2000, 2004, 2018
- The CU Women also ranks 5th in NCAA team titles
- The Women have appeared in 27 of the last 28 NCAA Championships
This consistent success amongst the over 300 universities that offer NCAA division one cross country has fostered a culture of excellence at CU in distance running. Reaching the podium and finishing inside the top-10 is no longer a goal, but an unspoken expectation that every athlete that puts on the black/white and gold singlet strives to achieve.
In fact, Wettmore is usually disappointed with the season if they don't win the national championship.
For CU cross country, it is national championship or bust.
Imagine the media attention and the funding that would go to the CU Football team if they finished in the top 10, 25 of the last 27 seasons. While XC and football are vastly different sports, CU’s unprecedented running success has made them a powerhouse and deserving of recognition.
At this point, it is safe to call the CU XC program a dynasty.
In their storied history, the Buffaloes have had six head coaches, Frank Potts 1927-1969, Don Meyers 1969-1975, Dean Brittenham 1976-1979, David Troy 1980-1985. Jerry Quiller 1986-1994 and Mark Wetmore 1995-present.
Potts, the namesake for Potts Field (CU’s outdoor track), Meyers and Quiller are all inductees in the school's athletic hall of fame. Their contributions to the XC and track and field teams at CU are numerous. However, it’s no secret that since Wetmore was hired in 1995, the Buffs have reached new levels of success in both men's and women's cross country.
Wetmore is the only NCAA division one coach to boast both a men’s and women’s team national championship along with having a men’s and women’s individual champion. During his tenure, an astounding 135 Buffs have earned cross country All-American status. Wetmore has been named the NCAA head coach of the year six times (three men’s and three women’s) and in 2014 was given the co-coach of the year award by USA track and field. The full list of Wetmore’s accolades is much too long to include in this crash course.
Though Wetmore has been the face of the program for over two decades, his top assistant, Heather Burroughs has also been an integral part of the team’s recent success. She was a three-time All-American during her own running career at CU (1994-98) and has been a part of Wetmore’s staff for the past 17 seasons.
A successful team’s coach rightly deserves much of the credit that they get, but no more than the athletes themselves.
Competitive running is an inherently individual sport. It is also largely about personal growth and racing against oneself and their own past times. The beautiful thing about CU XC is its teams bridge the gap between individual and team accomplishments and improving one’s individual performance directly helps the team.
At CU XC, team success is always the number one priority, but this mentality doesn’t prevent individuals from reaching their own goals.
Men’s Individual National Champions
- 1982-Mark Scrutton
- 1998-Adam Goucher
- 2002-Jorge Torres
- 2003-Dathan Ritzenhiem
Women’s Individual National Champions
- 1978- Mary Decker
- 2000- Kara Grgas-Wheeler
- 2018- Dani Jones
The Buffs have the fourth most Individual men’s champions in NCAA history and the women have the seventh most individual champions in NCAA history. This doesn’t include Mary Decker’s championship. Decker won the AIAW (Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women) national championship (before women’s cross country was governed by the NCAA).
As impressive as the buffs have been in college, their post-college success is equally noteworthy. Of the group of individual national champions, five (Goucher, Torres, Ritzhiem, Decker, Grgas-Wheeler) went on to qualify for at least one Olympic Games. Dani Jones, 23, is in prime position to contend for a spot at the Tokyo 2020 (now 2021) Olympics. Wetmore has coached a total of 10 CU athletes that have qualified for the Olympics.
XC and Track and Field will always be intertwined because most cross country runners also make up a school's distance team on the track each spring, and the CU distance program is equally as impressive when it comes to Track and Field. It is worth noting that after the collegiate level opportunities in Cross Country diminish, Track and Field takes center stage (Olympics, World Championships, etc.).
It’s telling that a brief overview of CU XC will be incomplete because there are too many individual accolades, great teams and top finishes to include them all. The purpose of this article is not to highlight all the accomplishments but to provide some perspective, history and attention to a dynasty that few people outside of running circles know to exist.
If you are interested in learning more about the Buffs XC program and Wetmore, Running with the Buffaloes by Chris Lear is a great resource. It focuses on the CU men’s 1998 cross country season and takes a deep dive into Wetmore's famous and ever-evolving training program.
Look for a preview of the upcoming season in the weeks to come.