Leistikow: How Iowa's track and field program has become a consistent winner under Joey Woody
For Joey Woody, formulating a college track and field program that’s on the verge of a Big Ten Conference dynasty has required a consistent message over a long period of time, a trusted coaching staff … and a calculator.
There are 61 men on the Iowa men’s roster. The NCAA (as it does with all men’s track and field programs) limits Woody to distributing 12.6 scholarships per year to his athletes. Do the math, and the dollars are spread thin: an average 20.6% scholarship per roster spot.
And considering 42 of those athletes come from outside Iowa — including 13 from Illinois, six from California and at least two each from states like Florida, Mississippi and New York — with out-of-state tuition pushing $32,000 annually, Woody’s ability to field a consistent winner is nothing short of remarkable.
“We’re not getting the top-five (national) kids all the time,” Woody said. “What we have to do is outcoach people.”
Fifth-year senior Alec Still serves as a great example of a low-cost, high-producing investment. Still began his college career as a walk-on from tiny Woodbury Central Community High School in northwest Iowa. As a Hawkeye freshman in 2018, Still was running 800 meters in the 1 minute, 56-second range. The following year, he had improved to 1:51 and 1:52.
“Now he’s running 1:47.5 and ranked first in the Big Ten,” Woody said. “That’s how you win championships.
“We’ve had multiple guys like that over the years that have come in on small scholarship dollars or are walk-ons (who) developed into Big Ten point-scorers or Big Ten champions.”
Woody’s Hawkeyes have been on quite a run.
And from Friday through Sunday at the Big Ten Championships in Minneapolis, they’ll try to keep it going.
Iowa is aiming to become the first Big Ten team to win three straight (contested) outdoor men’s track titles since Wisconsin won four in a row from 2004 to 2007.
Last year, the Hawkeyes dominated the Big Ten race, outdistancing second-place Michigan by 33 points and scoring a school-record 127½. This year, Woody thought he had the pieces to not only continue that conference stranglehold but contend for a national championship — or maybe an NCAA trophy (top four).
“This is probably the best team we’ve ever had,” Woody said. “But we’ve had a couple kids banged up the last couple weeks, so it’s actually going to be a much tighter race at the top (in Minnesota).”
Among those recovering from injury is the second-year Hawkeye in Jenoah McKiver. The former dual threat football quarterback from North Carolina ran a blistering 44.74 seconds in the 400 meters on April 9 in Tucson, Arizona. That was this year’s second-fastest 400 in the world at the time and remains the top mark in Division I.
But a week after that school-record run, McKiver pulled his hamstring while running a 200 and hasn’t returned to competition since.
If McKiver doesn’t go this weekend, the NCAA regional qualifying meet May 25-28 in Fayetteville, Arkansas, is on deck.
“His head is in the right place,” Woody said. “He’s trying to get back for the end of the season.”
McKiver’s ascent from eighth place in the 400 at the 2021 Big Ten Championships to one of the fastest in the world underscores Iowa's talent evaluation and development. But it also represents another tenet to Woody’s program success: Building a team around 400-meter runners. Two of Woody's late coaching mentors, Jim Bush and John Raffensperger, were big believers in that. And Woody, a world-class 400-meter hurdler in his day, is cut from the same cloth.
A top 400 runner can provide versatility in the 200 or the 800 and even run on the 4x100 relay. In the indoor season, the 600-meter run is a big event for the Hawkeyes. They scored 27 points in the 600 at the Big Ten Indoor Championships — taking five of the top seven spots — on the way to a team title.
The depth Iowa can put on the track in the 400 is impressive. If an injury crops up, Woody can seemingly able to pull out an unknown reserve who can run a 46-second split. That comes in handy for the final event of any meet, the 4x400-meter relay, with 10 team points going to the winner.
“I always say, if you’re going to have a championship team,” Woody said, “you’ve got to have a great 4-by-4.”
At the Big Ten outdoor meet, teams are limited to 34 competitors. That means 27 rostered Hawkeyes won’t compete. A lot of those athletes are building blocks for what Woody thinks can be a long run of good times at Iowa. He said the program’s freshman/sophomore class is as good as it’s ever been.
“We’ve got athletes sitting at home that anybody in the country would take,” Woody said. “Some guys just need another year to develop. You can see they’re going to be contributors in the next year or two. We’re in a good spot.”
He thinks the Big Ten meet could come down to two or three points. Ohio State will present a tough challenge to Iowa’s three-peat bid (which began in 2019 and continued in 2021, with a canceled COVID-19 year in between). Minnesota, Michigan and Indiana will be in the mix, too.
On the women’s side, third place might be the Hawkeyes' ceiling this year. Woody thinks Iowa is two years away from competing for a Big Ten championship but likes the culture that’s developing.
For now, the men’s track program is becoming the gold standard on Iowa’s campus. The last Hawkeye program, men or women, to win three straight Big Ten championships was Tom Brands' wrestling program, from 2008 to 2010.
This weekend, Woody and Co. will try to continue a brewing league dynasty.
“Once you start winning, that becomes the expectation — not just the hope or the dream or the want-to," Woody said. "It’s, 'No, we expect to win every year.' Once you establish that, it’s hard to get beat.
“I do believe we can (someday) win a national championship. And now we’ve got the guys believing it as well.”
Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 27 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.