and the Great American
By Marc Bloom
Friday night lights for high school cross-country?
That’s one of the many enhancements under consideration
by the National Scholastic Sports Foundation, which has assumed
ownership of the Great American Cross Country Festival and begun
to make plans for the 2003 event.
“We want to add to what is already a great meet,”
said Mike Byrnes, who heads the NSSF, a non-profit foundation, with
Jim Spier. “We hope to make the meet more what Rick Hill had
originally intended--a celebration of running with pomp and pageantry.”
The NSSF, which also conducts the Nike Indoor Classic in Landover,
Maryland and Adidas Outdoor Nationals in Raleigh, North Carolina,
last week purchased Great American from Rick Hill, a commercial
real estate developer who founded the event in 1999. Great American
gives the NSSF major meets in all three seasons and makes the organization
the most powerful force in high school track and field and cross-country
The Great American meet, founded on the unique idea of inviting
top high school teams from around the country, started in 1999 with
about 85 schools and 1,700 athletes. This season’s meet, held
on Sept. 27-28, featured more than 250 schools and 4,000 athletes,
along with national-class college races. The meet, which boasts
Nike as the presenting sponsor, has become the premier cross-country
team event in the nation.
“I feel very comfortable passing on Great American to the
National Scholastic group,” said Hill, who is leaving the
sport and moving to Louisville where he grew up. “There’s
no question they will do an incredible job. They’ll take the
things that are working well and build upon them. They’ll
take any pieces that are broken and fix them.”
The same NSSF professionalism that has made its indoor and outdoor
track extravaganzas must-run meets for high school athletes will
be provided to Great American, which has gone through difficulty
finding a permanent home. This year’s site, the Ballantyne
Resort in Charlotte, was the event’s third site in four years.
Cross-country, subject to the elements and sprawled among many
acres, can prove unwieldy to manage. In its second year, in 2000,
Great America saw its course at McAlpine Park flooded by rain and
the meet was almost cancelled. Hill pulled off a miracle in running
the meet but then changed the site in 2001 to Winthrop University
in nearby Rock Hill, South Carolina. Teams were spread among many
hotels in the region.
Seeking a central location, user-friendly meet headquarters and
a more challenging course, Hill switched the event to Ballantyne
where it was run on a hilly golf course. Pre-meet rain affected
the meet again, making the course muddy and posing a challenge for
effective course management. It was an exciting but trying weekend.
The NSSF will have its large staff of officials, already in place
from the indoor and outdoor meets, ready for duty at Great American.
The organization is considering a number of sites for the event,
all in the Carolina region, and will announce the 2003 site later
this fall. Whatever site is chosen, the NSSF expects it to be a
permanant home as the organization nurtures cross-country with many
One thing’s for sure: there will be a new date. Next year,
because a Jewish holy day falls on the last Saturday of September,
Great American will be held one week later on the first weekend
“The later date will work in the meet’s favor,”
said Spier. “Teams will have another week of training. The
weather should be a little cooler. And there will be less chance
of lingering rain as the hurricane season is over.”
The NSSF hopes to streamline the entry process as well as the
many tasks coaches have to perform in order to get their teams to
the starting line. The meet will make use of the latest in technology
to speed all processes. Spier himself has worked in the computer
field for decades.
In its fifth year, the event will become more a festival with
music serenading the runners as they compete, bands playing as they
do at major marathons and other features. “We hope to jazz
things up,” said Spier, “and give the athletes an exciting
Part of that excitement could come from racing on Friday evening
instead of Saturday for the Race of Champions teams. “Friday
night lights,” especially in the South, adds to the luster
of high school football. The NSSF feels that same intrigue can enhance
The college races are currently held on Friday night, and this
season the fields were better than ever with a superb national entry.
The reigning NCAA champion BYU women competed, and they defeated
national powers like Arkansas, North Carolina State and Georgetown.
Northern Arizona won the men’s title. The NSSF has vowed to
keep the college divisions and possibly expand them. There are also
plans to add youth races.
The NSSF reputation, emboldened from more than a decade of serving
high school athletes, will now operate year-around on behalf of
the high school community nationwide. Committed to the promise of
“giving U.S. Olympians a head start,” the NSSF, established
in 1990, has provided more than a half million dollars of travel
assistance to athletes so they could have the opportunity to compete
in national meets. Over 60 percent of the 2000 U.S. Olympic team
was made up of athletes who had benefitted from NSSF support.
Last June, the NSSF funded the travel of 26 high school athletes
to the USA Junior Nationals in Palo Alto, Calif. This was the qualifying
event for the world junior championship in Kingston, Jamaica, in
July. Of the 26 athletes, 17 made the U.S. team, enhancing American
efforts at the worlds, and many of these same athletes will likely
be contenders at future Olympic Games.
One of the “graduates” of NSSF track events is Alan
Webb, the celebrated mile record breaker. At Great American this
year, Webb, sponsored by Nike, was on hand to sign autographs and
the line of fans stretched about a hundred meters. The NSSF will
have Nike performers at future meets as the field comes full circle--athletes
who were given a head start in high school returning as professional
stars to teach the young ones how to excel.
2002 Great American